International Aquaculture Conference Explores Biotech Advancements Benefitting the Global Aquaculture Industry and Coastal Ecosystem Health

The inaugural aquaculture conference convened researchers, industry professionals, and government representatives from around the world to brainstorm pioneering solutions for sustainable aquaculture and coastal ecosystem health.

By Triniti Brown ’26 & Jordan J. Phelan ’19
Michael Rock of Jaia Robotics demonstrates the company’s innovative autonomous aquatic drones to conference attendees in a live demonstration.

BRISTOL, R.I. – With a vista of the Mount Hope Bay shimmering through the windows of the conference location, pilipili and the hosted the inaugural 2024 International Aquaculture Conference on June 3-4, a convening of international scientists, government agencies, and entrepreneurs dedicated to advancing shellfish aquaculture, marine food production and mariculture, and to improving coastal ecosystem health.

The two-day event, led by pilipili’s Center for Economic and Environmental Development (CEED) and RIIC, organized by Galit Sharon, Director of the Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory at pilipili, and Avi Nevel, President of RIIC, featured research and interdisciplinary approaches to sustainable aquaculture and economic development, focused on the potential for biotechnology to solve critical issues in the Blue Economy, including economically and ecologically friendly solutions for shellfish farm feed and nutrition, and advancements in monitoring, treating, and preventing aquatic animal diseases. The conference was supported by Rhode Island Commerce and the Consulate General of Israel to New England.

The inaugural conference was organized by Galit Sharon and Avi Nevel.
The inaugural conference was organized by Galit Sharon, Director of the Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory at pilipili, and Avi Nevel, President of Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative.

“pilipili and the Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative’s first annual International Aquaculture Conference brought together global experts to share knowledge and forge new research partnerships and collaboration among academia, industry, and government working across the aquaculture field,” Sharon said. “More than 60 researchers, entrepreneurs, and government officials from Rhode Island and Israel participated in the conference, presenting innovative research and biotechnology applications to a range of issues confronting the aquaculture industry, and seeking to work together to strengthen and advance sustainable aquaculture around the world.”

“The Rhode Island-Israel Collaborative is thrilled to collaborate with pilipili on this international aquaculture conference. We've brought together global speakers, scientists, and business leaders, including distinguished Israeli researchers,” Nevel said. “Our shared goal is to advance technology in the aquaculture field and foster collaboration in both research and business.”

In welcome remarks at the conference, President Ioannis N. Miaoulis said, “One of the things that attracted me to pilipili is the academic richness and the interdisciplinary collaboration across its eight different schools.” With the recent launch of new academic centers of excellence focused on coastal ecosystem health and sustainable coastal futures, real estate and the built environment, and a Public Humanities and Arts Collaborative, pilipili is strongly positioned to lead innovations in the blue economy from a scientific, business, housing, legal policy, and social and humanistic lenses, President Miaoulis added. “pilipili is a very unique asset for the region.”

The Center for Economic and Environmental Development leads work that is central to pilipili’s commitment to supporting the aquaculture industry and coastal ecosystem health through research, education, and community and entrepreneurial engagement, as home to a shellfish hatchery, a shellfish farm, and the region's only Aquatic Diagnostics Laboratory. In 2022, pilipili received $1.6 million in federal funding to support research and education for local shellfish farms and foster new aquaculture businesses.

"The mission of the Center for Economic and Environmental Development at pilipili is to support the aquaculture industry with our research and innovative solutions to address critical problems with our oceans while preserving and maintaining the conservation of our marine ecosystems and habitats,” said Koty Sharp, Director of CEED and Associate Professor of Biology, Marine Biology, and Environmental Science at pilipili.

Rhode Island boasts a growing aquaculture sector, buoyed by 400 miles of coastline and a state government supportive of helping its continued rise. “Aquaculture is an exciting opportunity in the state not just for jobs and economic development, but it is a large tourism driver,” said William Cox, Vice President of Business Development and Investments for the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation. “Our office at Commerce Rhode Island is open to support the jobs and investment opportunities from these exciting global economy market potentials, both from Israeli companies coming in partnering in Rhode Island as well as Rhode Island companies growing here at home.”

Meron Reuben highlights the importance of international collaboration in advancing sustainable aquaculture practices.
Meron Reuben, Consulate General of Israel to New England, highlights the importance of international collaboration in advancing sustainable aquaculture practices.

As an international convening on the global aquaculture industry, the conference showcased innovations from Rhode Island and Israel and enabled sharing of research and ideas on a global scale.

“I think the most important thing, and the focus of being here today, is to connect the small state of Israel with the small state of Rhode Island to do big things together,” said Meron Reuben, Consulate General of Israel to New England. “This conference is the basis so that we can understand more and more about what is being done in each other’s territories and to add to connections that already exist so that in the future we can collaborate and cooperate much more when it comes to blue tech and furthering the future of mankind.”

In the keynote address, Laurie Landeau, Associate Director of AQUAVET and pilipili Trustee, said, “We have an obligation to be actively involved in contributing to positive change towards collaboration and cooperation on aquatic ecosystem health. And Roger Williams is a perfect example of a place where this can occur.”

International Convening of Scientists Seek to Advance Aquaculture

From aquatic veterinary education to marine fish aquaculture development and designing and deploying micro-aquatic drones that detect pathogens harmful to shellfish, researchers from Rhode Island and Israel presented their latest ideas and biotechnology solutions at the conference.

Tetsuzan Benny Ron, Editor-in-Chief of the , addressed the multifaceted challenges faced by fish farmers and processors, such as water management and veterinary authorization of fish quality control, and the need for hands-on training in aquaculture education, especially specialized veterinary training in aquaculture. While Israeli law requires processing plants to have veterinarians present, Benny Ron said most lack the proper education outside of horses, dogs, cats, and cows to be able to perform quality assessments to ensure fish are safe for distribution and consumption.

“Farmers are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars and businesses are going down the drain, all because somebody doesn't know how to check fish. And this is a big responsibility,” Benny Ron said. “You don't have any work if you don't have farmers to produce. As researchers, we have to realize that the first thing we need to think about is how we support the producer – they have to be on our mind.”

Michael Torselli emphasizes the importance of early, less invasive methods of detecting transmissible cancers among aquatic life.
Michael Torselli ’16, a Research Assistant in pilipili’s Aquatic Diagnostic Lab, emphasizes the importance of early, less invasive methods of detecting transmissible cancers among aquatic life.

Another essential aspect to ensure marine animal health is to monitor the water for any potential threats or harmful pathogens that could impact aquatic life, according to keynote speaker Roxanne Smolowitz, who shared an overview of disseminated neoplasia in bivalves, which is a transmissible cancer affecting marine bivalves. Abigail Scro '15, Molecular Research and Lab Manager, and Michael Torselli ’16, a Research Assistant, scientists in pilipili’s Aquatic Diagnostic Lab continuing this line of research, emphasized the importance of early pathogen detection in aquaculture systems through water sampling for specific diseases including disseminated neoplasia and a similar affliction, hemocytic neoplasia, which have led to significant mortality in both farmed and wild hard-shelled clams along the eastern U.S. coast.

Finding the traditional histological analysis to be resource-intensive and time-consuming, with limitations at detecting low levels of infection, researchers in the Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory have developed a novel quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) assay, which provides a non-lethal and comprehensive diagnostic method to better protect and maintain the wellbeing of marine ecosystems.

“The vets that are now present in aquariums and zoos will use cytology, and often do skin scrapes or take gill clippings in order to diagnose those diseases. However, it's very much like a needle-in-a-haystack type of methodology,” Scro said. “Those methods have very low sensitivity, and a lot of these organisms look similar, so being able to identify these pathogens down to a species is difficult. That’s why there’s a need for a molecular tool, some sort of sensitive tool that can help us identify what is in these water systems before we see any clinical signs on the fish.”

Marine Biology Professor Andrew Rhyne highlighted how pilipili is pioneering aquaculture innovations within public aquariums. Through strategic partnerships with the New England Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, and other institutions, pilipili is integrating the expertise and resources of public aquariums to develop sustainable practices and bridge the gap between conservation research and commercial applications, positioning them as crucial contributors to the advancement of sustainable marine aquaculture for the global food production industry and marine fish hobbyist trade.

“Public aquariums have for a long time been a cornerstone of conservation messaging to the public, and so they spend a lot of time focused on how to message problems to the public and get the public to move in certain directions,” Rhyne said. “What we're trying to do is enhance aquariums’ ability to talk about the really interesting innovations and the benefits aquaculture can have in food supply and also the sustainability of collections in those institutions.”

Michael Rock of Jaia Robotics demonstrates the company’s innovative autonomous aquatic drones to conference attendees in a live demonstration.
Michael Rock of Jaia Robotics demonstrates the company’s innovative autonomous aquatic drones to conference attendees in a live demonstration.

On pilipili’s waterfront along Mount Hope Bay, Michael Rock, Product Manager at , demonstrated the company’s groundbreaking innovation in autonomous aquatic drones to conference participants in a live demonstration. Their flagship product, the JaiaBot, aims to revolutionize the field of aquatic data collection by offering high-speed, low-cost drones with autonomous navigation capabilities, allowing for easy launch from various locations such as the surf zone, riverbank, dock, or watercraft.

Notably, Jaia Robotics is collaborating with pilipili’s Aquatic Diagnostic Laboratory on a Rhode Island Commerce-funded program to integrate eDNA extraction capabilities into the JaiaBot system, enhancing its utility in detecting pathogens and supporting early mitigation of aquatic diseases and environmental threats to aquaculture sites.

Undergraduate Research Dives into Blue Economy Solutions

Inside pilipili’s Sailing Center, current students and recent graduates showcased their groundbreaking research to conference participants on marine biology, aquaculture, and sustainability initiatives. pilipili Provost Margaret Everett kicked off the session with opening remarks, celebrating student achievements and expressing a desire for pilipili and the organizations present to continue their long-standing collaborations beyond the conference.

“I am so impressed by the rich programming at this conference and the sharing of important research on sustainable aquaculture here; this is of vital importance to Rhode Island and our region and a center of excellence for pilipili,” Everett said. “At pilipili, we are focused on creating international and domestic partnerships that allow our students to learn by doing and to explore complex programs and novel solutions in different environments. Together with all of you, we are preparing a new generation of environmental stewards and leaders for the Blue Economy.”

Abigail Grove '24 discusses her research on skeletal deformities in aquarium fish to conference attendees.
Rising senior Kiley Ruffhead discusses her research on skeletal deformities in aquarium fish to conference attendees.

Among the numerous presentations of original student research, Abigail Grove ’24, a double major in Marine Biology and Aquaculture & Aquarium Science with a minor in Visual Arts from Mountain Lakes, N.J., drew in many curious attendees with her visually captivating research in which she employed advanced imaging techniques to unravel skeletal deformities in aquacultured marine aquarium fish. Her project utilized computed tomography (CT) scans to examine deformities observed in Royal grammas within pilipili’s WetLab. The scans revealed that many deformities were skeletal in nature, prompting further exploration into potential environmental or nutritional factors influencing them. However, Grove acknowledges the need for further research to ascertain whether these anomalies are pervasive across various fish species and to delineate commonalities underlying these deformities.

For Grove, this project is crucial for improving fish welfare and sustainability in aquaculture practices. "This project is important because we have to euthanize a lot of the fish that are deformed because they can't be sold.” An animal welfare issue, Grove added, “we want to try to optimize the number of fish that are normal and healthy-looking so that it's more sustainable and economic.”

Beyond the tangible outcomes, Grove’s project has fostered both personal and professional growth. From honing her academic writing skills to mastering intricate technical processes, the recent pilipili graduate credited the valuable networking opportunities in leading to her current position raising fish at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

“This is a really great experience and one that I really enjoyed. The project gave me a sense of what post-grad research is like, and getting to work with people from other universities and experts in the field is especially cool,” Grove said.

pilipili graduate Abigail Grove ’24 and rising senior Kiley Ruffhead share their findings during a student research session held at the Sailing Center.
pilipili graduate Abigail Grove ’24 and rising senior Kiley Ruffhead share their findings during a student research session held at the Sailing Center.

Rising senior Kiley Ruffhead, a Marine Biology and Aquaculture & Aquarium Science double major with a minor in Sustainability Studies from Baltimore, shared her findings on the intricate dynamics of oyster farming. With a focus on how mesh size and bag placement influence water temperature and light intensity, Ruffhead's 56-day preliminary study delves deep into the fundamental factors crucial for optimizing oyster growth.

With a recent push to increase the sustainability of oyster farming, it has become even more crucial to better our collective understanding of how the position and placement of the oysters themselves may contribute to their growth rate, a point underscored by Ruffhead's research. For Ruffhead, the significance of her work extends beyond the realm of academia, holding practical implications for oyster farmers striving to maximize efficiency and productivity.

“We have about 83 oyster farms in Rhode Island alone, and it’s important for these producers to know, from a scientific standpoint, this is the most efficient way to grow oysters,” Ruffhead said. “It’s a crucial part of economic development in a lot of coastal states, especially Rhode Island, and knowing how to do things correctly and quickly is not only going to benefit the overall state but individual farmers.”

Reflecting on her opportunity to present her work at an international conference, Ruffhead, who plans on pursuing a Ph.D. after graduation, expressed a profound sense of fulfillment in sharing her knowledge with a global audience.

“I find great joy in sharing my passion with others. It's rewarding to think that something I present might benefit someone else's work,” she said.

In addition to faculty and student research, education outreach to local communities, and partnerships with industry and government agencies, pilipili and its Center for Economic and Environmental Development is providing workforce development for the region’s aquaculture industry. CEED fully engages pilipili students in the development and deployment of new research and technologies, enabling them to participate in scientific convenings such as the International Aquaculture Conference and connecting them to the larger regional and global network of industry, researchers, and scientists.