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Hatchery 101: Changing with the climate

In the first installment of the Hatchery 101 webinar series, experts tackle the challenges of climate change

April 28, 2023  By Ben Normand

When one looks at the intersection of topics such as climate change and hatcheries, it becomes clear very quickly that, well… it’s complicated.  

On one hand, you have hatcheries: water quality, maintaining temperature, husbandry challenges, etc.  On the other hand, you have climate change: increasing global temperatures, increased storm occurrence and severity, changing rainfall patterns, etc. 

When exploring the intersection of these two topics, big questions abound:  How can my operation adapt? How will my source water change? Will I even have source water? When tackling such big questions in a short window of time, one needs big expertise with big ideas and concision. This Hatchery 101 webinar did not disappoint.

While I always recommend you tune in to the webinars, there is a recording available on the Hatchery International website.  However, since you’re a busy hatchery professional, and time is always of the essence, I offer a digest of some key points.


Moderated by yours truly, the Feb. 15 panel included Dr. Tiago Hori, director of Aquaculture Innovation at Atlantic Aqua Farms Ltd.; Molly Steere, engineer and technical editor with Four Peaks Environmental Science and Data Solutions; and Carlos Lopez, commercial and operations manager at Benchmark Genetics Tilapia (a.k.a. Spring Genetics). 

We explored some key strengths of the hatchery as a rearing environment in the face of decreasing natural stability. Control was the essence of all answers. In hatcheries, you have more control over the organisms and their environment than you do out in nature.

Speaking of instability, pathogens are showing up in areas where traditionally the climate was inhospitable to their flourishing. Lopez touched on the fact that his clients are seeing pathogens that they never thought to look for show up in their operations, which is bringing a host of challenges. Hori took this idea a step further into the realm of biofouling and invasives, discussing the situation of tunicates in Prince Edward Island mussel farming operations, where milder winters are allowing Ciona tunicate to adapt and overcome winter more successfully.

From here we pivoted to the importance of breeding programs in supporting aquaculture in a changing climate. Hori did not mince words in relation to just how important effective and robust breeding programs will be in the future.

“It’s the only solution,” he said. “Realistically, to breed any local, resistant strains for any animals is our best, if not only, chance against climate change… What we’re going to see more and more of is cultivars.”  

A cultivar, in this context, means a lineage of an organism that has been bred for specific traits that will allow it to thrive in a local context.  An example could be breeding two salmon families: one which can tolerate prolonged heat waves on Canada’s west coast and another which can better withstand prolonged starvation while being locked under the ice of Canada’s east coast winters, as opposed to trying to breed the universally “perfect” salmon. 

Both Hori and Lopez echoed the importance of long-term thinking when approaching the development of any breeding program. A more traditional program requires many generations of time and monetary investment. One based on genomic editing is faster, but also very expensive. Either way, it is likely that increased cooperation between producers will be required to help everyone carry the costs.

When asked about some of the weaknesses of the hatchery in the face of climate change, Steere pointed out that many facilities rely on ambient water sources, which are under threat in several areas due to drought, storm events causing increased sedimentation, and increased temperatures. 

 “In a hatchery, you’re dealing with fish at their most vulnerable stage… so any small changes can affect your stock in a big way,” Lopez added.

“We have to transition from resistance to resilience,” Hori agreed.

The panelists explored some specific things operators should be looking at in their own operations when assessing their vulnerabilities. Lopez mentioned the importance of shifting production into more controlled spaces. Steere echoed this sentiment and emphasized the importance of needing to build backup systems as much as possible. For example, you could have a well to supplement your surface water source. 

While moving production into more complex systems can offer a solution to your initial problems, both also agreed it can also increase your risks in other ways. For example, a loss of power in a pond-based operation is not likely to cause big headaches in a short timeframe, whereas it can be catastrophic in the context of high-density RAS.  

When asked about how hatcheries are poised to aid their grow-out counterparts in their own adaptation, Lopez and Hori both touched on the need to find ways to create more robust juveniles, either through genomic techniques, breeding programs, or controlled stress exposure.  Interestingly, Hori also pointed out that hatcheries are uniquely positioned as cultivation spaces for the development of effective artificial intelligence (AI) and automation solutions that can benefit the whole industry. This is because, in a controlled environment, it is easier to experiment, as well as gather good baseline data, that allows for the effective development of predictive systems.  

Steere said that AI, big data, and advanced analytics will play a crucial role in increasing automation. Hori reinforced the importance of this development because automated systems operate with predictable errors, whereas human error is unpredictable. Lopez said production will generally shift towards more intensive and controlled systems such as recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).

To end things on a positive note, I asked them when thinking of these issues, what brings you hope?

“One of the main things that gives me hope is seeing the passion behind the hatchery managers and operators,” said Steere. 

“We’ll be okay, we have to just keep adapting day-by-day and I think aquaculturists are experts at adapting to each day and finding solutions,” said Lopez.  

“[The technology] out there is mind-boggling, so the future is bright, and we can’t be too skeptical,” said Hori.

While this discussion will be hard to match, join us on May 17, where we bring new panelists to explore the topic of energy conservation in hatcheries. Energy conservation is a major goal when pursuing sustainability and so it rests at the front of many minds. This will be one you do not want to miss.  

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