Algae early warning system ‘boost for farmers’

Algal bloom - fish health can be severely compromised by harmful algae

AN early warning system to detect harmful plankton and algae is being developed in Scotland to help tackle one of the biggest challenges to fish health.

A consortium – including technology company Otaq, the University of Aberdeen, SAIC (Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre), and Scottish Internet of Things centre CENSIS – is creating a low-cost sensor system that can automatically sample, identify and count specific microscopic organisms using imaging analysis.

Algae and plankton build-up is a major issue in aquaculture – some types of the organisms are toxic to salmon and others, in large quantities, can cause fatal gill damage, said SAIC in a press release today.

Algal blooms, the rapid growth of algae, can occur when there are significant changes to temperature, light, or nutrient conditions.

Earlier this year, a particularly severe case in Norway led to the loss of thousands of tonnes of fish, and cost farmers millions of kroner.

Current methods used for monitoring plankton and algae numbers rely on readings manually taken once or twice per day, with the results open to interpretation and error.

Even some of the more accurate approaches rely on expensive and high maintenance equipment that only provide a snapshot of algal levels.

Using microscope camera technology and a water sampling tool, Otaq’s new system will use artificial intelligence (AI) deep learning to process images and provide a near real-time reading for fish farmers.

The producers can then take preventative measures, such as the activation of a ‘bubble curtain’ or barrier to protect a stretch of water or stop feeding salmon when necessary.

Otaq said several companies have already expressed an interest in the new technology, which is expected to enhance fish wellbeing, as well as helping to make water quality monitoring more efficient and cost effective for producers.

Otaq’s Chris Hyde

Chris Hyde, chief commercial officer at Otaq, said: ‘Plankton and algae are a significant problem for the aquaculture industry – substantial stocks of salmon have been lost in the past few years, from Norway to Chile, because of the issue.

‘Early detection of harmful species of plankton and algae has been a sticking point and we’re looking to overcome that problem with our new sensing technology, which will fundamentally automate the process and provide accurate information about plankton numbers 24 hours a day.

‘The development of the sensors is the first step towards a more comprehensive early warning system.

‘This is a strategically important product for us, which will offer salmon farms a better view of what’s happening on their sites and extra data with which they can make decisions – many businesses have already said they need it.

‘The involvement of two of Scotland’s innovation centres and the University of Aberdeen has accelerated the development process significantly and provided us with the scientific grounding to produce accurate, actionable data.’

Dr Raif Yuecel, head of the Iain Fraser Cytometry Centre (IFCC) at the University of Aberdeen, added: ‘Experts at the centre will work to validate Otaq’s AI system for accurate quantitative imaging data and timely assessment of pathogenic marine species, using in-house cutting edge cytometry technology.

‘We are proud to contribute to such an innovative system and set the initial milestone for monitoring live pathogenic planktons in fish farms.’

Caroline Griffin, aquaculture innovation manager at SAIC, said: ‘This technology could prove a real breakthrough for aquaculture in all salmon producing countries, enhancing fish wellbeing and health by tackling one of the biggest threats to stocks.

‘It builds on many of our previous projects around improving fish health and wellbeing, along with reducing the industry’s environmental impact by adopting new technologies from other sectors and applying them to aquaculture.’