Biological characteristics of non-native, wild-caught barramundi (Lates calcarifer) aquaculture escapees in the Red Sea and validation of a species-specific environmental DNA quantitative PCR assay

  • Hailey N. Shchepanik (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) (Creator)



The global aquaculture industry is expanding to support increased demand in global markets and supplement traditional fisheries. The rapid increase of aquaculture production relies on introducing and using species outside their native range, posing significant regional environmental and socio-economic risks. Non-native species are selected based on transferable large-scale production protocols, fast growth, and existing market demand. Aquaculture is an important sector within Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 (anticipated >400% production increase by 2030). Barramundi (Lates calcarifer) was introduced into the Red Sea for open sea-cage farming in 2008, with large-scale production beginning in 2014. Regionally, there are numerous anecdotal reports of escape events of this species, including an incident in 2015 involving the release of ~300,000 fish. Since then, local fishers have caught up to 15 wild individuals per month in Al Lith, central Saudi Arabia. This study presents the first biological information on L. calcarifer aquaculture escapees in the Saudi Arabian Red Sea. Wild-caught L. calcarifer (n=5) were collected from a local fish landing and measured up to 10 kg, eight years of age, were sexually mature, and consumed benthic and coral reef fishes. In contrast, individuals in aquaculture facilities are harvested at < 1 kg and < 400 mm. In their native range, L. calcarifer can reach up to 200 cm and 60 kg. To assist in detecting and monitoring escapees within the Red Sea, I designed and validated a species-specific SYBR-based environmental DNA quantitative PCR assay targeting a 16S mitochondrial region of L. calcarifer rRNA (Barramundi_16S assay). Preliminary results, using DNA metabarcoding and environmental (seawater) samples, detected L. calcarifer near active/historical aquaculture farms and north/south of areas where this species has not been reported previously in the Red Sea (10–250 km from aquaculture facilities). In the future, the Barramundi_16S assay can screen additional eDNA samples (n=250) collected for this study to delineate the geographic range of barramundi in the Red Sea. Cumulatively, this study highlights the need to consider the ecological impacts of aquaculture escapees and provides managers and industry with valuable information and a novel molecular monitoring tool for detecting aquaculture escapees.
Date made available2022
PublisherKAUST Research Repository

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