Sustainable development of the aquaculture sector can help contribute to national food security while helping to meet lower carbon emissions from our food, so it is not surprising that efforts are being made to help promote growth of the industry in England.

The pathway to achieving sustainable growth was set out in the English Aquaculture Strategy, released in November 2020, which identified the development of an English Aquaculture Innovation Hub as a critical means to help achieve a tenfold increase in aquaculture production over the next 20 years.

The need for a hub that could help the sector develop county-wide, was also identified in the Dorset Mariculture Strategy, released in August 2020.

Dorset Coast Forum (DCF) has now taken up the reins, with ambitions to site a national English Aquaculture Innovation Hub in Dorset. DCF recently secured funding from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to undertake a wide-ranging feasibility study that it hopes will enable the idea to be taken beyond the concept stage.

The initial funding is for a five-month project, which kicked off in October with a nationwide study on the potential positive economic impacts of siting the English Aquaculture Innovation Hub in Dorset and perceptions of how it could help the sector to grow.

At the same time, the New Economics Foundation is undertaking an in-depth economic review of the entire English aquaculture sector, which will include obtaining up-to-date information from the sector, rather than just relying on official figures, which can be up to two years out of date.

Hatch Blue – an international business set up to invest in sustainable wild-caught and farmed seafood innovation – is also involved and is developing a business model and plan that will enable a hub to operate long-term.

“Hatch Innovation Services has undertaken similar studies in Canada, Norway, Ireland, the US and Singapore, and is very good at coming up with a concept to facilitate longevity, whether that is through membership fees, pay-as-you-go schemes, a levy or some other form of funding,” explains Martin Sutcliffe, Aquaculture and Fisheries Development Officer at DCF, who is leading the project.

Dr Claude Kaplan, Director at Hatch Innovation Services, says: “Hatch is really excited and proud to be working with Martin and his team to further develop and refine the concept of an English Aquaculture Innovation Hub.”

The English aquaculture sector is likely to be very different from that in Scotland, and it is more likely that seaweed and shellfish will be the dominant focus, according to Sutcliffe.

“While seaweed and shellfish are grown elsewhere in the UK, there is a specific need to develop techniques, cultivation methods and technology that can fit with the unique nature of the English coastline and its existing uses. We will also likely see the addition of high-value fish farmed in tanks onshore, so it makes a lot of sense to have a hub that focuses on the needs of businesses here,” he says.

DCF is leading on stakeholder engagement to ensure the outcomes of the studies meet the needs of the local, regional and national maritime sectors, and 5G Rural Dorset has come on board to look at how 5G technology could enhance the sector as it grows. This might be through making remote monitoring of farms possible, for example.

The work is supported by Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership and Dorset Council, both of which see the emerging aquaculture sector as key to providing rural and coastal jobs across the county.

Cecilia Bufton, Dorset LEP Chair, says: “Dorset LEP is delighted to support the ambition for the county to be the centre of the English sustainable aquaculture industry and this project will lay the foundations of that ambition. Food security is a national priority and Dorset is the perfect place for the aquaculture sector to flourish. I am eager to see the outputs from this study.”

She adds: “Poole Harbour is already home to a thriving aquaculture sector where shellfish are grown on the seabed, and it’s hoped that this study can provide a route to a hub that will provide jobs and drive innovation in Dorset and across the English industry.”

Sutcliffe acknowledges that there will be a need to minimise any conflict with other marine users and landowners across England if aquaculture is to develop to its full potential.

“We’ll be using the DCF network and our links to national bodies such as Seafish, Cefas [The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science] and the South West Aquaculture Network, to make sure we reach as many people as possible to feed into the process,” he says.

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Positive results

Sutcliffe outlines that the survey, which ended at the end of November, showed very positive feedback from industry.

“We sent out to 650 people across England, with addresses provided by several aquaculture networks. More than 250 unique visits to our website were recorded as a result, and we received a total of 81 completed responses, 31 of which were from businesses. Of these, 71% were from aquaculture businesses, so we are happy that the survey targeted the right people,” he says.

“An overwhelmingly positive 83% of respondents stated that they believed a hub for England was relevant, while the other 17% said they needed more information in order to make a decision. Similarly, 91% responded that they would support a hub, with only one dissention. It seems as if the timing is right, which is exciting.”

The next stage is to hold a series of workshops, starting in early December, which aim to tease out what a hub would look like and what it might do to support the industry.

Sutcliffe says: “The survey identified a number of priorities for the hub, such as having a physical space on land and perhaps in the sea too. However, it also told us that stakeholders wanted a better-defined online resource, access to funding information and support, training and incubation/support for new business ventures.

“We now need to clarify what sort of funding people are looking at – is it venture capital funds, angel investors or bank loans? Why are they not using existing online resources provided by agencies such as Seafish, Cefas, Food Standards Agency and Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]? What level of training is required and who needs it?”

He concludes: “There are many topics to discuss and many questions to answer, and the information gathered will help to inform the business model and technology study, with a final report expected in February 2022, after which we hope to move on to Phase 2, which will be to develop the plan.”

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