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InnoAquaTech Study Visit to Belgium – a breath of fresh air for European aquaculture

Almost 20 participants from the South Baltic Region got in touch with innovative approaches of the Flemish aquaculture sector and learned about new species that are to date rarely found in Europe.

After a successful InnoAquaTech Study Visit to Iceland in March 2018, the next excursion followed from 27thto 29thNovember 2018. The event, which was planned by Valentin Eckart (BioCon Valley® GmbH), brought together numerous participants from Denmark, Germany, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden. This time consortium went to Belgium - known for its strong, aromatic beers, juicy waffles and delicious chocolate. It seems that in Belgium, enjoyment is the most important thing, and it is therefore not surprising that the national market for fresh food - also from aquaculture - is becoming more and more important. 

An example of this is the Marché des Abattoirs in Brussels. Built in the 19thcentury, the abattoir is known today as one of the largest farmer’s markets in Brussels, offering fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Only few people know: It’s also a production site for fish! Europe's largest roof-top farm was built on the roof of the "Foodmet" in 2016. BIGH's aquaponics system was developed in cooperation with Berlin’s urban farm ECF and uses the wasted heat deriving from refrigeration of rooms from the farmer’s market. Unlike their German colleagues, BIGH does not breed tilapia, but 30 tons of striped bass per year. This high-priced fish (approx. 16€/kg) is a hybrid between Morone saxatillis and Morone chrysops and it is particularly suitable for aquaculture due to its robustness and rapid growth. The waste water from fish production serves as high nutritional media for the cultivation of tomatoes in the neighbouring greenhouse. Innoaquatech study visit 2

The Aqua4C fish farm in the southwest of Ghent pursues a similar concept. The young company specialises in the reproduction and cultivation of Australian "Jade Perch" (Scortum barcoo). This fish species is almost unknown in Europe, but quite popular in the Pacific region, where it is famous for its high omega-3 fatty acid content. Hence, the Belgian company renamed its fish to "Omegabaars" (eng.: omega bass). However, it is not only an interesting candidate for aquaculture because of its healthy image, but also because of its purely vegetable and therefore very sustainable diet. A survival rate of up to 75 % is another argument in favour of aquaculture. In order to achieve optimal breeding conditions, Australian temperatures are sourced from a nearby 20 ha greenhouse for tomatoes. Soon 200 tons of omega bass will be produced annually. "The aquaculture potential of this fish is enormous", says Stijn van Hoestenberghe, founder and operator of the plant, who already aims to market his concept throughout Europe.

To provide perfectly skilled workers for companies such as Aqua4C in future, special practical training is required. The PTI secondary school in Kortrijk (West Flanders) is already taking care of this. Students at PTI have access to well-equipped greenhouses in which, among other areas of agriculture, they learn about the operation and handling of integrated aquaculture systems - in this case using omega bass and Australian red claw crayfish (Cherax quadricarinatus). In contrast to the European crayfish (Astacus astacus), red claw crayfish is of particular economic interest as it reaches market size after only six to nine months and can be easily integrated into warm water systems. Due to these advantages, this species is also a research focus of the project-based research institute Aqua-ERF. In addition to their work with red claw crayfish, the institute carries out feed experiments on rainbow trout and analyses the feasibility of a commercial burbot (Lota lota) aquaculture. Although burbot is an endemic fish, it is a threatened species according to increasingly poor water quality in rivers, streams and lakes. Therefore, it is hardly known by many consumers. The scientists at Aqua-ERF are trying to change the actual situation and develop holistic concepts for the commercial cultivation and marketing of this species.

The cultivation of pike-perch (Sander lucioperca) tells a less dramatic story. Around the turn of the millennium the coveted pike-perch fillet brought many European stocks to their knees. Modern and sustainable fisheries management of the past two decades relieved the pressure on this species and it is now out of danger for the time being. Nevertheless, the continuing high consumer demand is driving the development of pike-perch aquaculture to new highs. At Inagro in Belgium, intensive research is carried out to improve the reproduction of pike-perch and also to increase the survival rates of its larvae. The institute for applied research cooperates closely with universities and agricultural companies, including a comparable small department for aquaculture. Recently, there has been a growing interest in the production of insects as protein replacement for livestock breeding. Three species are bred in the laboratories of Inagro: the larvae of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and the Argentine cockroach (Blaptica dubia). All three species are fed with biomass from surrounding agricultural areas and thus support the upcycling process of waste products.Innoaquatech study visit 1

In Mouscron, approximately 30 kilometres south of Inagro’s facility, one will find a former flow-through system, which was initially planned to produce up to 2.000 t tilapia. After the project failed in 1999, the facility was bought by the company Belgian Quality Fish. Today, they produce about five tons of caviar per year. Depending on colour, size and shape of the roe, the caviar derives from one of the five cultivated sturgeon species - the Siberian sturgeon (Acipenser baerii), the Russian sturgeon (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), the beluga (Huso huso), or a hybrid between Russian and Siberian sturgeon. The high-value white caviar is harvested from albino females of the sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus). The Belgian Quality Fish is a subsidiary of the Belgian feed manufacturer Aqua-Bio, which produces not only conventional fish feed, but also customized feed mixtures.

One of these customers is specialized in shrimp nutrition and develops own formulations especially for the production of white shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei). Eric De Muylder advises companies worldwide on the breeding and nutrition of white shrimp. His company CreveTec is running one of the first biofloc systems in Europe. The characteristic of this technology is the use of so-called bioflocs. Bacterial accumulations that float within the cultivation tank serve both, to treat the water and to supplement the shrimps’ diet. "A balanced system usually does not require big water changes” - says De Muylder. The water that currently runs through his system is already 3.5 to 4 years old and does not show notable abnormalities apart from natural turbidity. For him, this is the only possible solution to operate a brackish water aquaculture, since he has no permission to discharge large quantities of salty water into the local sewage system. In future, his next project will focus on the reproduction of shrimps and the breeding of larvae.Innoaquatech study visit 3

The right selection of the feed is one the greatest challenges for larval breeding – not only in shrimp. In order to ensure high survival rates, the composition of the feed must be adapted to the growth stage of the animal. Size, haptics and mobility must correspond to the characteristics of natural food sources. For this reason, the company TomAlgae, located near Ghent, produces diatoms of the genus Thalassiosira sp. Diatoms are easy to digest, as their cell walls are made of silicate and all inner nutrients can be easily accessed. The microalgae produced in long raceways of the company owned greenhouse is selected for feeding shrimp and oyster larvae. Artemia and rotifera, a follow-on live feed, can be reared very well with this product as well.

Overall, the study visit has shown that Belgium comprises a very diverse aquaculture sector with a lot of new approaches aiming to supply the national and European market with fresh, sustainably and locally produced seafood.

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