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Salmon farming in Scotland: quantifying the actual levels of interbreeding and gene introgression of farm escapes with wild populations

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  • Full or part time
    Dr E Verspoor
    Dr M Coulson
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
    Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

Project Description

Aquaculture is fast outpacing the production of wild fisheries and there is increasing concern regarding the potential negative impacts of farm escapes on wild populations of conspecifics. Scotland has the second largest Atlantic salmon farming industry in the species’ native North Atlantic range, after Norway. In 2015, this encompassed a production of >40 million smolts and > 171,000 tonnes of salmon for market, with increased production planned for coming years. Scotland also has hundreds of rivers with wild salmon stocks that are the mainstay of a vital recreational fishing industry that is a major contributor to the nation’s economic wealth.

The project involves the exploitation of diagnostic molecular markers developed by the RLI as part of a UK Research Council aquaculture sector funded international research collaboration with partners in Norway, Scotland, Ireland and Canada to differentiate farm and wild Atlantic salmon. These will be used to assess actual levels of escaped farm salmon in rivers across Scotland, of interbreeding, and of genetic introgression. The lack of understanding of these factors precludes the effective management of the species, risking unacceptable impacts on wild stocks or holding back expansion of the farming industry, or potentially both. In Norway, genetic mixing is highly variable, from 0-47% while in Scotland only a few, ad hoc studies have been carried out on levels of direct genetic interaction and most of these are dated and provide insight into only a few rivers with general, contemporary levels being poorly documented.

Knowledge of the level of interbreeding and introgression can help guide locational development of the farming industry to minimize impacts on wild stocks and fisheries. Where it can be demonstrated to be limited or absent, this will also help to gain Marine Stewardship certification for farmed salmon products. The project will involve collaboration with local fisheries management organisations to collect contemporary samples of salmon in a representative set of Scottish rivers and to genetically screen these fish, along with archived historical samples, with the farm-wild markers. Levels of escapement, interbreeding and introgression will be quantified, mapped and the factors accounting for observed levels investigated. The implications of observed levels will be explored using an existing individual based genetic-demographic reproductive interaction model.

Supervisory Team

The student will be supervised by Dr Mark Coulson and Professor Eric Verspoor of the Rivers and Lochs Institute.

Research Facilities and Environment

The student will be based in the Rivers and Loch Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands Inverness College on the new Inverness Campus and part of a small but growing, dynamic team of researchers focused on aquatic biodiversity conservation and management.

The RLI is recognized internationally for its expertise in genetic issues related to aquaculture-wild interactions and as well as in the development of molecular genetic markers, applied molecular population genetics, fisheries management, and fish phylogeography. It is also extending its programme of work to encompass eDNA, DNA barcoding, and metabarcoding, across the spectrum of aquatic organisms, with a focus on freshwater ecosystems.

The Institute provides a stimulating and vibrant research environment, supported by a state-of-the-art molecular genomics facility encompassing Sanger and NexGen sequencing systems, qPCR, high throughput DNA fragment analysis instrumentation, with technical support, and in-house bioinformatics, computing and statistical support. The student will receive training in manuscript writing and research presentation as well as engage in-house seminars in research skill development and contribute to weekly alternating journal club and work presentation meetings. There will also be opportunities to attend relevant national and international conferences.

Funding Notes

This studentship is funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme.

The studentship covers fees at the Home/EU rate only, plus a stipend at the RCUK level, for a total of 42 months (including writing-up).
Funding is available for students worldwide, however non UK/EU students will be liable for the difference between home/EU and international fees.

Students must be domiciled in the Highlands and Islands transition region during the course of their study to be eligible for funding.

The project is expected to start on 9th July 2018.

Applicants must possess a minimum of an Honours degree at 2:1 and/or a Master’s Degree (or International equivalent) in a relevant subject.

To apply please complete the standard application form, attaching supporting documentation and send to: [Email Address Removed]

Informal project specific enquiries can be made to: [Email Address Removed],


Svåsand T., Crosetti D., García-Vázquez E., Verspoor E. (eds). (2007). Genetic impact of aquaculture activities on native populations. Genimpact final scientific report (EU contract n. RICA-CT-2005-022802). 176 p.

Verspoor, E., Knox, D., & Marshall, S. (2016). Assessment of interbreeding and introgression of farm genes into a small Scottish Atlantic salmon Salmo salar stock: ad hoc samples–ad hoc results?. Journal of Fish Biology, 89(6), 2680-2696.

Glover, K. A., Solberg, M. F., McGinnity, P., Hindar, K., Verspoor, E., Coulson, M. W., ... & Svåsand, T. (2017). Half a century of genetic interaction between farmed and wild Atlantic salmon: Status of knowledge and unanswered questions. Fish and Fisheries.

Coulson, M. (2013) Report on Genetic Tool Development for Distinguishing Farmed vs Wild Fish in Scotland. Rivers and Fisheries Trusts Scotland, Managing Interactions Aquaculture Project 2011/2012,

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