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Joint project looks to enhance the sustainable development of aquaculture in South Africa

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Harvesting seaweed cultivated as part of the integrated multitrophic aquaculture approach, Viking Aquaculture Buffeljags Abalone Farm, Western Cape.

In recognition of the need for the aquaculture industry to be developed sensitively, under good governance and towards equitable and sustainable community benefit, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is collaborating with 15 partner organisations across the Atlantic Ocean.

Harvesting seaweed cultivated as part of the integrated multitrophic aquaculture approach, Viking Aquaculture Buffeljags Abalone Farm, Western Cape.

In recognition of the need for the aquaculture industry to be developed sensitively, under good governance and towards equitable and sustainable community benefit, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is collaborating with 15 partner organisations across the Atlantic Ocean.

Aquaculture in South Africa is really taking off, with around 230 farms countrywide cultivating a wide variety of fish and shellfish species. In recent years, the industry has expanded substantially, with production levels increasing by almost 75% since 2013 to approximately 6 000 tons. The sector brings economic benefits as the total sales value across the industry in 2018 was approximately R1 billion, excluding additional value generated through leisure and tourism by activities such as trout farming. Over 86% of the value of the industry is represented by marine aquaculture, such as abalone farming.

Since 2014, the Horizon 2020 European Union Research and Innovation programme has made available nearly €80 billion in funding, with emphasis on excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling social challenges. The Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance Flagship is one of the funding actions that aim to better understand and sustainably manage the Atlantic Ocean as a whole, with initiatives specifically focusing on aquaculture production. The four-year All Atlantic Ocean Sustainable, Profitable and Resilient and Aquaculture (ASTRAL) project was initiated in September 2020 to support the development of the industry in a sustainable way, ensuring a strong climate-ocean-food value chain.

The primary focus of ASTRAL is on integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA), a farming approach that cultivates animals and/or plants at different levels of the food web that provide complementary functions in the farm's overall ecosystem. This type of system has the potential to reduce eutrophication and accelerate product growth. Within ASTRAL, there is strong emphasis on research and the creation of new production methods and value chains in aquaculture. The ASTRAL project seeks to provide integrated information systems to support decision-making, together with recommendations on optimal monitoring strategies to minimise risk and maximise mitigation opportunities. It aims to do this by developing and using a wide range of tools and systems to facilitate the optimisation of new approaches – new sensors for environmental monitoring and hazard identification, new techniques for species combination, as well as comprehensive investigation on regional climatic and environmental risks.

Sensors to identify and quantify pathogens, microplastics and phytoplankton particles are integrated into farm-wide Internet of Things networks, together with other valuable physico-chemical environmental monitoring information (water pH, temperature, and salinity) – all accessible via data analytics platforms, enabling real-time data visualisation, as well as record-keeping.

The role of the CSIR's Coastal Systems and Earth Observation Research Group in this project is to provide satellite-based monitoring capacity and climate-related research, together with support for targeted technology development and planning of sensor-validation activities.

“The aquaculture industry is emerging in South Africa and has the potential to play a key economic role and create jobs. Therefore, it is very important for the industry to be developed in an ecologically safe and sustainable way though science, research and innovation. The ASTRAL project serves to provide a collaborative system for understanding Atlantic ecosystems and ensuring sustainable utilisation of Atlantic Ocean resources,” says Dr Marie Smith, CSIR senior researcher for biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The ASTRAL project focusses on four farms termed “IMTA labs” where research and innovation activities are conducted aimed at supporting the success of the aquaculture venture. The IMTA labs are essentially a collaboration of commercial farms and research organisations in South Africa, Brazil, Ireland and the United Kingdom, and feature a variety of closed system, land-based flow-through, and open ocean systems where new techniques and technologies can be tested. The South African IMTA lab is led by specialist marine animal and plant biologists from the University of Cape Town and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE), with a marine research lab at DFFE in Seapoint and practical implementation onsite at Viking Aquaculture Buffeljags Abalone Farm on the southern coast of the Western Cape.

“The capabilities of the CSIR's Coastal Systems and Earth Observation Research Group are critical for this project, and we will continue to play our role in this four-year programme through our world-class research and innovation aimed at enhancing South Africa's aquaculture” adds Smith.