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Optimizing aquaculture management practices for maximum profitability

January 19, 2023
John Sweetman speaking on the Aqua Track stage at the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference

John Sweetman is a passionate advocate for aquaculture with 40 years of extensive global practical experience in freshwater and marine finfish farm design, construction and management.

Aquaculture is the fastest-growing sector of animal protein production, but ensuring optimal health and performance in aquatic species can be challenging. John Sweetman, international project manager for aquaculture at Alltech, joins the Ag Future podcast to discuss sustainability, innovation and helpful information found in a reference guide he co-authored with fellow aquaculture specialist Gijs Rutjes, "Inside/Out: The Essential Guide to the Skin, Gills and Guts of Fish," which promotes the development of mitigation strategies to achieve optimal productivity.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with John Sweetman hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Tom:            Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us from the 2022 Alltech ONE Conference as we explore our opportunities within agri-food, business and beyond.


                     I'm Tom Martin for the Alltech Ag Future podcast series. For 40 years, John Sweetman, (who is) in charge of Alltech's international aqua operations, has been a passionate advocate for aquaculture based on (his) extensive global (and) practical experience in freshwater and marine finfish farm design, construction and management. Well, John is here to offer us a sneak peek at "Inside/Out." It's a new book produced by the aqua experts at Alltech about the key factors that contribute to healthy skin, guts and gills in aquatic species around the world. Welcome to Ag Future, John.


John:            Thank you very much.


Tom:            In your role at Alltech, you are charged with developing and implementing scientific advances in all kinds of industrial aquacultural practices. What's topping your to-do list these days?


John:            I think the objective here is to really establish the industry with sustainable roots to enable aquaculture to develop — and to look at the opportunities that each species have in different regions of the world and enable (producers) to feed properly (various) populations, whether it'd be poorer populations in Africa or the higher-income regions where more sophisticated products are required in the marketplace.


Tom:            Let's take a look at this book that we're getting a preview (of) here. First of all, "Inside/Out" — what's it about?


John:            Thank you. "Inside/Out" is really a description of the function of the three organs (in aquatic species that) are in direct contact with the environment: the skin, the gills and the guts of a fish. All (three of) these have a unique commonality, and that is (that) they're in touch with the environment. They are sensitive to the environment and their condition is sensitive to the quality of the environment in which they live. If the environment challenges them, they need to respond dynamically to be able to maintain their integrity and to be able to function properly in order to enable the fish to be strong, healthy and perform well in an aquaculture environment.


Tom:            You point out that ensuring optimal health in aquaculture production starts from within. I assume (that you mean) within the animal, correct?


John:            Within the animal and within the management practices that are associated with the operations of aquaculture. What's important is that people observe; they understand. They listen to their fish; they can see how they're reacting, and they're able to respond accordingly to their demands. All this helps to manage that balance between the environment, the nutrition of the animal and the challenges associated with pathogens that may be in the environment around them.


Tom:            I know you talk about this in the book. What are the key factors that contribute to healthy skin, guts (and) gills in aquatic species?


John:            Well, the skin, the gills and the guts have one common aspect, and that is a mucosal coating — a coating of mucus, which is secreted from the cells (and) which acts as a protective barrier. So, while the skin itself is a protective barrier — and the gills as well — the actual surface of those cells are covered in mucus. Those mucus cells, they have innate immune characteristics, which enable them to defend against disease, parasites, bacteria (and) viruses — to repair themselves in case of damage because of rubbing or handling stress.


                     When we talk about operations and aquaculture, we're talking about optimizing management practices and ensuring (that the) nutrition and the health of the animal is optimal. This gives you a (quality) performance, which results in profitability for the aquaculturalist.


Tom:            Aquaculture is continuing to make strides in becoming more sustainable. We touched on that. What are the biggest opportunities to continue that effort, from your perspective, and what's the role of feed in technology?


John:            Yes, aquaculture is the fastest-growing sector of animal protein production. It exceeds beef and poultry production (in) growth. Fifty percent of the aquaculture fish species we eat today are produced in an aquaculture environment. Only 50% are now coming from the wild — and that wild population is reducing.


I think that aquaculture's future is dependent on its ability to be sustainable. So, we're looking at nutrition. We're looking at individual components of that nutrition to be able to select from a raw material basket (that) is wide enough to provide for certain areas of the globe different components (that) still match the nutritional requirements of those animals. It's all about a wide basket of nutrition, and it's all about the ability to provide the elements within that nutrition (that) are essential for growth, health, performance and welfare.


Tom:            And customizing those ingredients according to location?


John:            Yes. If you have a location (that) has a natural resource, then you should use that rather than importing it from long distance, for example.


Tom:            What kind of innovations are you seeing coming online that really excite you?


John:            Well, I think, in the last 15 years, the technological advances (that have become) available to modern aquaculture (are) phenomenal. Today, we have automatic underwater cameras (that) can look at health and welfare, monitor the status of the skin, look for lesions, identify parasites on the outside of the animals and even, with laser attachments, are able to actually shoot down these parasites and remove them directly from the skin. These technological advances are backed by multiple tools for the veterinarian groups and the fish health specialists around the world. They have molecular tools — which are beyond our expectations — for identifying diseases, for looking at the status of the animal. These technologies today provide a suite of tools (that) are quite extraordinary.


Tom:            A few years ago, there was a great deal of concern about sea lice and the impact (they can have) on salmon. Does that continue to be a concern? Has it improved?


John:            Sea lice are still the major concern within the salmon industry, and they are approaching it holistically. Multiple technologies are being employed. Mucosal expression — through the use of our Actigen, for example, and Bio-Mos combinations to improve mucosal expression in the skin — helps to prevent the deposition of these little parasitic juveniles, which reduces the infection rates but doesn't quite completely clear it. But if you then use a combination of those technologies, as I mentioned earlier — with laser techniques, for example, and also with cleaner fish, which are animals that can actually live within the population of the salmon and pick these lice off the skin — we're now able to manage lice control in a much better way.


                     When you combine that with a better understanding of how these parasites move within a water body from area to area, it enables you to manage the location of fish farms and to be able to control that to effective levels, which means it's not the problem it was so many years ago.


Tom:            Let's say I'm an aquaculture professional. What can I gain from having this book on my bookshelf?


John:            The objective of the book is to reach out to every level of aquaculturalist and nutritionist from around the globe on multiple species. It highlights the dynamics of the skin, the gills and the guts. It talks about their structure, their function. It talks about how we can improve their structure and their function. And in doing so, it helps inform people of the importance of those skin, gills and guts within the aqueous environment. In doing all this, we enable people to understand more the function (of those organs) and the way that you can actually manage the function and respond to stress within those animals.


                     The "Inside/Out" book is designed to give a better understanding (of these elements), which helps the farmer when he's observing animal behavior, fish behavior in the tanks, or he's looking at fish, either through a microscope or visually. It enables him to say, “Aha! I think I see what's going on here. Let's see how we can improve this particular aspect.” By observation and by understanding, you improve standard operating procedures. By improving standard operating procedures, you improve efficiency, and in doing so, you improve profitability.


Tom:            I think, when we talk about sustainability, we tend to relate that to the environment and to protecting the Earth's resources and so forth — but what about talent? What about talent in the aquaculture industry? Is there enough talent, future talent, in the pipeline to sustain the industry?


John:            It's a very good question. I think, globally, in many, many businesses in this particular decade, we're facing a crisis of available talent — but aquaculture is developing so fast. The technologies are so diverse. We need technological specialists in aquaculture that range from electrical engineers to scientists to vaccine producers. All these aspects are growing, as well as the farm itself and the farm operations. It's a really diverse industry with a huge range of talents.


                     Yes, the talent that we now have is enabling the industry to grow. The expectations for the industry to grow are huge. If you look only at (the) Norwegian salmon industry, which is heavily supported by research and development, its projection for growth will increase its capacity twofold in the next ten years. So, we are really looking forward to growth in aquaculture, and we are trying to draw those young people, the talent that we need, to bring them into the industry, to give them opportunity. By doing this, we create the correct environment for the growth of the industry.


Tom:            And you do this (personally), don't you? I know that you mentor and support students who see themselves someday working in aquaculture. I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit about that experience — what you're seeing and hearing in these bright, young minds that you're working with.


John:            Well, I'm seeing a suite of technology that they have within their grasp now, which is vastly improved on (what was available) when I was their age. I see that they are keen, that they are motivated, and they're looking for innovation. Innovation is a success for this industry. As it grows, it's innovating at a tremendous pace. What I try to do is just give them a little background about the experiences I've had, maybe point them in the direction of, perhaps, what they could achieve and why they should always ask that question, (that) critical question: “Why this? Why is my fish doing this? What can I do to help that fish?” So, not just (following) the rule book but opening the mind to new ideas. That's how I like to help, if I can.


Tom:            Maybe they should read "Inside/Out."


John:            Oh, I hope so.


Tom:            John Sweetman is international projects manager of aqua (at) Alltech. Thank you, John.


John:            Thank you for having me.


Tom:            For the Alltech Ag Future podcast, I'm Tom Martin. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.