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News Release

New methodology to define safe distances between sensitive ecosystems and marine farms

26 May 2010 IEO Instituto Español de Oceanografía

Scientists at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) and the University of Barcelona have developed a methodology to detect the influence of discharges from open water fish farms on marine ecosystems. With this methodology, based on the analysis of the isotopic signal of nitrogen in the tissue of marine macrophytes, coastal managers can select areas which are suitable for aquaculture under ecological criteria, in order to establish a safe distance between the farm and the sensitive ecosystem.

Researchers from the Seagrass Ecology Group at the IEO and the Department of Ecology at the University of Barcelona have collaborated in the development of macrophyte bioindicators which are sensitive to nutrient input from fish farms and its application to define their areas of influence. This new methodology could be useful to select suitable areas for aquaculture in open water under ecological criteria.

The methodology consists of the analysis of the proportion of different isotopes of nitrogen in the tissues of marine vegetation (algae and marine angiosperms), and compares it with the same isotope ratios in discharges whose impact is evaluated. This determines how much nitrogen measured in primary producers comes from aquaculture effluents and how this nitrogen vary in space from fish farm facilities. This information allows to establish, under ecological criteria, a safe distance to protect vulnerable ecosystems from the impact.

Part of this methodology, recently published in the scientific journal Marine Environmental Research, has been applied to study the influence of a large fish farm complex (with a production of 6,000 tons per year) located in San Pedro del Pinatar (Murcia), on nearby Posidonia oceanica meadows. Discharges from these farms were found to affect marine angiosperms communities located two kilometers away.

This work and some other related ones, which are in the process of publication, have been funded by the National Board of Marine Farming (JACUMAR) and form part of Maria Garcia's PhD thesis, presented on March 19 at the University of Barcelona. The thesis, entitled "Study and development of biological indicators to measure the spatial extent of discharges from fish farms," is supervised by the paper's lead author, Juan Manuel Ruiz, together with Marta Perez.

In the thesis, a wide range of bio-indicators of the impact of aquaculture on seagrass beds is discussed, especially those related to nitrogen, taking into account other case studies both from the Mediterranean (Murcia and Tarragona) and Atlantic (Canary Islands). A method to evaluate the extent of nutrients from fish farms is also proposed. This method is based on the measurement of nitrogen in several incubated individuals in pelagic bioassays located at increasing distances from marine farms. The effectiveness and reliability of this bioassay were very high and this method can be applied to determine a safe distance for installing marine farms.

The Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) is a public research organization, from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, dedicated to research in marine science; especially in relation to scientific knowledge of oceans, sustainability of fisheries resources and marine environment. The IEO represents Spain in most of the international science and technology forums related to the sea and its resources. IEO has nine coastal oceanographic centres, five experimental aquaculture plants, twelve tide gauge stations, one receiving station for satellite images and a fleet of six research vessels.

Attached files

  • Diver preparing the experiment


  • Posidonia Oceanica fragments that make up the bioassay


  • Bioassay placed next to an experimental farm for bluefin tuna


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