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Written By

Mykala Wright


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

11 August 2021

The science of aquaculture

Farming of aquatic organisms could be the key to a food secure future, says Professor Dean Jerry, Director of the Australian Research Council Research Hub for Supercharging Tropical Aquaculture through Genetic Solutions.

The world’s population is currently 7.9 billion, and projections say that we’ll have an extra 2 billion people by 2050. As the number of mouths to feed increases, so too does the global demand for food. At the same time, urbanisation and rising incomes are driving a shift in dietary preferences – more people with more money are eating more animal-derived protein.

“We will require about a 70 per cent increase in food production over current levels to satisfy the human population by 2050,” he says.

“Aquaculture is increasingly being seen as a major contributor to filling food security needs as it is a highly nutritious, protein-rich food source that can be produced in a variety of aquatic environments.”

Over the next five years, Dean will lead a research team alongside several industry partners in a mission to improve the sustainability and productivity of aquaculture in Australia.

Professor Dean Jerry holding a small barramundi.

Supplied by Dean Jerry.

No signs of slowing

The world’s appetite for seafood is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, aquaculture is the fastest-growing food sector in the world.

“The aquaculture industry’s growth is exceeding any sort of increase in beef or crop production, and it has grown to the point where over 50 per cent of our global seafood comes from farmed sources,” Dean says. “For it to continue to grow in a sustainable way, we need science led innovations in areas of genetics, aquatic animal health, artificial intelligence and engineering.”

“Aquaculture requires bringing different scientific expertise and skills together in a holistic way to help the industry grow sustainably.”

Professor Dean Jerry

Indeed, producing enough food while preserving the planet poses a significant challenge. Past increases in food production have resulted in harmful outcomes for the natural environment. But the farming of fish has several advantages over other forms of animal agriculture. For instance, aquaculture provides us with crucial nutrients whilst demanding less natural resources than terrestrial food production systems.

The sustainable expansion of the aquaculture industry is critical for the preservation of our livelihoods and planet. Dean and his team are committed to enhancing the efficiency of farming five northern Australian aquaculture species, including black tiger prawn, grouper, pearl oyster, barramundi and marine red-algae.

“As seen for every other food production sector, one of the best and most efficient ways of improving productivity, efficiency and sustainability is through the use of genetics,” he says. “Across the five-year period, our project will transform these species from animals and plants that have had very little or only preliminary genetic improvement applied to them, to species with world-leading, highly efficient and productive selective breeding programs in place.”

A black tiger prawn.
a larval barramundi.
Left: A black tiger prawn. Right: A larval barramundi. Supplied by Dean Jerry.

Diving in deep

The research will use traditional selective breeding approaches with modern techniques to raise superior aquatic species’.

“We’re pulling together expertise in genetics, genomics, aquatic animal health, bacterial microbiomes, new breeding technologies and artificial intelligence to develop tools that will allow aquaculture to be at a level where the genetics and technology is comparable to that seen in poultry, dairy and beef industries that have about 100 years or more of selective breeding applied to them,” Dean says.

One of the project’s main areas of focus is improving disease resistance and control. Currently, it is estimated around 40 per cent of global aquaculture production is lost to disease annually. As a result, the limited natural resources used to produce that lost food are also wasted. Thus, waste reduction is a promising strategy for improving the sustainability of the industry.

“Disease poses the biggest risk to any industry, so if we can apply genetic means to improve the animals’ capacity to deal with disease, we can make instant productivity gains,” Dean says.

“Part of the research will see us challenging the animals in robust experiments, which will help us to understand which diseases we might be able to select for efficiently, and which diseases selection perhaps won’t be as effective for compared to alternative approaches like vaccines or probiotics.”

The project will also focus on improving the growth rate of the species’ to increase yields and productivity.

“Every production system has inputs of resources to produce output. In this case, the output is aquatic animal protein, bioactives and/or pearl gemstones,” Dean says.

“Genetically selecting for animals, for example, that have better food conversion efficiency means we’re selecting for animals that require less food to produce more protein. Consequently, we’re making the system more sustainable by using less resources.”

The JCU research team and partners Mainstream Aquaculture Group, Seafarms Group, Cygnet Bay Pearls, The Company One, Sea Forest, the Australian Genome Research Facility and the University of Queensland have been awarded $4.9 million to conduct this world-leading research.

“By the end of the project the industry research partners will have acquired all of the knowledge and tools necessary to conduct leading breeding programs for their species of interest," Dean says.

“These programs will have flow-on benefits for Northern Australia, as the companies’ prosperity will spill over to create significant socio-economic benefits for regional communities and the country will have increased access to high-quality and nutritious seafood.”

As Australia’s demand for seafood continues to rise, scientific research and development is crucial to the growth of the aquaculture industry and its sustainable contributions to our food future.

Discover JCU Aquaculture

Dive into research at JCU and help to achieve a food secure future.

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Featured researcher

Professor Dean Jerry

Professor – Promotional Chair

Dean Jerry is the Director of the ARC Research Hub for Advanced Prawn Breeding, Director of the Tropical Futures Institute JCU Singapore, and the Deputy Director of JCU Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture.

Dean is globally known for his work in aquaculture, with his primary area of research in the application of generic technologies to the improvement of farmed aquatic species. He has worked with over 12 aquaculture species over the last 18 years and over time has built a large, internationally-recognised research team. Dean is also pioneering the application of environmental DNA technologies to the detection of rare and invasive aquatic organisms in Australia, and in the detection of aquaculture pathogens.