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Intelligent management system for integrated multi-trophic aquaculture

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Add fish for a more sustainable approach to aquaculture

By creating an ecosystem of different species of marine life, researchers aim to help reduce aquaculture’s environmental impact while also increasing productivity.

Food and Natural Resources

Aquaculture has the potential to be one of the most environmentally sustainable ways of producing food and protein. However, to reach this potential, more work is needed. In part, this is due to the fact that the current aquaculture model is monoculture-based, meaning fish waste is released directly into the water. Due to the high concentration of fish being reared in the typical aquaculture farm, this waste can add up, causing potentially harmful effects to these sensitive environments. But the EU-funded IMPAQT (Intelligent management system for integrated multi-trophic aquaculture) project aims to change this. Using the Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) model, the project is taking an ecosystem approach to sustainable aquaculture. “IMTA thinks about aquaculture as an ecosystem that combines different species growing and interacting in the same space,” says Frank Kane, a researcher at Ireland’s Marine Institute and IMPAQT project coordinator. “With this approach, what was previously considered waste, such as excess fish feed, becomes a co-product that can be used as a source of food or nutrition for other species like shellfish and seaweed.”

Precision aquaculture

Using an intelligent management platform that incorporates novel sensors, data sources, and autonomous monitoring capabilities, researchers demonstrated the eco-efficiency, reduced environmental impact, and circular economy benefits of IMTA-enabled aquaculture operations. “The IMPAQT technology platform is an innovative tool for managing an IMTA farm,” explains Kane. “Through analytics and decision support functionalities, it helps users boost production, assess food quality, and make informed decisions about animal welfare and environmental protection.” The platform was tested at five pilot sites across Europe and one in China. One of the key outcomes of the work was concrete evidence of how IMTA can minimise an aquaculture farm’s risk of eutrophication – the process where a body of water becomes progressively enriched with minerals and nutrients. These nutrients can result in dense algal growth and degradation of water conditions for other species. “We also showed how IMTA can increase a site’s biomass, both directly by offering an additional crop, as well as indirectly by leveraging the synergies found between species,” adds Kane.

The IMTA model

Based on these findings, the project developed an IMTA blueprint that aquaculture farmers and regulators can use to estimate the many environmental and economic benefits of transitioning to the model. The project has developed an online training course on IMTA and precision aquaculture, hosted on the Open University’s ‘OpenLearn Create’ platform. The findings also helped researchers fine-tune the technology platform, components of which are now being advanced towards commercialisation. “The project has progressed the techniques for low trophic and integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, which will be utilised by the sector as the transition to the IMTA model for aquaculture continues,” concludes Kane. “The novel and innovative technologies developed within the project will help the sector manage their systems efficiently and sustainably.” The project’s partners continue to communicate with policymakers and national regulators to present the benefits of IMTA and encourage a legislative change to facilitate its implementation at the local and European levels. More so, several partners are working to further develop the techniques and methods tested during the IMPAQT project through such EU-funded initiatives as the ASTRAL, UNITED and 5G-HEART projects.

Keywords

IMPAQT, marine life, aquaculture, sustainable, Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture, ecosystem, circular economy

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