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Point of View: A call for sustainable aquaculture

“Evolving aquaculture to meet both environmental concerns and the ever-growing demand for fish will be no small task.”
by Scott Nichols
March 01, 2013

The world’s population will increase from 7 to 9 billion sometime in the next 30 or so years. Seafood will play a central role in meeting the increased demand for high-quality protein, but expansion will be challenging. Aquaculture innovation is urgently needed with 2 billion additional people coming to dinner soon. Furthermore, producing that seafood sustainably while maintaining ocean-ecosystem integrity will greatly magnify the challenge. Those companies gathered at the International Boston Seafood Show this month are the ones poised to discover and implement the needed changes.  

The new opportunity is stunning for those of us who produce and provide seafood. That opportunity, however, also comes with a sobering responsibility. We cannot meet the demand sustainably with current practices, knowledge and expertise. Evolving aquaculture to meet both environmental concerns and the ever-growing demand for fish will be no small task. 

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) states that 85 percent of the fish we capture come from wild fisheries harvested at or above fully exploited levels. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) paints a bit rosier picture but still sets the number at 75 percent. Going forward, we may expect wild fish to provide similar or maybe even smaller amounts of fish than we’ve seen in the recent past while the demand continues to grow.

How will we climb out of this hole?  

I think we would all agree that aquaculture is a central part of the solution. However, irrespective of how we get our fish, farmed or wild, we must receive them through sustainable means. This is an existential issue facing us as seafood providers.  

Let us define sustainability to mean practicing today in ways that do not diminish the ability of others to practice in the long term. In turn, long-term means not just a few decades but rather 100 years or more from now. These definitions will drive our discussion in the right direction. They lead quickly to the conclusion that some practices must surely change — a point underscored by the WWF and FAO citations above.

We should also agree, as an industry, that it is indefensible to harvest a fishery above its sustainable level. A thornier question is how we should respond to roughly half of the world’s fisheries being harvested at the upper limits of sustainability. Operating at the very edge leaves little or no room to accommodate things unforeseen. Without a buffer, it becomes easy to go awry with the smallest adversity. Pelagic fisheries are a case in point.  

The Lenfest Foundation argued in a recent study that the ability of pelagic fish to reproduce their population annually was not the proper criterion for sustainability. Looking vertically at the whole ecosystem and, therefore, at the dependence of other species on the pelagic population, they argued for a pelagic fish harvest reduction of 50 percent to avoid collapse of the ecosystem, if not the pelagic fish themselves.

This calls into question a central practice in aquaculture nutrition. Fish oil and fishmeal are used extensively in aquaculture diets. Feeding wild fish to farmed fish, though, does not serve the goal to expand total fish availability. It ties aquaculture too closely to already stressed wild harvests; that tie must be broken. This is most poignantly seen in feeding fish oil to farmed salmon. Fish oil from some 10 to 11 million metric tons (MT) of pelagic fish is consumed to produce about 2.5 million MT of salmon. 

Alternative practices must be put in place; producers must make themselves accountable for transparent, measurable improvements in our practices; and we must continue to rely on third parties such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, Marine Stewardship Council and MBA’s Seafood Watch program on whom consumers rely for information and assurances about sustainable aquaculture products and practices.

In the end, to ensure the vitality of the aquaculture industry and our continued benefit from it, we must evolve our relationship with the ocean’s resources and become more responsible stewards of them. This challenge offers risks and opportunities for our industry. If we can bring the required innovation, we will be rewarded by our customers and more broadly by society.

Scott Nichols is a director at Verlasso, a company “harmoniously raising” salmon by protecting ocean biodiversity, reducing ocean depletion and continually improving its farming practices in Patagonia, Chile.

March 2013 - SeaFood Business     

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