Dr. Ricardo Alves is a research specialist in the University's Red Sea Research Center (RSRC) with a particular interest in the negative effects of solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in fish at different development stages. Alves's research within the RSRC focuses on the molecular, cellular and physiological responses of marine fish to the climate changes and environmental and anthropogenic stressors.
Before joining KAUST he completed his Ph.D. in Biological Sciences in his native Portugal at the University of Algarve. In November 2017, Alves joined Professor Susana Agustí and her biological oceanography lab research group to explore the improvement of growth and quality traits in fish species produced in aquaculture cages in the Red Sea. It is this aquaculture research that Alves feels can be of a benefit to his host country.
"Aquaculture is one of the main visions from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I think it is a fascinating topic to look at. With my current research project, I am focusing on optimizing the growth conditions and how to reduce mortality of aquaculture fish species, as the actual target species for the sector are non-native Red Sea species.
"At the moment, we are working with gilthead seabream (Sparus aurata) and European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax), two important species for the aquaculture sector in the Mediterranean. We are looking at the most UVR-resilient fish species that can withstand the sometimes-harsh environs of the Red Sea, that will be a major boost to aquaculture in the region," Alves noted.
"Our idea is also to repeat the same experiments with species that are probably more adapted to the Red Sea conditions to see if they grow better or not. This is the way that we can contribute to the Kingdom and its various initiatives."
As the Red Sea doesn't have input from rivers, and due to the lack of these river-borne particles and nutrients, the water found in the Red Sea is very transparent which causes higher UV levels versus other global seas. These high UV levels may threaten fish, especially when confined in aquaculture cages, as they cannot avoid exposure. Alves and his colleagues are currently simulating the same Red Sea conditions in large lab-based tanks at KAUST to study how fish species adapt and cope with such high UV levels.
"We expose the fish to different natural UVR levels, and afterwards I see what the effects are regarding molecular, cellular and physiological responses of these fish to the UV-B. We suspect that these UVR levels result in the immune system suppression and this can affect the growth and survival of the fish. With this project, we expect to identify the levels of UVR that can help to obtain a healthy fish, and indicate to the aquaculture farms the best levels of underwater UVR that must be reached in the cages to reduce fish mortality, and improve their growth and quality traits."
On a daily basis at KAUST, Alves can be found either carrying out regular maintenance of the fish and their tanks, examining the fish and measuring their daily behavioral patterns or in the lab poring over the latest results from his research. This enthusiasm for his research subjects spans back to his earliest days growing up in Portugal.
"I was always very interested in ecology, scuba diving, and marine biodiversity growing up. During my undergraduate studies, when I had my aquaculture classes, I was so enthusiastic about this. And that enthusiasm for aquaculture has stayed with me right up until today."
The reoccurring theme that pushes Alves' research forward is the opportunity to learn something new about the biological and physiological processes concerning fish physiology, and to pass on his research findings to others. It is the subsequent transferal of this acquired knowledge to local farmers that Alves finds most challenging, but also so rewarding.
"These findings are the most exciting thing for me, but I think the most challenging thing is how we get this information to the local farmers to maybe change their rearing practices. The challenge of explaining to a local farmer, who may not know biology, how best to raise and sustain their fish is most exciting for me. It is this challenge that has always excited me," he enthused.
"It's always challenging to explain why you are researching in an easily understood manner to people that do not work in the same field. I like to share my practical knowledge with others so they can also benefit from what I've learned over my career," Alves concluded.