This article featured in Eurofish Magazine 6 2018.
Demand for fish and seafood products is growing throughout the world. Although catches from the fishing sector have stagnated since the 1990s per capita supply worldwide has increased. This is mainly due to global aquaculture which is growing year by year at impressive rates of between 6 and 8 per cent. In spite of this, fish farming is still criticised and its image is in many places far from good.
Without aquaculture it would not be possible to maintain today’s level of fish and seafood supply to mankind. Despite improved sustainability the quantity of fish landed cannot be increased at will, especially since the effects of regional overfishing, natural stock fluctuations, and climate change are difficult to calculate. With the targeted production of fish and seafood humanity has found a way out of this dilemma rendering aquaculture a logical step that has long been common and "normal" in other areas of food production such as fruit, vegetables and meat. We are all well aware of the fact that these products are not collected from the wild but are systematically grown or bred and produced by mankind according to his needs. Although agricultural production has a “head start” of hundreds of years, aquaculture is rapidly catching up, with its production capacity growing worldwide by 3 to 4 million tonnes a year. In the last decade alone it almost doubled. If this growth continues aquaculture could be on a level with traditional fishing by the beginning of the next decade.
There is a lot to be said for aquaculture. For example the fact that most of the production and spectacular growth rates are achieved in Asia and South America, thereby strengthening the economies of developing countries. Aquaculture has become an important source of income, providing welcome – and valuable – export goods. Low resource and feed requirements also clearly speak in favour of aquaculture. In the case of salmon only 1.3 kg of feed is needed for the fish to grow by one kilogram, whereas poultry need 2 kg and pigs 2.9 kg of feed. And measured in terms of land use per kilogram of protein produced, aquaculture performs better, too. Depending on farming intensity, 160 to 2,100 square metres of land area per kilogram of protein produced are required for cattle farming, whereas fish in aquaculture are presumed to require less than 25 square metres. And even when we look at nutrient emissions that contribute to the eutrophication of water bodies, aquaculture often scores better than people think, as the following table shows.
Emotions versus provable facts
In view of the enormous importance of aquaculture for the supply of high-quality fish and seafood it is astonishing that it has such a negative image among many consumers and has to face a constant barrage of criticism – especially in the western world. In this context “image” refers to the idea, i.e. the imaginary overall picture that the public makes of aquaculture. The message sent out about this type of fish production by many reports and discussions on aquaculture is rarely based on concrete, objectively provable facts but is rather a subjective perception with a strong emotional component. Quite a few opponents of aquaculture derive their criticism and rejection more from hearsay, mere claims and feelings than from well-founded knowledge. And behind this perception is often a romantic image of traditional fishing and fish farming. This is also reflected in an unjustified understanding and allocation of different product qualities.
Most consumers, for example, are convinced that wild fish tastes better than farmed fish. This is a bold statement, but one which is not always true in this absolute sense, as has been revealed by serious product tests. In tests and tastings of 25 smoked salmon fillets which the consumer organization Stiftung Warentest conducts every year in Germany shortly before Christmas, salmon from aquaculture scored significantly better than wild salmon in 2017. Most of the wild salmon in the test was found to be dry or "fishy". And indeed, overall consumer purchasing behaviour often reveals a considerable gap between criticism and demand, with farmed fish being bought at least as often and as readily as wild fish despite the reservations described above. In theory, there can be several reasons for this. Some shoppers may not know or be interested in where the fish they are buying comes from. Others may not even have a choice because the counter they shop at only offers products from aquaculture. But it would also be possible that consumers’ opinions are much more diverse than the public debate on aquaculture would suggest, i.e. that just a few spokesmen set the critical topics and course of public discussion and in this way channel opinions in a particular direction.
Criticism focuses on environmental damage
The public perception of aquaculture is very selective. While gourmets smack their lips appreciatively at the thought of oysters and mussels (all of which originate from aquaculture in our latitudes) they often turn up their noses at other products. They often have strong reservations which are almost always based on the same accusations: that fish farms destroy natural habitats. It is often claimed that mangroves, bays and even entire sections of the coast are destroyed or irreversibly damaged by aquaculture facilities, that waste water from fish farms flows via neighbouring rivers untreated into the sea, that fish excrement and food leftovers settle on the bottom, consuming the oxygen there and over-fertilising connected water bodies. Further accusations concern the use of chemicals and medicines, including antibiotics, which critics claim lead to the development of multi-resistant germs which can also be dangerous for humans. Or the increased risk of disease resulting from intensive aquaculture for the farm animals kept there which usually grow up under conditions that are not appropriate for their species. Other accusations focus on dangers from escapes, especially of invasive species. Genetically modified organisms and the use of growth hormones are constant topics for aquaculture critics, too, as is the assertion that aquaculture consumes more fish in feed than it ultimately produces, making its sustainability impossible.
What is striking is that criticism of the aquaculture industry is often directed at environmental problems. Claims that aquaculture reduces the variety of marine fauna and flora leaving behind "ecological cemeteries" are by no means new and are still heard frequently. But why do advocates of aquaculture find it so difficult to defend themselves convincingly against these accusations? One reason probably stems from the inequality of their "weapons". It is almost impossible to fight against feelings, prejudices and emotions with factual and technical arguments. Another is that this conflict is very “wearing” and many farm operators are simply tired of having to deal with the same accusations over and over again for years. These are repeated stubbornly like prayer mills under widespread ignorance of the progress and changes that have in the meantime been achieved in fish and shrimp farming. It would seem that the farm operators haven’t understood that the repetition of the same assertions, in as simple wording as possible, is one good reason why criticism of aquaculture has such a broad public resonance.
Criticism of aquaculture is often perceived as normal
Arguments – whether true or false – gain persuasive power the more often they are repeated. And if critics use simple, catchy and understandable phrases to present their ideas this makes it easy even for people who know nothing about aquaculture to agree, adopt and utter the same statements themselves, and ultimately to pass them on. In this way an alliance of like-minded people is created that draws its strength from the same easily understandable arguments. An "echo bubble", so to speak, in which no doubts arise about the prejudices that have become so dear to their believers, because the members of the alliance confirm and reinforce each other's judgements time and time again. The "self-conditioning" to support shared ideas makes them resistant to opposing facts. How well this method works can be seen in the fact that when they hear the word “shrimp” a lot of people immediately think of mangrove destruction or if the topic under discussion is “salmon” they soon associate the subject with the use of antibiotics.
The "alliance effect", the self-confirmation of similar opinions within an alliance, is reinforced by the fact that this "commitment" is virtually "free", i.e. it doesn’t cost its members anything. People who position themselves verbally "against" aquaculture don’t enter into any obligation. They can feel themselves to be nature lovers without having to change their lifestyle in any way or even fear serious consequences, for example for their job or their bank account. That makes it easy for everyone to adopt this supposedly "progressive attitude". Just how serious they really are about their rejection of aquaculture can be seen at the latest at the fish counter, where much less opposition is sometimes visible.
Already in 2009, the Commission of the European Union published a position paper (COM 2009/162) proposing, among other things, measures to improve the image of aquaculture. The Commission hopes that "common rules at EU level" will have a positive impact on the sustainable development of aquaculture. The aim was to raise awareness of aquaculture by consulting stakeholders. To this end, the Commission was to draw up guidelines and organise workshops with stakeholders and national authorities to contribute to a better knowledge and implementation of its main instruments of environmental policy. However, such proposals hardly seem likely to fundamentally improve the image of aquaculture in the public eye and in fact only confirm the helplessness of policy makers in this matter. The Commission paper ignores the fact that the debate on aquaculture is not fact-based. Or does anyone seriously believe that the opponents, with their deadlocked positions, are prepared to examine, let alone accept, the arguments of the opposing party?
Public opinion is strongly influenced by the media
In 2016 Tonje C. Osmundsen and Marit Schei Olsen conducted a study ("The imperishable controversy over aquaculture") to analyse the mechanisms, arguments and lines of action used in the public debate on aquaculture and the role of the news media – in this case the daily press – in the controversy. They examined 273 contributions to discussions and opinions from nine Norwegian newspapers, looking for similarities in arguments and rhetorical concepts. Their conclusion is unequivocal: public opinion is to a large extent shaped by the selection and presentation of news in the media. By paying more attention to or ignoring certain issues the media influence our perception of what are the important issues of the day. The topics that the media focus on will in the course of time be seen as important by the public, too.
The debate on aquaculture involves stakeholders of all kinds: scientists and environmentalists, journalists, lawyers, anglers, farmers, gourmet chefs, and many more besides. Some players who are particularly eager to compete for opinion leadership or, as the study calls it, "discursive hegemony" take on the role of "claim makers" or "policy entrepreneurs". In the debate about salmon farming in Norway two opposing groups ("discourse alliances") gather around these claim makers, seeking public support for their versions of reality. The analysis of newspaper articles reveals which linguistic images and rhetorical means both groups use. The aquaculture-critical alliance depicts salmon farming as a billion dollar industry that is allowed to destroy Norway’s fjords with the help of corrupt politicians. Newspaper articles paint a picture of a dirty industry that damages pristine waters and robs wild animals of their livelihoods. Terms such as "underwater prisons", "sewage", "poison" and "stinking" or phrases such as "the ecosystem is collapsing" are used to arouse readers’ emotions and remind them of the need to preserve nature. The topic as a whole is often associated with accusations that politicians are "bought by industry" and with suggestions of a conspiracy between fish farmers and the government.
The alliance of aquaculture advocates, on the other hand, reminds people that salmon farming makes an important contribution towards combating hunger in the world and that every human activity leaves a footprint, also confirming that problems – here usually called “challenges” – are taken very seriously. The rhetorical concepts presented create a positive image of progress and growth through words such as "growth potential", "innovation" and "sustainability". And there are some impressive figures to show how many plates of Norwegian salmon are enjoyed every day throughout the world. Viewed overall, the ecological footprint of salmon farming was quite acceptable, quite tolerable, already due to the strict regulations and high environmental standards, adherence to which is monitored by government authorities and public administration.
Differentiated and factual discussion is necessary
Both parties are making a recognizable effort to slim down the complex topic via rhetorical means and simple linguistic images in order to convey their message in an understandable way to the broadest possible public and thereby gain social acceptance… A simple concept that ultimately allows every citizen – regardless of their educational background and specialist knowledge – to participate in the debate. Although this might look like grass-roots democracy it doesn’t really get us anywhere because the positions in the urgently needed public debate on the possibilities and limits of aquaculture are not only deadlocked and at an impasse but have also taken on an almost ritual character. Both sides use the same arguments time and time again to assert their positions. The study by Osmundsen and Olsen also states that the discussions about aquaculture have hardly developed further over the course of time. For years, they have been conducted in the same way with the same arguments and the same rhetorical concepts. Some rumours have almost assumed the "quality of facts" due to their constant repetition, but in the end this will not get us any further in the matter.
What we need, what is desirable, and what might be helpful, is a more differentiated debate about the advantages and disadvantages of aquaculture. But the debate has to be based on a genuinely sound factual analysis. That is after all the prerequisite for any change, and would point the way to go. The aim and purpose of a debate is the search for the right or at least a better way. Exchanging arguments only makes sense if both sides are prepared to listen and basically willing to make concessions and reach an agreement. At present there is little sign of this however. Neither the form nor the content of the public debate on aquaculture meets these requirements; so we are only marking time.
There are quite a lot of other controversial issues about which it would be worth arguing. What, for example, are objective criteria for good farming practice and how can we reconcile animal welfare and protection with the economic viability of farms, or how can environmental damage be avoided most effectively? If something is really to move, each of the two parties will have to take a first step.
This article featured in Eurofish Magazine 6 2018.
St. Petersburg, the “Venice of the North”, hosted the second edition of the Global Fishery Forum and Seafood Expo Russia on 13-15 September 2018. The event centered on what to expect from the global fisheries industry and markets in the coming decades.
The forum brought together more than 1 100 business leaders, members of international food and fisheries organizations, specialized ministries, international seafood companies and fisheries representatives from 42 countries, including Canada, China, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Norway, and Turkey.
Asia strongly represented at aquaculture session
The session “Aquaculture production and development forecast by 2050” focused on the discussions of the state of the global aquaculture sector, its future growth, and environmental control and safety. Moderated by Ekaterina Tribilustova, Eurofish International Organisation, the session hosted experts from specialized agencies, ministries, sectorial organisations and unions from 8 countries, including the Federal Agency for Fisheries of Russia, the Union of Sturgeon Breeders of Russia, China’s Union of Seafood Processing Enterprises, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Turkey, the Ministry of Agricultural Development of Islamic Republic of Iran and Shilat Organization for Fisheries and Fish Farming of Iran, and the National Institute of Research and Development of fisheries sector in the Republic of Korea.
At present, the aquaculture industry produces over 45% of fish and seafood products consumed globally, while the share of fish products is 53%, according to the FAO. At the same time, the global population has never consumed as much fish as now. Since 1961, the growth rates of fish consumption in the world have been two times higher than the population growth, while the production growth rates have been declining. It is expected that even growing at a slower rate the aquaculture sector can eliminate the gap between growing demand and declining resources playing a major role in providing the world population with the proteins they need. The aquaculture sector in particular has an especially important role in improving food nutrition and fighting hunger.
Russia has ambitious plans for its aquaculture sector
Projecting the development of fish consumption by 2050 and the role of the Russian Federation, Vasily Sokolov, the Deputy Head of the Federal Agency for Fishery, reminded the audience that one of the priorities of the Federal Agency for Fisheries is to increase annual domestic fish consumption to 24–26 kg per capita. In the aquaculture sector, the current production output of 220 000 tonnes is expected to triple by 2030 under the fisheries sector development strategy, and reach 2 million tonnes by 2050. A special role will be played by land-based farming, primarily by salmon farming that is expanding and has already reached about 20 000 tonnes. Organic aquaculture is a very important area for aquaculture development in the country, which has the advantages of enormous land areas and good natural conditions. Sokolov also highlighted a new focus on shellfish and algae farming. Some of the algae species in Russia include macrofids: laminaria and undaria, and microalgae (e.g, chlorella, dunaliella, gematokokkus, and porfiridium).
The government has already invested into providing a business-friendly environment for attracting private investors to the aquaculture sector, which has proved to be rather effective, Sokolov said. He noted that the major work is carried out on improving the legal framework for fish farming and increased veterinary control, and government support for companies of conventional and organic aquaculture. Major attention is given to the regulations in organic aquaculture, voluntary certification of production and traceability system for the whole supply chain of production and realization, and to research and scientific and technological cooperation.
The President of the Russian Union of Sturgeon Breeders, Alexander Novikov, said that sturgeon breeding, selection and hybridisation will be changing, and in the next 50 years, the caviar of farmed species will differ from previous wild caviar, but it does not mean it will be worse. He added that sturgeon farming has been developed in many countries in the past decades.
Chinese aquaculture will focus increasingly on the environment
Development of the Chinese aquaculture in the new era was discussed by Cui He, Vice President and Secretary General, China Union of Seafood Processing Enterprises. China, as the top world producer with its fisheries and aquaculture production of 70 million tonnes, accounts for over one third of global production. In 2016, fisheries and aquaculture production in China reached its peak, followed then by the declining trend for both fisheries and aquaculture. At present, the overall objective for the Chinese government is to enhance the quality and efficiency of the aquaculture sector, based on the necessity of aquaculture transformation and reducing production, while increasing efficiency and assuring sustainable development of the sector. It is expected that the national aquatic production will reach 58 million tonnes by 2020. A special focus is placed on environmental protection because many traditional farming areas have been listed in protected areas. For example, traditional aquaculture in the Hainan province will decline with the decrease of farmed areas in lakes, reservoirs and coastal cages. Another example is the Hubei province, the largest freshwater aquaculture province in China, where 82 000 hectares have been closed down.
The measures of Chinese aquaculture reform include a changing layout of the farmed areas, such as expansion of mariculture into open seas, represented by deep sea anti-wave cages. In inland waters, lakes and reservoirs, farming that uses added feed has been reduced, while ecological propagation farming (relying on natural food supply, for example) has been expanding. Some of the examples include integrated rice-field aquaculture, multi-trophic level species polyculture, ecological pond farming with sewage disposal system, deep-sea adjustable cage aquaculture, and recirculating aquaculture.
Future trends for Chinese aquaculture include the optimization of the ecological farmed production model, development of the land-based industrialized aquaculture model, and shifting from inshore to off-shore operations. Aquaculture company operators are also changing from being just farmers to becoming enterprises, adjusting aquaculture species to meet market demand, increasing profitability, and developing the use of refrigerating technologies in transporting products.
Well-designed policy contributes to the growth of fish farming sector in Turkey
An overview of the aquaculture development in Turkey was given by Turgay Turkyilmaz, Deputy Director, General Directorate of Fisheries and Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Turkey. Over 34 years, the national aquaculture sector has undergone a remarkable expansion, growing 100 times in size. The first fish farming production started in the 1980s with output of 2 226 tonnes in 1984, while the total national production of fisheries and aquaculture was 569 169 tonnes, making the share of aquaculture products in total production only 0.4%. By 2017, total fisheries and aquaculture production reached 630 820 tonnes, and aquaculture produced 276 502 tonnes, giving aquaculture a 44% share of total production. During the first years of aquaculture development, only rainbow trout was farmed, but later the sector expanded to seabass and seabream farming. At present, the sector has a higher variety of fish species, including tuna, sharpsnout seabream, common pandora (mercan), white grouper, shi drum, sand steenbras, meagre, common dentex, and red porgy.
Discussing the key success factors contributing to the development of aquaculture in Turkey, Mr. Turkyilmaz described the policies and government initiatives for attracting investment and using best-practice technologies, and setting aquaculture control mechanisms including continuous monitoring. There are 43 aquaculture offices in the provinces with functions of supervision and advice to entrepreneurs in the optimal ways of farmed fish production with minimum costs and hazards to the environment. Aquaculture companies get quick responses from governmental institutions to expedite the sector’s adaptation to market needs. At the urging of the environment and tourism sector stakeholders, fish farms have been moved off the coast by 0.6 miles, more than 30 meters depth and bigger flow than 0.1 m per second by law in 2007. The future strategies include an increase in fish consumption in the domestic market, creation of fish consumption habits and awareness among consumers, keeping a strong position in the supply of aquaculture products and developing new species, especially those which need less oxygen and lower animal protein.
The session’s experts also discussed experience in the aquaculture sector in the Republic of Iran, Japan, and Korea, prospects and principal areas in aquaculture development in the Black, Azov and Caspian seas, and Russian Far Eastern basins, possibilities of developing Russian varieties of trout and Atlantic salmon, and ways of overcoming environmental and socioeconomic challenges by comparing the experience of other countries.
Sustainability of aquaculture will continue to grow in importance
The session concluded that aquaculture will remain the leading industry among all food sectors producing products of animal origin, despite shrinking growth rates. By 2050, sustainability of the global aquaculture sector will depend on the introduction of practices and technologies that improve ecological and economic performance of the sector, and at the same time, increase efficiency of production. Sustainable development of the aquaculture sector is not limited to one country or region but is reflected in the consolidated approach by all countries to support sustainable, technologically innovative production.
One of every two fish sold on the world’s markets already comes from aquaculture and this share will continue to grow in the coming years. New farming projects are added almost every day. Not all of them succeed at the first attempt for aquaculture is very susceptible to disturbances and damages. So far, however, only very few companies are insured against losses. Too expensive, too complicated, or simply not interested?
Insurance companies don’t have a very good image. They are sometimes scorned for lending out umbrellas but immediately reclaiming them when the first drops of rain fall. Nearly everyone can relate examples of how skilfully insurance companies will evade their obligations when things get really tight for the insured party. Nevertheless, interest in insuring aquaculture projects has never been greater than it is today. The gap between this increase in demand and the available offers of aquaculture insurance is getting wider and wider. More than ten years ago FAO experts estimated the number of insurance policies taken out at around 8,000, and even if this number is likely to have increased by a few thousand since then it is still negligible compared to the total number of large and small aquaculture companies which amounts to several hundred thousand! It is striking that a large share of existing insurance policies is concluded in western industrialised countries while other regions, such as large parts of Asia, which accounts for around 80 per cent of global aquaculture production, are much less represented. What are the causes of this unsatisfactory situation? Do insurance companies simply shy away from the eff ort and cost of auditing farms or, in general, from the risks of fish farming? Or is it because fish farmers fear the costs of insurance and underestimate the benefits of insurance cover? Another noticeable feature of aquaculture insurance is that many insurers only offer products for a few species and production methods: mainly for salmon and shrimps. It is much more difficult to find useful offers for new species and innovative methods. This is understandable, because insurers need a broad database and industry-specific standards in order to realistically assess the risks of aquaculture production and calculate the resulting premiums. What has long been routine in car insurance, because there are detailed time series on the type, frequency and severity of possible damage that can even be grouped regionally and for specific car types, is still very difficult in aquaculture. The diversity of species and methods can hardly be forced into uniform, universally applicable standards.
Mainstreaming IMTA calls for regulatory change
Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA), growing multiple species from different trophic levels in a system that reduces the impact of the cultivation on the environment, is potentially a way of rethinking aquaculture as it is known in the west.
Feeding a human population that is not only growing, but is also seeking greater food and nutrition security and dietary diversity will soon be a major challenge. Marine organisms constitute a much-coveted resource for seafood and many other derived products; however, there is a need to reduce the pressure on remaining fish stocks. Aquaculture, which has been growing rapidly to the point of now delivering approximately half the world’s seafood, has developed a controversial reputation in some parts of the world, due to high density operations, environmental degradation, algal blooms, and the increased risk of disease. Consequently, a major rethinking is needed regarding the functioning of an “aquaculture farm”, and innovative practices need to be developed if we want this sector to become the most efficient and responsible food production system of the future.
The EU Commission has adopted the implementing rules of organic aquaculture in the new EU Organic Regulation. The rules are geared to what is practicable and constitute only the smallest common denominator upon which all participants could agree after lengthy discussions. As was to be expected, their publication was soon followed by criticism…
For years there have been predictions that the fast-growing marine aquaculture species, cobia (Rachycentron canadum), is about to take off, but so far it has been hard to spot on the market. If you want cobia, it seems you either have to catch it yourself (it is a great game fish in Australia and southern USA), or you have to go to Asia
Modern feeds are high-tech products. They offer fishes and crustaceans in aquaculture everything they need for their existence and ensure that the organisms grow fast, remain healthy and develop normally. But who knows exactly what such feeds contain? There is probably no area of aquaculture where so many rumours are rampant, or where so much is assumed, speculated and alleged as in the feed sector.
Recirculation aquaculture is essentially a technology for farming fish or other aquatic organisms by re-using the water in the production. The technology is based on the use of mechanical and biological filters, and the method can in principle be used for any species grown in aquaculture such as fish, shrimps, clams etc. Recirculation technology is however primarily used in fish farming, and this guide is aimed at people working in this field of aquaculture.
Chapter 2: The recirculation system step by step
In a recirculation system it is necessary to treat the water continuously to remove the waste products excreted by the fish, and to add oxygen to keep the fish alive and well. A recirculation system is in fact quite simple. From the outlet of the fish tanks the water flows to a mechanical filter and further on to a biological filter before it is aerated and stripped of carbon dioxide and returned to the fish tanks. This is the basic principle of recirculation.
Sturgeon stocks are threatened worldwide by extinction. Various factors have led to a dramatic drop in populations during the last two decades. Since aquaculture can make a considerable contribution towards saving wild sturgeon and satisfying demand for “black caviar”, Aquatir Ltd decided in 2005 to build a modern recirculation system for farming sturgeon.