Putting seafood sustainability on a platter

JCU PhD Candidate Phoebe Arbon with one of the black tiger prawns.

Supplied by Phoebe Arbon.

Personnel Image

Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

15 November 2022

Ensuring the sustainability and security of your seafood

The next time you chuck another prawn on the barbie or prepare a seafood platter, consider the sustainability of your seafood. Aquaculture offers an efficient and sustainable source of protein in Australia, but JCU PhD Candidate Phoebe Arbon says it is important for us to understand threats to this sustainability, like the pathogens that might threaten production in the prawn industry.

Growing up, Phoebe says she was always interested in the ways we can support sustainable and resilient fisheries and aquaculture in Australia. “My family had a small freshwater aquaculture business, so I was really interested in aquaculture from a young age,” she says. “In my research, I’ve been able to draw experiences and knowledge from a lot of different places, but this background really gave me the foundation and passion for aquaculture.”

After studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in Aquaculture and Mathematics at JCU, Phoebe had the chance to work in the AquaPATH laboratory, supporting research in aquatic animal health. This was Phoebe’s first introduction to screening and detection of pathogens in Australian black tiger prawns. “It is basically like COVID-19 testing for prawns. I became really interested in working in the laboratory and understanding more about Australian prawns, prawn aquaculture and the potential biosecurity risks,” Phoebe says.

Now two years into her PhD at JCU, Phoebe is investigating the significance of different pathogens that are found in black tiger prawn production in Australia.

Phoebe says that the prawn production industry is an important contributor to Australia’s food security now and into the future. “With a growing population, our food demands are rapidly increasing. Production industries like beef and pork— which require a lot of land, water and feed resources — have high feed conversion ratios and carbon emissions. Comparatively, seafood production has conversion ratios that are relatively low and is one of the most efficient animal protein production systems,” she says.

Looking to the future, Phoebe says we need to investigate how to best support these industries. “With advancing technologies, seafood production is only going to become even more efficient and sustainable,” Phoebe says.

Black tiger prawns.

Supplied by Phoebe Arbon

Prawns feeling poorly

But what happens when a prawn gets sick? While humans can’t become unwell from these pathogens detected on prawn farms, these diseases can cause losses in prawns or negatively impact their growth cycle.

“Aquaculture has the potential to meet a lot of our food demands and provide food security in the future, but diseases in aquaculture are a very big barrier to the improvement of production, efficiency and sustainability in the industry,” Phoebe says.

“Prawns are extremely challenged by diseases. One reason for this is because they lack the same immune components that vertebrates have,” she says. “Fish, for example, can be vaccinated like a human because they produce antibodies that can be used to fight the infection. Prawns are very different and vaccinating them cannot currently provide any long-term protection against diseases.” Phoebe says that prevention is the best cure when it comes to prawn pathogens, highlighting the importance of biosecurity and ensuring Australia's prawn stocks are healthy and disease-resistant.

“The Australian prawn industry is still relatively reliant on wild-caught prawns to produce seed stock, so we analysed these wild-caught prawns to assess the risk of collecting stock infected with pathogens and how likely this is to introduce pathogens into farm production systems,” she says.

“Our research also investigates the potential for these production prawns to be infected with more than one pathogen (co-infections). Previous research hasn’t always accounted for this, and so it hasn’t been able to show a causal relationship between the presence of a certain pathogen and a disease event in prawns; we know the certain pathogen has been detected, but infection with a pathogen doesn't necessarily lead to disease outbreak. The presence of co-infections can further complicate the interpretations from such studies.

“So, my research is attempting to define these causal relationships, by only challenging (injecting) prawns that are free of other pathogens known to be present in Australian prawns with one purified virus," Phoebe says. "Through this, we can get really robust experimental findings that show the significance of these viruses in production and elucidate the impact of the virus on the health of the prawn without potential confounding effects from co-infections.”

JCU PhD Candidate Phoebe Arbon smiling and standing next to an aquaculture researcher in Singapore. In the background are many prawn aquaculture tanks.
A large room with round aquaculture tanks.
Left: Phoebe with the CEO and inventor of the Aquaculture Centre of Excellence farm system, Mr Ban Tat (BT) Leow in Singapore. Right: High-tech floating fish production systems based on barges in Singapore. Supplied by Phoebe Arbon.

Gaining a perspective of different systems

Earlier in 2022, Phoebe was the recipient of a Crawford Fund Student Award, which supported a research project to investigate aquaculture in Singapore and Thailand. “The Crawford-in-Queensland Student award aims to increase the connectivity of Australian and international researchers and their producers,” Phoebe says.

“I was fortunate enough to be one of the successful applicants and my project involved travelling to Singapore and Thailand to visit their aquaculture facilities for shrimp production, as well as a few other urbanised aquaculture facilities,” she says. “It gave me insight and perspective on how aquaculture is conducted in these different environments.”

Phoebe says she learned a lot about the different aquaculture systems and it gave her the opportunity to meet with other researchers in her field. “South East Asia has some very different production systems to Australia, so it was really interesting to go there and learn more about how their production systems work and the levels of biosecurity they have in place. I was able to talk to specialists about breeding genetic resistance in shrimp lines and the type of impact this is having on their industry.”

“The Crawford Fund Student Award really helped to bring focus to the importance of my research in aquatic animal health and in aquaculture production. Seeing the battle that is being fought overseas with aquatic diseases, it has really given me perspective on the importance of preventing disease in Australian aquaculture and our goals to build a more resilient industry.”

JCU PhD Candidate, Phoebe Arbon

“There are quite a lot of diseases currently causing massive losses to production overseas. We’re lucky that we currently don’t have them in Australia, but we still have pathogens that cause diseases and have impacts like reduced growth rates which can lessen the productivity of the industry,” Phoebe says. “So, disease prevention and biosecurity are massive priorities for prawn farming in Australia.”

Phoebe hopes that the methodologies and techniques developed through her research will support a better understanding of diseases in Australian prawn aquaculture. “Importantly, as the Australian industry shifts towards domestication of prawn stock, we will hopefully have developed knowledge to support the production of disease-resistant lines and can springboard off that,” she says.

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