Decoding the genetic tapestry of fisheries and aquaculture

ICES application of genetics expert group celebrates thirty years!
Published: 6 June 2023

​​​​Conservation and biodiversity, selective breeding, stock assessment and management, disease resistance and health, traceability and authentication, genetic engineering – the application of genetic techniques is used to manage and improve fish populations, as well as the production and sustainability of aquaculture species. 

ICES Working Group on Application of Genetics in Fisheries and Aquaculture (WGAGFA) focuses on methods to describe, conserve, and manage intra-specific biodiversity, focusing on the application of genetic and genomic analyses - and has been doing this now for 30 years.

Starting out life in 1992 as the Working Group on Application of Genetics in Fisheries and Mariculture (WGAGFM), the group works on management themes spanning from commercial fisheries to ecosystems, recreational exploitation, and mariculture.

Geir Dahle, Institute of Marine Research, Norway, has been there from the beginning, even before the beginning! We spoke to him about how the work of the group has evolved over the past three decades.

Why was the group set up initially?

This group was created because its predecessor, the Working Group on Genetics (WGG), in many ways “died”.  I had joined WGG because I'd been working with genetics in marine species since I started my career at the Institute of Marine Research back in 1985. The combination of science and management has always been interesting for me – how to utilize genetic data and knowledge in the management of marine species. 

There were four participants at the last WGG meeting in Älvkarleby, Sweden and we spent time discussing the future of the group. I seem to remember that our conclusion was to split the group into two separate expert groups: one for genetics in aquaculture (quantitative) and one for genetics in the marine environment (qualitative).

ICES created a group combining both: the Working Group on Applications of Genetics in Fisheries and Mariculture (WGAGFM). This was in the time before the Science Committee​ (SCICOM) so I believe mariculture was chosen as our “mother committee” at that time was the Mariculture Committee. The group provided recommendations on integrating genetics into fisheries and aquaculture towards sustainable management. 

Where was the first meeting held?

The first meetings were held at ICES Headquarters in Copenhagen. I remember these first meetings as a good start for the new group. We had scientists focusing both on aquaculture (salmon) and marine species.

Another good decision that was made was to create two subgroups for more focused work - Quantitative and Qualitative Genetics. This organization was however later abandoned. 

What are the biggest changes you have seen in this time?

It has been small steps, but the group has always put science first, and overall I see more focus on producing quality scientific papers based on the Terms of Reference to reach out to a broader audience (outside ICES network).

We are also experiencing more interest in the work we do and the expertise we possess from other expert groups and stakeholders.

The development of genetic methods and techniques has almost been exponential. From looking at allozymes in a few hundred individuals back in the 1980s to full genome sequencing and targeted markers analyzing thousands of individuals today.

With new and more powerful tools we are able to give more and more detailed answers. One of the recent “newcomers” is eDNA, with all its possibilities! 

What do you see as the group's biggest achievement?

It is difficult to point at one specific thing, but I would highlight the fact that we have managed to engage more and more people from both sides of the North Atlantic.

It was a pleasant surprise when scientists and administrators from Canada and USA joined the meeting in Sopot in 2009. People from Canada and the USA have made an effort to participate in our meetings because they find the discussions and work inspiring.

How do you see the group's role within ICES?

Genetics play an important role in most biological research. Genetics are used to identify new species, identify population structure,  connectivity, adaptation, studying environmental and anthropogenic effects etc. WGAGFA can advise other expert groups and stakeholders on how to obtain and use genetic information - we are always open for cooperation with other expert groups. 

Where do you think the work of the group will be in another 30 years?

I believe this is a group that will continue to evolve: new scientists are joining the group with new knowledge and new scientific questions in a world (genetics) that has been evolving with incredible speed over the last 30 years - and probably will continue to evolve. We hope we will be able to answer more management-related questions in the future.​

The future for WGAGFA​

Life in a drop: Sampling environmental DNA for marine fishery management and ecosystem monitoring and Current status and potential of genomic selection to improve selective breeding in the main aquaculture species of International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) member countries​ are two of the most recent publications from WGAGFA. The group is also actively involved in knowledge transfer, organizing ICES training courses, and convenors of ICES ASC sessions

The current chair of WGAGFA, Naiara Rodríguez-Ezpeleta, AZTI, Spain, spoke with enthusiasm about the future of the group at their thirtieth annual meeting, noting how it has grown significantly over the last few years, both in number of members and in number of subjects covered. Rodríguez-Ezpeleta commented that, "One reason for this is the growing interest in genetic technologies by end-users, including assessment scientists and policy-makers. The group is also becoming more and more involved in the advisory process, providing input for ICES advice, participating in workshops that will form the basis of further advice, benchmark processes, etc…I think ​this is a significant achievement". 

Geir Dahle (front row, third from right) and Naiara Rodríguez-Ezpeleta (back row, second from left) with their fellow members of ICES Working Group on Application of Genetics in Fisheries and Aquaculture (WGAGFA) at the group's thirtieth annual meeting at AZTI, ​Basque Country, Spain. 

If you are interested in finding out more about our Working Group on the Application of Genetics in Fisheries and Aquaculture (WGAGFA) or joining Geir and Naiara, go to the WGAGFA webpage.

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 ICES Working Group on Application of Genetics in Fisheries and Aquaculture (WGAGFA) celebrates three decades of research.

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Decoding the genetic tapestry of fisheries and aquaculture

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