From ocean to plate - AIT scientists focus on seafood sustainability initiative

When it comes to the collection of data about Ireland’s €1.25 billion seafood sector, we are lagging behind many of our European counterparts, that’s according to Irish researchers heading up a new seafood sustainability initiative at Athlone Institute of Technology.

Dr Sinead Mellett and her colleagues at the Bioscience Research Institute at AIT are leading the Irish component of Neptunus, a €2.3 million Interreg Atlantic Area project aimed at improving sustainability and resource efficiency in the seafood sector.

The seafood sector is of vital importance to the Irish economy, particularly in rural, coastal communities, and accounts for 16,000 jobs, either directly or indirectly. Despite this, it faces serious challenges and threats, including climate change and rising fears of marine debris.

Previous research has shown that two of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions from wild fish is fuel consumption, while feed is the biggest culprit for farmed fish due a significant quantity of it being imported.

Dr Mellett and her team are looking to tackle this inefficiency – from ocean to plate. “We are looking at the different inputs, outputs and impacts associated with seafood production all along the value chain, and this helps with process efficiency, energy and decision support systems,” she explains.

Smoked salmon is one of Ireland’s largest seafood exports. Dr Mellett and her team are carrying out a lifecycle assessment of smoked salmon production to see how it can be improved. “We’re undertaking scenarios to show whether it is more sustainable to smoke the salmon in Ireland or whether it would be more economical or sustainable to do in the country where it’s actually going to be consumed."

Neptunus draws on the expertise, knowledge and experience of eleven academic partners across five countries, all based along the Atlantic coast. Several Irish companies are also involved with the project, including Wild Atlantic Oysters, Irish Seaspray, Hexafly, and Sure Engineering, Dublin. Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Ireland’s seafood development agency, is also a partner in the project, providing expert opinion and links to public bodies.

“With all of the skills of all the partners, we’re able to develop strategies and recommend policies to help companies transition from a linear economy – which is where you harvest, produce, consume and dispose – to a circular economy, where you recycle instead of disposing of the waste,” Dr Mellett says.

The researchers hope that by modelling the environmental impact of recycling versus putting product into landfill, they can demonstrate to companies what their resource usage is from a water and energy perspective.

The global population is growing by about 80 million every year. It is estimated that by 2030, we will need 30% more water, 40% more energy and 50% more food. “Food, water and energy are some of the most important resources we have and need to be managed more efficiently,” Dr Mellett stresses, adding that transitioning to a circular economy will economically benefit companies.

The team are also looking for ways to help consumers make better choices when buying seafood, including the development of eco labels. “This is great for the consumer because they’ll be able to make more informed, sustainable and environmentally conscious decisions based on what’s on the label,” she explains.

Funded by the European Regional Development Fund, the project will run for three years and result in increased sustainability and economic benefit in seafood production in the Atlantic region.