Aquaculture is fast becoming integral to global food security and, to feed the world’s growing population, it is expected to continue expanding rapidly in the coming years.
However, a new study suggests that in addition to helping meet global fish consumption demands, there is also the potential for the industry to have wider benefits for the marine environment.
The research is among the first to explore the environmental impact of offshore mussel farms and focussed on the largest one in Europe, which deployed its first ropes in Lyme Bay – off the south coast of England – in 2013.
Since then, scientists have used towed and static baited underwater cameras for regular monitoring surveys during which they tested the effects of the farm’s trial installations on the seabed habitat, and the associated species living on it.
They found that in addition to growing on the ropes, mussel shells were first observed on the seabed under the lines after just six months. Larger clumps appeared within the first 18 months after deployment.
Both the size of mussel clumps and the percentage cover of shells under the farm increased over time and this in turn led to increases in the abundance of other species.
For example, the number of Atlantic horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus) around the farm increased by more than 300% in the space of four years compared to in other areas of Lyme Bay.
There were also marked increases in the number of European lobster (Homarus gammarus) and edible crab (Cancer pagurus), both species that are commercially important in Lyme bay but were not expected to be found in this area as it is highly degraded from years of bottom towed fishing.
The study, published in the Aquaculture, Fish and Fisheries journal, was led by a team of researchers and PhD candidates from the University of Plymouth’s School of Biological and Marine Sciences.
The study is part of the Offshore Mussel Farm Ecology project, which is funded by Offshore Shellfish Ltd, however no-one from the company is involved in the project’s design or analysis.