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One on One: Albert Tacon

By James Wright
July 01, 2009

The way Albert Tacon sees it, farming the world's oceans to supply fish for a steadily growing population is not optional. Hence, the major question is not if - but how - to nurture the aquaculture industry 
to maturity. A leading aquaculture researcher, Tacon has seen and heard plenty of resistance to fish farming. But the walls preventing aquaculture's growth will soon crumble, he predicts, even in places where open-water fish pens are forbidden.

Tacon, 57, is widely considered one of the world's top experts on aquaculture and aquatic feed technology, having worked for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization in Italy, Brazil and Indonesia, and as director of the Aquatic Feeds and Nutrition Program at the Oceanic Institute in Waimanalo, Hawaii. After serving the past several years as aquaculture coordinator at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, Tacon will embark on a new challenge this fall with a nine-month appointment as visiting professor at the University of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria, the largest of Spain's Canary Islands. "It's just like Hawaii," says Tacon. "Another island in the middle of nowhere."

Much has changed in the 35 years Tacon has devoted to aquaculture research, but some things never seem to: While aquaculture has been successfully embraced by developing nations as a viable means of food production and as an economic driver, it remains somewhat taboo in the developed markets like the United States, where much of that fish is consumed.

Concerns about sustainability are one reason why some U.S. consumers frown upon farmed fish, especially carnivorous species like salmon that depend on fishmeal made from wild fish stocks. That's why Tacon has focused his energy on aquaculture feed and has lent his insight to commercial fish farming operations. Kona Blue Water Farms of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, which raises trademarked Kona Kampachi in open-net pens off the coast of Hawaii's main island, consulted with Tacon in recent years as it sought to reduce the fishmeal ratio of its feed.

I caught up with Tacon, who hails from England, in mid-May to talk about fish farming, cultural attitudes toward aquaculture and the potential of raising fish in places such as - brace yourselves - Alaska.

WRIGHT: How important is aquaculture to the world's food supply?

TACON: First of all, aquaculture is no different from agriculture - it's just in the water. Rice is no different from catfish or tilapia or shellfish. Salmon and shrimp are the cash crops, like coffee. We all want a cash crop at maximum profit. But in Asia, it's a mixture of both staples and export market products. The ocean holds so much potential for growth. Global aquaculture production in 2007 was 66 million tons, worth $90 billion; 91 percent of that was in developing countries, two-thirds in China. It's basically still an Asian phenomenon. Chile, which has come from nowhere in just 20 years, is No. 10 but second in value only to China, which has 2,000 years of experience producing fish.

 

How far has aquaculture 
come in the last 35 years?

In practice in Europe since Roman times, it's only recently grown as an industry, but by leaps and bounds as with the agricultural revolution. It's only been a big industry in Asia, particularly China. Since 1950, and compared to any other food product like maize, soy, wheat or poultry, the production of farmed aquatic products has been one of the fastest-growing food sectors, second only to organic. But the main export markets are still limited to the United States, 
Europe and Japan.

 

Why so much apprehension concerning aquaculture?

It's not only the United States - it's Canada, too, and it's a shame. A lot of it has to do with sport fisheries in affluent countries and tradition. With agriculture, we know there are areas where we produce our food, our recreation, our cities; but we don't want to see anything floating in the water. In China, a fish farm is seen as no different from a field of plants. For the rest of the world, aquaculture is not a problem, but in the United States, with tourism, we need various zones. It's forcing the industry to go offshore, but it costs so much more money and you end up competing with countries that don't have to go offshore. All we need is a good management plan and we can do it in a sustainable way.

It's mainly a problem of North America and Europe - the environmentalists are very concerned, some rightly so. What we do with the sea must be very transparent so the public has confidence. It's the consumer that calls the shots, by buying the products or not. At the end of the day, we need to produce fish and the government's got to create an enabling environment.

 

What species are especially challenging to farm commercially?

Salmon and trout need very clean water at a certain temperature, so there are only a few areas to grow them. The greatest potential is in Alaska. They have the largest fishery in the world there in pollock - the byproducts of which are essentially thrown away. There they have all the right conditions. Politically, their law says they won't do it. Think of coldwater species: halibut, salmon, cod - Alaska could produce so much, Canada too.

 

Do you really think Alaska 
will one day allow aquaculture?

You bet. One day they will learn. It has the coastline, the water, the inputs and the conditions for growing the kinds of species consumers like. And aquaculture employs people. Of course, aquaculture, like agriculture, has an environmental impact. But we need to produce our food. You just need the public on your side, and we have a lot of education to do.

 

Where else in the United States 
can aquaculture flourish?

There is potential in Maine. The problem there has been environmental concerns, which are forcing the industry to go offshore. But if it does, it won't be competitive. Add up the cost of energy and the cost of labor, and we have no advantage. But the water is at the right temperature. [Objection is] a cultural thing. You change it by getting the local people into the operations.

 

How important are aquaculture certification standards?

Standards are an integral part of developing codes for responsible fisheries and aquaculture development. It's important there's more harmonization if possible. We have to educate the public on seafood and how it is produced.

 

Associate Editor James Wright can be 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

 

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