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Researchers pave the way for breeding robust salmon to climate change

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Breeding salmon for growth or resistance to sea lice in cold waters may have little effect if the offspring grow up in warmer waters. “With climate change and more frequent heatwaves in the ocean I think this is a useful information for breeding companies who are breeding for growth or resistance to sea lice,” said Nofima scientist Celeste Jacq.

The individual characteristics of both salmon and sea lice can determine whether the sea lice attaches to and feeds on a salmon. The fact that resistance to sea lice is hereditary in salmon is known from previous breeding and genetics research by Nofima. By drawing in expertise from fish health, production biology and chemistry, Nofima was able to answer a broader question: How to increase robustness in salmon and lumpfish in the face of climate change. This resulted in the establishment of the strategic initiative FutureFish, supported by the Research Council of Norway.

Growth and lice activity are temperature dependent

In the winter of 2017, fifty salmon families from the fish farming company Mowi were distributed across different tanks at the Aquaculture Research Station in Tromsø. At the beginning of the trial the salmon weighed 100 grams and were reared in seawater of 5, 10 and 17°C. A few weeks into the experiment, researchers added young sea lice to the tanks and measured the effect on the salmon. They counted the number of sea lice, took samples of mucus and skin and measured the size of the fish. They analysed the DNA for 45,000 genetic markers and examined the relationship between the lice load (i.e. how much lice attach to the salmon) and salmon growth at the different temperatures.

The genetic analysis revealed that neither growth nor the lice load are single traits, but rather that they vary with water temperature. There is only a weak to moderate genetic correlation between salmon growth in seawater at 5°C and 17°C.

“The good news is that it is possible to breed for reduced temperature sensitivity to ensure increased salmon growth and resistance to sea lice even in fluctuating temperatures,” said Jacq.

The project had several interesting results that indicate why different salmon characteristics are associated with sea lice resistance at both high and low temperatures.

Breeding lumpfish to eat more lice

Scientists also used genomic information to examine the heritability of sea lice eating ability in lumpfish. The heritability for this trait was low, but there were significant differences between families. This means that it is possible to use genetic selection to increase lice eating ability through breeding programs, which can reduce the reliance on wild-caught cleaner fish and chemical delousing agents.


Photo credit: Terje Aamodt, Nofima.

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