Farmed salmon start their lives in freshwater tanks on land. The farmers leave the lights on all day long, which means that it is permanently “day” for the young salmon. This results in them eating more and growing faster.
But in order for the salmon to become ready for salt water (undergo smoltification), the farmers must first go down to 12-hour “winter days”, before returning to 24-hour days.
This makes the salmon think that winter is giving way to spring, and that it is time to migrate out to sea. They then undergo smoltification.
But messing around with the light like this has an unwanted side-effect: some of the male salmon enter sexual maturity.
Sexually mature salmon are more prone to illness and grow less quickly.
In a new paper, researchers have shown that you can minimise this problem with a “power nap”.
“When the ‘day’ was shortened from 24 hours to 21 hours followed by a brief ‘night’ lasting three hours, only ten percent of the fish reached sexual maturity. By contrast, thirty percent of the fish became sexually mature using the traditional method”, says Thomas Fraser, a researcher at the Institute of Marine Research (IMR).
Other researchers at the IMR have previously shown that no fish reach sexual maturity if you use a short day lasting just six hours. But that means you also miss out on many hours of feeding and growth.
“We wanted to find the best possible compromise”, says Fraser.
And that is what they did. It turned out that going from winter days to both 18- and 21-hour days allowed the fish to undergo smoltification in the normal way, while significantly reducing the risk of them sexually maturing.
The researchers split 380 mixed sex juvenile salmon into 6 tanks.
All of the tanks were exposed to light that simulated a winter’s day, before it was increased to:
The fish were kept under these conditions for six weeks.
The researchers performed tests to detect signs of puberty, such as measuring blood testosterone levels.
“As expected, none of the female salmon entered puberty. This issue isn’t a problem for them, because they sexually mature a bit later than males in the wild as well”, explains Thomas Fraser.
“So, we have shown that for males it only takes three hours of darkness per day to reduce early sexual maturation after smoltification”, summarises Fraser.
Fraser, Thomas WK, Tom J. Hansen, Birgitta Norberg, Tom Ole Nilsen, Rüdiger W. Schulz, and Per Gunnar Fjelldal. "Atlantic salmon male post-smolt maturation can be reduced by using a 3-hour scotophase when inducing smoltification." Aquaculture 562 (2023): 738772. Link: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquaculture.2022.738772