Aquaculture is the farming of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, aquatic plants, algae and other organisms and Scotland has a long and respected history in this regard.
With the Institute of Aquaculture based at the University of Stirling, the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory, near Oban and the Roslin Institute's aquaculture department, we also have internationally recognized centers for aquaculture teaching, research and innovation. Aquaculture is recognised as a growing industry in Scotland providing valuable jobs and income for the economy. A recent Marine Scotland report found that Salmon farming and processing was worth nearly £885 million to the Scottish economy in 2018. Shellfish and other finfish production made up a further £31 million. The report said the aquaculture sector supported 11,700 jobs.
Hamish Macdonell, director of strategic engagement at the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation has said: “Salmon farming not only keeps most remote communities thriving but it has a key role to play as the country recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Producing a healthy, nutritious, high-protein food with low carbon and low water use, Scotland's salmon farmers now have the potential to lead the green recovery which will be at the heart of our economic revival over the next few years.”
70 years ago, only 3% of all aquatic production worldwide was through farming. This has now exceeded 50%, with Asia leading the way in terms of total production. Moreover, with the concerns surrounding wild fish/shellfish stocks, it seems inevitable that production through aquaculture will continue to increase. However, there are challenges, which come with aquaculture, not least animal welfare and disease control, as well as potential environmental concerns caused through farming fish.
Scottish Green MSP John Finnie called for action to tackle pollution caused by fish farming, saying: “If aquaculture is to play a long-term role in supporting jobs in fragile and remote communities it must become sustainable”. Thus, it is of paramount importance that the aquaculture industry continues to innovate, in order to, for example, improve production methods and address welfare and environmental concerns. Nevertheless, the researchers and companies need to protect their innovations to provide them with a competitive advantage and prevent others from unfairly benefiting from Scotland's innovation. Moreover, securing IP protection will inevitably create and add value to a company, which can support investment and further expansion.
However, what have aquaculture focused companies and researchers in Scotland been doing to innovate and protect their investment? Whilst all forms of Intellectual property are applicable to the sector, including trademarks and design protection, for example, patent protection is most suitable in terms of protecting the aquaculture inventions being developed in Scotland. Patents are generally granted to novel and inventive products and methods and can cover many different areas of technological innovation. I will discuss two or our aquaculture clients who are working in very different areas, but using the patent process to protect their innovations.
A few years ago we were approached by a subsidiary of Underwater Contracting Ltd (UCO) - a specialist remote operated vehicle (ROV) company - about a device they had developed to address the issue of diseased, dying and dead fish within fish farm enclosures. Disease within fish enclosures is a well-recognised issue and removing diseased fish as early as possible reduces the possibility of the healthy fish becoming infected, thereby improving fish wellfare. Their idea, they called the “Foover”, was to use an ROV with an integrated suction device to literally suck up and remove diseased and dead fish from fish enclosures. We worked with them to patent their invention and the company has secured a UK patent and is currently seeking protection more widely in Europe.
Charles Clark, a director of UCO commented, “The Foover is a game-changer for the aquaculture industry seeking to improve productivity and safety in an essential process which has previously been heavily reliant on divers. As the industry evolves, with plans for new farms in deeper waters where diving is less feasible, we suspect the Foover will become the industry standard for the process of removing dead fish. Patenting key aspects of the Foover's design has been essential to protect the large sums invested in manufacturing and testing the prototype machines. Marks & Clerk have been extremely helpful advising on both the legal and technical aspects of the patents.”
Many people will know the Roslin Institute as being responsible for the development of Dolly the sheep, but as well as land based animal research, the Institute also has a team of researchers studying ways to improve sustainability in the aquaculture industry. We are currently working with Professor Ross Houston and his team to protect their research directed to improving disease resistance in fish through genetic techniques.
This research whilst having application to Scotland's aquaculture industry, also has more global importance.
Professor Ross Houston the lead investigator at the Roslin Institute says: “Genetic improvement of aquaculture species has a major role in preventing disease and therefore industry sustainability and food security. Innovation in the use of new genomic technologies is essential and effective management and protection of IP is an important component of maximising the impact and benefit of research in this field”. Both clients have recognised the importance of protecting their innovations and the benefits it brings them. We hope that this will serve as a catalyst for other like-minded aquaculture innovators based in Scotland and further afield.
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