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Shawn RobinsonProfile: Shawn Robinson

Researcher explores the next generation of aquaculture

“Society wants more sustainable methods to obtain food,” says Shawn Robinson, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) at St. Andrews Biological Station and an adjunct professor at the University of New Brunswick (UNB).

Eight years ago, a salmon farmer sparked Shawn’s curiosity in sustainable aquafarming by inquiring about adding mussels to his farm. The mussels would use up some of the waste, such as uneaten salmon feed, and they could also be harvested and marketed.

This query eventually led Shawn to become co-leader — with Dr. Thierry Chopin (UNB) — of the Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) project, which is performing groundbreaking research in aquafarming. It’s the first effort of its kind in Canada and is revolutionizing aquaculture.

“I enjoy the people I
work with and I benefit daily
from their brilliance and enthusiasm,
whether they are senior scientists
or graduate students.”

A recycling approach

Multi-trophic aquaculture is a type of aquafarming that uses species from different nutritional or trophic levels to create a semi-natural ecosystem. By-products from one species are recycled to become food or fertilizer for another. For example, raising salmon and mussels together creates a more balanced aquafarm. If you add in seaweed, which uses waste as fertilizer and can also be marketed, you get even better environmental sustainability and increased economic stability.

“Basically, it’s a recycling approach,” says Shawn. “We’re looking at ways of creating ecosystems where the energy that’s put in at the top level of the food chain is recycled through a series of other levels. We’re mimicking the natural environment by doing what Mother Nature does.”

“The key to creating sustainable aquaculture is understanding the mechanisms of how humans can successfully co-exist with nature,” says Shawn.

“What we’re finding is that there’s a feedback system. For example, we’ve found that mussels are quite capable of not only removing nutrients, but also partly dealing with some of the salmon diseases.”

Progressive policies

 Shawn Robinson

This kind of happy marriage represents the next generation of aquaculture, says Shawn.

“In the Bay of Fundy, even if only 40 percent of the salmon farms grow only mussels and seaweed—and those are just the first two crops we’ve been looking at—we’re likely to produce $30 million of extra revenue. That’s with no targeted marketing. That’s just selling products at the existing prices. And $30 million in any small community is a significant economic boon!”

According to Shawn, Canada is a world leader in open-ocean multi-trophic aquaculture. Canada’s efforts are proving successful because its policies closely follow scientific research. Many other countries, even those who invest heavily in aquaculture, are hamstrung by their own regulations, which don’t allow multiple species to be grown on one farm.

“They see aquaculture from a monoculture point of view,” says Shawn. “However, monocultures are just a figment of your imagination. Other species are going to move in whether you want them or not. You might as well try to adapt to it rather than fight it.”

Shawn says that Canada’s policies recognize the benefits of ecological interrelationships. “That’s one of the reasons we’re as far ahead as we are.”

Improving the environment and the economy

Shawn is happy tackling a major environmental dilemma: making aquaculture both ecologically friendly and commercially profitable.

“I’ve been working with DFO for nearly 20 years, and there is no place I’d rather be. My work will outlive me,” he adds. “I enjoy the people I work with and I benefit daily from their brilliance and enthusiasm, whether they are senior scientists or graduate students.”

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