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Cleaner fish trial looks to AI and imaging technology to help pick best delousers

View all news from: Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC)
View directory entry for: Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC)

30 November 2022

A new video tool will reveal the best candidates for one of the most important jobs in salmon aquaculture, as researchers in Scotland explore how to pick out the bold and brave cleaner fish from the bashful. 

The project, led by the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, Swansea University and Otter Ferry Seafish, will look at the best ways to identify high-performing ballan wrasse and lumpfish using artificial intelligence (AI) and imaging technology. The consortium has received funding from the Sustainable Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) and will be supported by Loch Duart, Bakkafrost Scotland, Ocean Matters and Visifish – a machine vision company.

A previous SAIC-funded study proved that bolder ballan wrasse are likely to be a better fit for the job of picking sea lice from salmon. The bolder fish showed no hesitation when presented with foreign objects in their tanks, and the research team is now exploring how to use this type of test at a commercial scale. 

The first stage of the project involves categorising the different traits – such as boldness, shyness, social interaction and even aggression – and seeing how the range of personalities perform at picking sea lice from salmon. Insights will then be integrated with imaging technology, which could be widely used by seafood producers to routinely monitor behaviour and welfare of cleaner fish. 

Like some job interviews, there will also be a group challenge with researchers monitoring how ballan wrasse and lumpfish with different personalities respond in social groups.

Dr Adam Brooker, research fellow in aquatic animal behaviour at the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture, said: "We produce cleaner fish for a specific job, so it makes sense to develop an appropriate selection process based on the different personality traits we know can influence delousing. With this new information, we can modify the rearing environment to encourage delousing behaviour and select good delousers for breeding future generations.

"Being able to identify the best delousers, based on behaviour, could lead to significant improvements in the health and welfare of salmon and a reduction in the number of cleaner fish used. Seeing how cleaner fish behave when cohabiting will also help us understand how these fish interact with each other so we can account for this once they are integrated into producers’ sites.”

With a new standardised personality test, the fish most likely to be the best at removing sea lice from salmon can be identified for future breeding programmes. The results of the project will also be used to adapt hatchery procedures and the rearing environment to encourage juvenile cleaner fish develop the desired traits. 

Field trials are expected to take place next year with the camera system tested with current cleaner fish populations at Loch Duart and Bakkafrost Scotland sites.

Dr Eduardo Jimenez Fernandez, R&D manager at Otter Ferry Seafish, said: "So far, the research points towards bold cleaner fish being better delousers. However, the data is limited and a more robust model is needed for categorising and identifying such personality traits. This project combines global behavioural expertise and will provide valuable information that could guide future selective breeding programmes.”

Heather Jones, CEO at SAIC, added: "Studying the behaviour of cleaner fish is providing a new and interesting take on how the sector cares for and uses ballan wrasse and lumpfish to the best of their abilities. Different personalities are naturally better suited to different jobs among humans, so it is fascinating to see the same is true of these species. Building on previous SAIC-backed research and further combining academic and sector expertise, the development of new camera-based technology could be transformational for the sector’s approach to using cleaner fish.”

Cleaner fish trial looks to AI and imaging technology to help pick best delousers