The new aquaculture operations manager at Southern Cross University’s National Marine Science Centre, Dr Bennan Chen, has spent most of his career improving the survival rates of larval ‘baby’ fish, with his research transforming the aquaculture industry.
Dr Chen, who took up his position at Southern Cross University late last year, has more than 25 years’ experience in marine biology research specialising in marine finfish, larval fish rearing and fingerling production, and the design and construction of aquaculture systems.
“The way I explain my work, it fills the gap between research in fish biology and commercialisation,” Dr Chen said.
“The most significant outcome from my research has been solving the major issues in the aquaculture industry, and improving industry productivity significantly.”
Before coming to Southern Cross University Dr Chen worked at Clean Seas Tuna Ltd, leading the hatchery research and development and production teams.
“We solved the yellowtail kingfish jaw deformity and swim bladder inflation issues, improved the larval rearing survival rate and produced good-quality fingerlings for growing each season,” he said.
Millions of dollars and more than 10 years of research had been spent on figuring out the yellowtail kingfish jaw deformity, not only in Australia but also hatcheries in Europe and South America with similar issues.
The deformity stemmed from ‘walling’ where the larval fish would swim against the tank wall and damage their jaws.
“The industry had spent a lot of money trying to figure it out – everything from fish nutrition to changing tank parameters including temperature, light intensity, salinity,” Dr Chen said.
“We received a research grant from the Australian Seafood CRC and when I was leading the project between 2011 and 2013 we found that tank wall colours affect the walling behaviour of kingfish larvae and this research has now impacted the global industry.
“The outcome of this research was that the incidence of kingfish fingerling Jaw deformity dropped from an average of 35 per cent to less than one per cent at the Clean Seas Arno Bay hatchery.”
Dr Chen now oversees the use and development of the aquaculture and seawater facilities at the National Marine Science Centre, and contributes to research and teaching outcomes through the provision of expert advice and training.
“I also manage the development and implementation of new aquaculture systems and projects, industry liaison, and my main priority is supporting research students,” he said.
He is currently working as part of a team on a project called ‘Mangrove jack fingerling production for Clarrie Hall dam’ funded by Recreational Fishing Trusts, NSW Department of Primary Industries.
“We are running a mangrove jack larval rearing trial at the moment, where we have hatched the eggs and are very busy every day feeding and looking after the fish larvae,” he said.
Dr Chen says his fascination with animals, particularly aquatic animals, was sparked in his younger years.
“During my teenage years I would go fishing with my classmates or a bunch of young people at a beach in my hometown, about 20 minutes’ walk from my home in China,” he said.
He decided to study aquaculture and now his passion is passing on his knowledge to help students conduct proper career-defining research.
“At the National Marine Science Centre, there are many people, including students, from whom I can learn each day,” he said.
“Meanwhile my extensive experience in aquaculture has given me valuable insight into the industry, which I can also pass on to students.
“One of the most rewarding parts of my job is assisting researchers and PhD students finish their projects by providing them a reliable and user-friendly aquaculture research facility.”