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Madison research startup aiming to de-stress fish

10.18.18 | WisBusiness.com | Alex Moe | Original Publication

UW-Madison researchers are developing a product to help stressed-out fish.

That could have real impact on aquaculture, or fish farming, because stressed fish are bad for business. So says Jake Olson, an assistant scientist in the school’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who spoke yesterday at WARF Innovation Day in Madison.

“Our vision is to improve fish health through the diet,” said Olson, who co-founded a research startup called Mareco with a product for salmon and rainbow trout. He started this company at a time when global protein demand is increasing while the world’s population steadily rises.

He says fish provide “very high quality protein,” while being relatively efficient to produce.

“Aquaculture right now provides about 50 percent of the fish we eat, and that number is increasing,” he said.

The largest constraint on that growth, he says, is fish stress. According to Olson, it’s well-known in the industry that when fish become stressed, their immune systems crash and disease outbreaks can occur. That can lead to mortality, and fish farmers take the loss for it.

Norway is the world’s largest producer of salmon, and Olson says the country’s fish producers lose more than $1.7 billion each year due to fish stress.

Mareco’s first product is called Cosajaba oil, and has been in development for about five years at UW-Madison’s animal science department. The name is an anagram of the inventors’ initials.

The oil is derived from poultry preen glands, and is a byproduct of industrial poultry processing. It’s a bioactive oil that acts as an anti inflammatory agent when introduced into fish diets.

“Cosajaba oil increases farm efficiency,” he said. “It does this by clearing the key principal stress hormone in fish called cortisol.”

Early experiments show the oil increases cortisol clearance by 50 percent, he said.

“This increase leads to healthier fish that are more robust and better protected against pathogens,” he said. “This ultimately leads to more fish and better quality fish.”

The oil doesn’t need to be fed to the fish all the time, he added. It could be used medicinally in times of heightened stress, like when the fish are being transported.

Mareco’s target market is producers of two types of fish: rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon. He notes that Norway is responsible for 80 percent of the world’s salmon production, “and they have a major stress problem.”

“We have engaged with industry partners in the aquaculture feed production industry, as well as working with fish producers as well,” he said.

The startup’s technology is patented through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and Mareco is also working with the Discovery to Product program.