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Keeping shrimp on the menu: 2017 Newton Prize winner

By Grant Stentiford

I like eating shrimp and it appears that I am not alone.

Shrimp farming is big business, worth over $40bn each year. The vast majority of shrimp that we now love to eat is a single species, farmed mainly in Asia and Latin America. However, with big production has come big problems – disease is the number one barrier facing the industry, causing multi-$bn losses each year, leading to poverty, wasted resources and, breaks in the seafood supply chain. This Newton Prize winning project established the first ‘International Network of Shrimp Health’, led by a collaboration between the UK and Thailand. 

As part of the 2017 Newton Prize, we were delighted to be the recipient of the Chairman's Award for Thailand. Our project, which has established the first ‘International Network of Shrimp Health’, led by a collaboration between the UK and Thailand, aims to bring better science, technology, and advice to the global shrimp industry.

Being a winner and shortlisted project of the Newton Prize has really helped to raise the profile of our work with exposure in press releases, social media, a Newton Prize booklet and Newton Prize events in Thailand and London.

We will use the prize to develop an exciting array of novel diagnostic devices, designed to empower farmers to carry out screening for important shrimp diseases at the ‘pond side’. By collecting this type of data with mobile phone apps, we have an ability to decentralise diagnostic testing to the farmer, while collecting the data generated from hundreds of farm sites. Better management of disease at the farm, catchment, country and regional levels is our aspiration.  

The global shrimp industry, supplied by fishing (capture) and aquaculture (farming) is currently worth $40bn per year, set to rise to almost $70bn by 2027. While numerous species of shrimp make their way to our plates, one of these, the white shrimp (Penaeus vannamei) is front and centre, supporting a $15bn industry this year, expected to rise to almost $30bn per year over the next decade. In Asia it is a major economic activity, generating millions of jobs and supporting rural communities. It appears that our love of shrimp is here to stay.

Despite these impressive statistics, shrimp production does not come without its problems. Significant and well-publicised sustainability issues have been associated with the industry based upon its historic role in destruction of tropical mangrove forests and, the use of fish-based feeds to grow stocks. 

However, one major problem dominates the topic. Each year, disease inflicts significant (multi-$bn) losses on the sector. Well-known and novel ‘emerging’ diseases continue to appear, many having significant potential to impact farmers, limiting their production of shrimp and reducing profit and community benefits associated with the sector.

My team have been working on shrimp diseases for some time. We have been running the EU Reference Laboratory for Crustacean Diseases for the past decade and over this period, have become familiar with the range of diseases that inflict shrimp. Many of these are viruses (such as White Spot Syndrome Virus, alone responsible for ~$1bn of losses per year from the industry) but bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections are also known. Whilst these are not dangerous to humans, many have the ability to cause mortality to shrimp stocks or in some cases, stop them growing.

Unfortunately for shrimp, the successful vaccination strategies employed in other fish farming sectors (e.g. salmon) do not work. Shrimp have no ‘adaptive’ immune system – their bodies do not create antibodies to infections. As such, shrimp are exposed to the range of potential pathogens that may be present in the pond and must be able to fight these infections without the benefit that vaccines provide.

Working under the Newton Researcher Links and Institutional Links programmes, we have developed strong links with scientists, government and industry colleagues in Thailand (a major global producer of farmed shrimp) with an aim to align thinking and to support a sustainable shrimp industry. By hosting a range of events aimed to bring together recognised thought leaders and those new to the sector, we are developing a new ways to support sustainable shrimp farming, by limiting the impact of disease, to 2050. Some of our ideas have been jointly published in scientific journals.

Our UK-Thai Newton programmes have also led to the establishment of the first International Network for Shrimp Health (INSH), a UK-Thailand initiative looking to bring together the wider global industry associated with this sector.

In the future, I envisage a low-disease, sustainable shrimp farming sector, capitalising on emerging technologies and a greatly improved understanding of shrimp biology. Moving our focus from description and management of emergent diseases to understanding the conditions which allow disease to manifest in these systems will become our key focus in coming years. I would be delighted to hear from you if you have ideas for how this may be achieved. 

So for potentials applicants for the 2018 Newton Prize - this project has enabled us to continue working collaboratively with our partners in Thailand on innovative solutions, developing shared expertise and capacity, and of course transforming lives.

Professor Grant D. Stentiford is Aquatic Animal Health Theme Lead at Cefas.

The Newton team comprises scientists from the UK’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Thailand’s National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), and experts from UK technology partners Genedrive PLC and Oxford Nanopore Ltd. The team has carried out collaborative research on priority shrimp disease issues and pathogens, trialling a novel portable pond-side diagnostic device Genedrive TM, and worked with farmers and the Thai government to test this innovative approach to disease management.

You can follow Grant Stentiford on Twitter.