1. How did you first get into aquaculture? (a brief history)
It all started with a school project on daphnia (zooplankton) which gave me an advantage when I interviewed for a job as a freshwater biology lab assistant with the (then) Thames Water Authority. That job introduced me to fisheries work including fish health examinations and then to a Malaysian student who did a placement with us from The University of Stirling. She arrived clutching a copy of the classic aquaculture text by Bardach et al (1972) and opened my eyes to its potential. Not long after I headed to the University of North Wales in Bangor for a degree in Marine Biology and Zoology and then two years with a fish farming project in Tanzania before heading to Stirling myself for the MSc Aquaculture programme and as it turns out, the rest of my career!
2. What do you think is the most fulfilling from what you do? (Any interesting stories to share?)
Much of my career has been in consultancy and it has always been very interesting and rewarding to get involved with so many different people and types of aquaculture and try to help the industry develop. I came to realise that much of the fulfilment was about the opportunity to learn and to bring different ideas and knowledge together through analysis and formulation of solutions or strategy etc. In recent years I have been focusing more on Learning and knowledge exchange as essential elements for successful aquaculture development. I enjoy the coaching aspects of my current job and am keen to foster the widest possible learning opportunities within the sector.
3. How can we improve the current education of aquaculture?
At least in higher education we have to try to balance passing on to students the knowledge we already have, with equipping them with the skills and encouraging their curiosity and creativity to be the next generation of innovators. We have to prepare them for an aquaculture industry that is not yet with us, but which they will be instrumental in building from the foundations that we have today. The Internet is leading to an explosion of information availability and unprecedented opportunities for international communication, but that makes it even more important for everyone to have research and critical reasoning skills which can be applied to problem solving in many different contexts. I also have a strong interest in the role of Open Educational Resources (OER) not just as an efficient way of sharing knowledge and increasing accessibility, but also as a means of driving up quality and overall efficiency. I currently have an MSc student doing research on this and it also links to wider educational networking projects such as Aqua-tnet (EU) and EURASTIP (EU – ASEAN). The latter is a new project which will encourage aquaculture stakeholder cooperation and promote Europe-Asia collaborations in learning innovations.
4. Any advice for students seeking a career in the aquaculture industry?
As Programme Director for several of our MSc programmes at the Institute of Aquaculture, I will naturally recommend joining one of these at the University of Stirling! We aim to provide a great foundation for a career in industry or allied research. But with that disclosure of interest over, will of course extend the advice to seek out whatever educational opportunities are available and use those to actively build professional networks. However, it is also important to get experience, even at a very basic level. It’s not quite the same, but I remember studying Tanzania for six months before I went to work there; but felt I learned more about the country on the 30 minute journey from the airport to the centre of Dar es Salaam than I had in the preceding six months. There is no substitute for getting your feet and hands wet on a farm and experiencing working as part of a team. Beyond that, I guess stay curious, look for problems – and try to solve them. The bigger and more complex the problems you can tackle, the further your career will progress.
5. What are your thoughts on the use of antibiotics in aquaculture?
Antibiotics have been essential at times for economically viable aquaculture and aquatic animal welfare. However, we know that misuse has too often occurred and bacteria have developed resistance which indirectly increases the risks to human health and does nothing for long-term economic viability. Vaccines have been developed for some diseases and cultured species with substantial benefits and hopefully this will continue. Increasingly sophisticated selective breeding programmes may play a role and more research is needed around immunostimulants and the interactions between microbes in the environment and in the cultured animals, e.g. as influenced through the use of pre- and pro-biotics. We need a greater understanding of how to maintain a really healthy environment for the stock whilst also maximising production potential. That will include better understanding of environmental interactions, biosecurity risks and behavioural responses. The elimination of antibiotic use should certainly be the target, although until there is a complete alternative it may be hard to avoid their use altogether as new disease threats can regularly appear.
6. What are some things industry players should be preparing for in the coming decades?
The one certainty as we look to the future is that it will be different from today and only companies that continually innovate and take advantage of new opportunities will survive. It is hard for commercial companies to take a very long-term view, but at some level (maybe collectively or through pressure on government) they need to engage with research and development that finds solutions to current problems and constraints. A particular opportunity is the development of technologies for collecting and analysing large quantities of data from existing operations to gain insight and develop new controls.
Whilst the potential for political disruption can seem more imminent, the impacts of climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental pollution will surely force societies to confront the causes, and the companies that are part of the solution rather than part of the problem will be the commercial winners. Transparency and accountability in production management and distribution has also become more important with the corporatisation of food production and new technologies will only make that easier and more essential.
7. What do you think the future of aquaculture will look like?
Current global trends are towards urbanisation and corporatisation of food production with increasing levels of automation. That may well continue for many more decades and aquaculture production systems will increase in scale both on land and in the marine environment. Perhaps at some point there may be a reversal if social patterns change and people re-engage with their own food production. For the foreseeable future, opportunities for smaller scale producers will increasingly require a focus on more specialist products and markets.
Future aquaculture system will need to develop to address the challenges of environmental impacts, natural resource limits and the threat of existing and emerging diseases and become even more efficient. Intelligent automation will play a significant role in this combined with advances in our understanding of animal biology and environmental interactions. Hopefully the product will at least be just as tasty!
John Bostock is Manager of the institute of Aquaculture's consultancy and project management arm "Stirling Aquaculture" and Director of the MSc Aquaculture.
AQUA Practical Vol 2 Issue 2