By now, we are all too familiar with the impacts of COVID-19. Since I started writing about aquaculture and fisheries six years ago, I’ve spent the longest period of time away from fish farms, companies and individuals, and have never felt less physically connected to an industry I have grown to love.
Despite the challenges, however, the work of aquaculture this past year has been extremely impressive. Aquaconnect, a technology startup in India, launched a COVID-19 helpline for shrimp farmers to provide remote support on farm management and help farmers navigate supply, demand and logistics. In Japan, technology provider Umitron’s automated smart feeder CELL proved particularly advantageous. The device collects data to optimise feeding and is remotely managed through a cloud-based application on a mobile device. This allows farmers to feed and monitor their fish without being on their farm.
I also spoke to Juliette Alemany, a data scientist and project manager at Bangkok-based consultancy VerifiK8, which specialises in improving supply-chain sustainability through technology. She told me that the pandemic is an opportunity for aquaculture stakeholders to reconsider areas such as hard-to-predict risks and biosecurity. As new viruses commonly arise in aquaculture in the same way that COVID-19 arose in the human population, she said, farmers will need to come up with risk management and crisis plans, and realise the issue of disrupted supply chains and the need to strengthen bonds between farms and processors.
My favourite story from 2020 was on RAS technology that’s being used to farm horseshoe crabs for medical purposes. Dr. Anthony Dellinger, president of Kepley BioSystems, a life science start-up in North Carolina, told me that blood from horseshoe crabs is a vital resource for medicine as it contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) that is used in sterility testing. This ensures that drugs, vaccines and medical devices don’t contain potentially deadly bacteria known as endotoxins. However, horseshoe crabs in the wild are vulnerable due to global warming and harvesting for the biomedical industry.
With this in mind, Dr. Dellinger and his team came up with a way to farm horseshoe crabs on land to obtain LAL without depending on wild populations. They estimate that 45,000 horseshoe crabs from aquaculture would provide enough LAL for all current diagnostic needs and even help to detect endotoxins in pre-treated human blood samples. This could lead to the early detection of infectious diseases, a welcome result for patients at risk of life-threatening conditions and in light of the pandemic. Vaccines and medical devices such as ventilator components will also need to be validated with LAL. With the pandemic continuing, there is an immediate, near-term need for large quantities of LAL to ensure that appropriate amounts reach the market as soon as possible.
“Our work is extremely important because of the Covid circumstances and the susceptibility of patients with COVID-19 to secondary bacterial infections. Such infections aren’t being looked at very carefully right now because COVID-19 patients are too sick and there is too much risk associated with it, but if we could use LAL in a very small blood sample, for example from a finger prick, and ascertain whether a patient is at risk of secondary infection, we could give physicians more information on how to treat such patients timely, accurately and how long for,” said Dr. Dellinger.
“It’s great to look at aquaculture from the perspective of clinically significant products that can be derived from marine sources. There is significant pressure on the medical industry to safeguard humanity, and aquaculture can help them meet that responsibility,” he concluded.
As travel has been neither allowed nor safe this past year, many conferences and events were postponed or cancelled. I was disappointed at the cancellation of Aquaculture UK that was due to be held in May 2020 in Aviemore, Scotland, and the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s* conference that was scheduled to take place in Tokyo in October 2020. But instead of resting on their laurels, organisers of events such as these worked closely to provide online webinars and industry conferences in a new, extra-digitally connected world. This provided aquaculture with unique opportunities to share its voice with a wider audience. Pure Salmon, Atlantic Sapphire and Nordic Aquafarms contributed some valuable lessons during the RAS Virtual Summit 2020, which was hosted by RASTech magazine and Annex Business Media in Canada. I particularly enjoyed the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s first online conference – GOAL 2020 – which covered a series of topics including production systems, disease management and welfare, trading, marketing and consumption in a COVID-19 world and land-based and offshore trajectories. The Global Conference on Aquaculture 2020, convened by the FAO, Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific (NACA) and the World Fisheries Trust, also moved online. I’m extremely grateful to all the speakers for taking the time to share their knowledge and expertise, and to the organisers for making it possible to learn so much from the comfort of my own home.
It goes without saying that COVID-19 has greatly affected fisheries and aquaculture around the world. An FAO report released in February this year – the impact of COVID-19 on fisheries and aquaculture food systems – discusses disruption to production, supply chains and consumer spending and warns of more interference. The pandemic has created some hurdles but there is lot that aquaculture can learn from it. Understanding what changes are required and how those changes can be met, for example by collecting data, collaborating with one another more closely and developing innovations, will be key as we slowly approach a new, post-pandemic era. A coordinated global effort will undoubtedly make the biggest impact.
*The Global Aquaculture Alliance is now known as the Global Seafood Alliance following a name change in April 2021.