Management strategies to control sexual maturation in sea-reared Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.): Biomass management, light-manipulation and sterility
Pre-harvest sexual maturation in farmed Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, remains a key biological bottleneck compromising biomass and financial output, production predictability, environmental respect, stock welfare and the overall sustainability of the on-growing industry. The management practices currently in place are not optimized and events of high maturation rate are still sporadically observed. From an ecological perspective, the escape of reproductively competent, domesticated Atlantic salmon constitutes a threat to the integrity of wild stocks. The forecasted expansion of the Scottish salmon industry compels the need for a comprehensive and more reliable control of sexual maturation. The general aim of this research project was to optimize the current management strategy (windows of light-manipulation and quality grading) and test alternative practices (lighting-technologies, selective harvest and triploidization) in the control of pre-harvest sexual maturation within the Atlantic salmon on-growing industry.
In that end, a number of trials were performed using stock reared in sea-cages on a full commercial-scale or in tanks on an experimental scale. The results of this project are organized around three experimental chapters dealing consecutively with body-size dimorphism, grading and harvest quality; light manipulations and triploidy. In each chapter, two original manuscripts either published or in review are included. In addition to these experimental results, a literature review chapter composed of two review papers on the photoperiodic synchronization and developmental regulation of maturation in salmonids and on morphological skin colour changes in teleosts (published) are presented.
In the first experimental chapters, we aimed at investigating the possibility of detecting and selectively harvesting a high proportion of sexually recruited fish before flesh quality deterioration. Results clearly showed that body-size dimorphisms between maturity cohorts at the end of the anabolic window of reproduction (June/July) are strong and standard predictors of maturation among related populations with the same freshwater history. Dimorphism can therefore be modelled to easily and accurately estimate maturation rate in a number of discrete rearing-units. If required, a high proportion of sexually recruited fish can be selectively harvested as superior quality product while leaving the immature fish for further on-growing. This provides an alternative to visual grilse grading that is not feasible in large-scale aquaculture systems, prevents downgrading and increases production predictability as compared to emergency harvests. Furthermore, our results showed immature males grow faster than immature females which should be further investigated to fully determine gender specific performances and nutritional requirements. Weight-grading performed earlier in the cycle affects the sex-ratio within individual pens and in turn apparent performance. This work also revealed that Atlantic salmon can exhibit significant variations in skin colouration resembling the onset of nuptial display but that are not related to sexual recruitment and do not correlate with reduced flesh quality. This originates from a lack of purine (silver) pigments which was also identified, to a larger extent, as characteristic of the nuptial display. This suggests a degree of desmoltification in these histologically immature fish. The instrumental colouration of the altered phenotype was shown to be improved towards a more silver-like appearance by direct ice-contact. This knowledge could facilitate post-harvest quality grading towards the most appropriate market channel and increase product acceptance and attractiveness.
The second experimental chapter investigated the possibility of improving photoperiodic manipulation used to suppress early maturation, currently applied for 6-months during the second winter at sea using wide-spectrum, high-intensity lighting systems. Our results showed that the window of continuous artificial-light (LL) exposure can be reduced to 4-months following its onset in early January without compromising its efficiency in suppressing pre-harvest maturation. In addition, alternative lighting technologies were also highly potent at suppressing sexual maturation. The mean-irradiance (intensity) generated within a commercial sea-cage was inversely proportional to the suppression of nocturnal plasma melatonin (light perception hormone) and negatively correlates with the maturation rate within the commercial sea-pen. Threshold levels of light-intensity required to achieve optimal (total) suppression of sexual maturation are suggested. Alternative, narrow band-width lighting-technologies (cold cathode and light-emitting diodes) present an array of technical, practical, economic and welfare benefits comparing to the system currently in use. Clear improvements of the photoperiod-manipulation strategy were demonstrated and these would reduce economic and environmental costs but also potential impacts on animal welfare.
The third experimental chapter showed the strong potential of sterile-triploid Atlantic salmon stocks both in freshwater and seawater. Triploid out-of-season smolts were produced for the first time using a classical accelerated “square-wave” photoperiod. Triploidization affected the smoltification pattern but had no detrimental effects on freshwater and early seawater performances under both a S0+ and S1 regime. This illustrates the need to adapt the timing of seawater transfer for successfully producing triploid Atlantic salmon post-smolts. Following one year of seawater rearing, the prevalence of external deformities was higher in triploids but remained within acceptable levels. Importantly, the incidence of vertebral deformities and ocular cataract was higher in triploids possibly due to their specific requirements. It is suggested that tailoring the diet to the nutritional requirements of triploids holds strong potential for remediation. This must be addressed if the use of sterile-triploid stock is to become a commercial reality.
The present research project provides means to optimize the maturation management strategy within the Atlantic salmon on-growing industry through light-manipulation, maturation detection and selective harvest, and quality grading. Proposed improvements have the potential to increase biomass and financial output, production predictability, environmental respect and animal welfare and will allow standardization of the overall control of pre-harvest sexual maturation. Their implementation provides a comprehensive strategy likely to favour a sustainable expansion of the Atlantic salmon industry. From a longer term perspective, the rearing of sterile-triploid stocks is promising and should be actively investigated to isolate domesticated strains from their wild conspecifics. This would also eliminate the need for on-growers to deploy a maturation management strategy that that might still affect stock welfare and remains, despite the strong improvements demonstrated, not 100% reliable, costly, technical and protracted.