Aquaculture is an important industry in British Columbia: farm-raised Atlantic salmon contributes more than $728.6 million (landed value in 2017) annually to the BC economy. With its ~500 employees, Mowi Canada (previously Marine Harvest Canada) produces over 40,000 tonnes of farm-raised salmon on average each year, making it the dominant producer in this sector. However, due to high temperatures and changes in ocean currents, especially in late summer, salmon farms struggle with hypoxia (low oxygen) events which cause stress in fish, resulting in low performance and mortality, creating economic loss for Mowi estimated at $10 million annually.
This project used genomics on fish from a Mowi Canada freshwater hatchery and a marine sea cage site i) to determine if there is variation among Atlantic salmon strains used by Mowi in tolerating low oxygen levels and, ii) to identify the genetic signature (single nucleotide polymorphisms – SNPs) associated with hypoxia tolerance and fish size at a certain age for eventual use in breeding programs.
Although there has already been substantial SNP discovery in Atlantic salmon, the strains used in BC are distinct from those used in other jurisdictions such as Norway and UK, hence there is a need for a made-in-BC solution for the BC aquaculture industry.
This project identified a few SNPs associated with hypoxia and found that there was no growth penalty for hypoxia tolerance. This may indicate that selecting for hypoxia tolerance may not impact growth in Atlantic salmon strains used by Mowi.
The long-term outcome of this research will encourage Mowi Canada to further incorporate genomics-based approaches into their broodstock selection program. In addition to their role as the dominant producer of farmed salmon in BC, Mowi Canada plays an important role as an egg-producer for other aquaculture companies in BC, and thus the impacts of this project will be felt across the aquaculture industry. Ultimately this project provides information that could lead to the development of resilient fish in the face of warm water/low oxygen conditions that are becoming increasingly common in BC as a result of climate change. This will help Mowi and the BC aquaculture industry to remain globally competitive.