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Behavioural responses to pressure changes in cultured Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua): Defining practical limits for submerging and lifting sea-cages


Farmed Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) are occasionally exposed to buoyancy changes in sea-cages, through
lifting or lowering of cage nets. Physiological processes regulate the level of gas in the closed swim bladders
of cod and thus the ability of cod to control their buoyancy. Rapid net lifting may cause positive buoyancy,
leading to barotrauma, while net lowering may lead to negative buoyancy and alter cod behaviours. We
tested how groups of farmed cod responded immediately after lifting events from 5 different start depths
equivalent to 40% pressure reductions, and how long they took to return to pre-lifting pressure levels. In
addition, we tested immediate responses and recovery times to cage lowering events equivalent to 100–
300% pressure increases. Trials were conducted with 100 cod of 1.1–1.7 kg in a 63 m3 sea-cage at the lower
(5 °C) and upper (16 °C) water temperature limits experienced during culture. Swimming behaviours were
measured at fixed intervals before and after cage lifting or lowering, and a feeding test was used to assess
appetite. In general, lifting events increased swimming speeds 1.5–4 times and tail beats 2–3 times and fish
swam with an average −14° head-down angle, indicating positive buoyancy. The depth before lifting
affected the immediate response as the fish became more active after lifting events from shallow compared
to deeper depths. Appetite levels decreased for about 2 h after cage lifting, independent of temperature or
start depth. The overall recovery time of 8 h after lifting did not depend upon start depth or temperature.
Lowering events appeared to cause negative buoyancy. Swimming speeds (1.3–2.3 times) and tail beat
frequencies (1.4–2.3 times) increased immediately after cage lowering, and cod swam with an average 30°
head-up swimming angle. Neither pressure level nor temperature affected this immediate response. Time to
recover to neutral buoyancy for 300% pressure increases took 42–90 h, but only 18–34 h for 100% pressure
increases. We conclude that a 40% pressure reduction is an upper limit for lifts of healthy farmed cod.
Secondary lifts should not be done until at least 10 h after the first lift. Cage lowering should be done slowly
to avoid potentially stressful crowding of negatively buoyant fish on the cage bottom, especially at low


Academic article




  • Øyvind Johan Korsøen
  • Tim Dempster
  • Jan Erik Fosseidengen
  • Anders Fernø
  • Einar Heegaard
  • Tore S Kristiansen


  • Institute of Marine Research
  • University of Melbourne
  • Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research



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