Identifying the strengths and weaknesses of aquaculture

Among the objectives of the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund are support for the development of sustainable aquaculture. Each EU member draws up a strategic plan for aquaculture for the period 2014 to 2020, which documents its vision and priorities for the sector. Implementation of the policies that lead to the achievement of this vision is supported by the EMFF. Several of the Eurofish member countries that are also members of the EU have drawn up these strategic plans for the aquaculture sector. These plans reflect the very different aquaculture industries and priorities in the countries.


Crna Mlaka
Pond fish farming is primarily used to produce carp though often in polyculture with other species.

Over the next few issues Eurofish will report on the plans its member countries have for their aquaculture industries over the coming five years, what are the priorities and how they will be funded and implemented. Fish and shellfish farming is highly diverse across the EU and some of this diversity is reflected in the Eurofish members’ aquaculture sectors too. But there are several common concerns as well, including the recognition that aquaculture is important for jobs and the production of healthful seafood, and that it still has a long way to go to reach its potential. This issue features the aquaculture plans from Croatia, Romania, Lithuania and Poland.

The European aquaculture sector has been stagnating for years even as fish farming in other parts of the world has burgeoned. The reasons for the lack of growth in Europe are varied, but include a lack of aquaculture sites, restrictive legislation, administrative burdens, conflicts with other users of coasts and inland water bodies, a lack of competitiveness, and a playing field that is not uniform. However, the European aquaculture industry also has significant strengths, including very high quality of its products and a strong research base. The industry is also an important employer in remote coastal and inland areas where it may provide the only source of jobs. Altogether, some 85,000 people are employed by the European aquaculture sector mainly in the 14,000 companies that constitute the industry, nine tenths of which have under ten employees. Aquaculture has thus a significant role to play in social and economic terms, but is also a contributor to food security.


Bringing growth to European aquaculture

Today, average annual per capita consumption of seafood in the EU is 23 kg of which about a quarter comes from aquaculture. The supply of farmed fish is split between domestic production, which accounts for 43%, while the balance is sourced from outside the EU. The most imported species are salmon from Norway, shrimp from Asia and Latin America, and the whitefish species, pangasius and tilapia also from Asia. Almost all the domestic production of farmed seafood is consumed within the EU. Production from aquaculture is important because of Europe’s largely stagnant capture fisheries output. If seafood consumption is to grow in Europe it will only come through increased farmed production. The benefits of seafood consumption are now fairly widely established. Apart from providing healthy proteins, minerals, and vitamins, seafood is a source of omega-3 fats that are associated with reduced risk of coronary disease. Farmed seafood also has environmental benefits as life cycle analyses show that the production of a kilo of fish protein consumes fewer inputs than does the production of a kilo of terrestrially farmed protein. Boosting the aquaculture sector in Europe has multiple advantages and the hope is that the national aquaculture strategies with the help of funding from the EMFF will reinvigorate the European aquaculture sector.


Croatia has a diverse aquaculture sector

In Croatia the Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for the national strategic plan for aquaculture. The strategy is expected to result in an almost four-fold increase in farmed fish production to 45,000 tonnes from about 12,000 tonnes in 2013. To achieve this, however, the national strategy shows that the sector’s strengths need to be built on while several hurdles will have to be overcome. Croatian aquaculture comprises marine and freshwater farming and includes both finfish and shellfish production. In total farmed seafood, according to the FAO, amounted to some 12,000 tonnes in 2013, a modest increase over the previous year, but the lowest figure since 2008. The decline can be mainly attributed to falls in tuna and in rainbow trout production, but a change in the statistical method may have affected the production figures for warm water species, which also experienced a decline in 2013 compared to the previous two years. Marine finfish production contributes the most to the total farmed fish production in Croatia followed by freshwater fish. The main marine farmed finfish species are seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax) and seabream (Sparus aurata). Of the two, seabream has shown the most growth since 2008 increasing from 1,800 tonnes to almost 3,000 tonnes in 2013. Seabass production has hovered around 2,700 over the same period. The farming cycle for both species is fully closed, meaning they are produced from eggs which are collected from broodstock in hatcheries. In addition, Croatia also has a significant capture based aquaculture of bluefin tuna (Tunnus thynnus). Tuna production declined 50% to 915 tonnes between 2008 and 2013 due to quota decreases. The remaining farmed finfish production is made up of very small volumes (< 50 tonnes) each of meagre (Argyrosomus regius) and common dentex (Dentex dentex). Farmed shellfish includes Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galoprovincialis), volumes of which approximated 2,000 tonnes in 2013, and a small volume of European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis).

Source: FAO
Aquaculture production in Croatia (tonnes)   
2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Gilthead seabream 2200 2400 1719 2173 2978
European seabass 2800 2800 2775 2453 2826
Common carp 2058 1816 2891 2484 2100
Mediterranean mussel 2000 2000 400 437 1950
Atlantic bluefin tuna 2100 1680 1610 1125 915
Rainbow trout 1982 2482 2481 1000 345
Bighead carp 492 309 522 296 303
Grass carp(=White amur) 196 231 158 202 209
Silver carp 133 73 95 88 127
Other 268 200 195 183 266
Total 14229 13991 12846 10441 12019


Seabass and seabream juveniles have to be imported

Seabass and seabream eggs and juveniles are produced in land-based hatcheries, which produce some 20m juveniles each year. Since this only covers half the requirement of the farmers, the rest is imported from hatcheries in France and Italy. Modernising existing hatchery facilities or building new ones to increase the domestic production of juveniles is required to reduce the risk of disease transfer and increase the production of these two species. Feed for the juveniles and for the fish intended for the market also has to be imported as overall production has not reached the volumes that could justify the investment in a fishmeal plant. The grow out phase for these two species takes place in sea cages from where they are harvested, brought to processing facilities, and finally shipped to the EU (primarily Italy) or to domestic markets. However, the lack of good coastal facilities also hinders the further development of the sector.

Tuna ranching is also carried out in sea cages. Young 8-10 kg tuna are caught and placed in special pens which are then towed (very slowly) to the holding cages. The fish are transferred to these cages where they are fed until they reach the desired size and weight, typically 30 kg and above. The tuna are harvested almost entirely for the Japanese market. Japanese buyers often supervise the harvesting and then have the fish loaded on to their vessels where they are superfrozen to -60 degrees and sailed to Japan. The importance of tuna ranching has driven a significant research effort to close the tuna breeding cycle. If successful this would reduce farmers’ dependence on fluctuating annual quotas and allow them to better utilise the production capacity of their farms.


Hatcheries would augment shellfish production

Shellfish farming in Croatia is based on the collection of spat from the wild. Increasing production would depend on establishing hatcheries with the requisite technology for the production of larvae and spat of oyster and other commercially interesting species. In addition to increasing production it is also necessary to add greater value to the shellfish production and to develop marketing strategies that highlight the origin of the product. Among the marine farms are two pilot plants for the production of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) at sea. Efforts are ongoing to close the farming cycle, starting from eggs and producing a market size fish. If successful farms are planned in three additional locations. Croatia has identified several zones, where fish farming can be carried out without coming into conflict with other users of the coast. This spatial planning enables various economic activities to be carried out along the coast contributing to the overall economic development of the coastal region. While these measures go some way to furthering the development of the mariculture sector, what is lacking is producer organisations that can regulate the market and prices, as well as communication channels that can inform the public about marine farmed seafood improving the perception among consumers and their acceptance of these products. Another issue altogether is one of disease among farmed fish and shellfish. Only a limited number of medicines are registered by the authorities which limits the number of treatment alternatives and increases dependence on a relatively modest number of drugs, which in turn increases the risk of resistance to medication developing among pathogens. The solution would be to increase the number of drugs that can be prescribed combined with educational campaigns on the responsible use of medication. Since imported eggs and fry are a potential source of disease and since they account for half the Croatian production of seabass and seabream it is important to have a well-functioning veterinary service with close cooperation with the sector. With regard to shellfish Croatia already monitors the production and the water in which it is farmed, in line with European legislation controlling for pathogens, biotoxins, heavy metals, dangerous plankton in the water, pollutants etc.


Croatia’s geography is favourable for the cultivation of fish in ponds in the interior as well as in cages on the coast. Here, seabass and seabream are being cultivated in the Adriatic.


Carp and trout dominate freshwater production

Freshwater farming in Croatia comprises primarily common carp (Cyprinus carpio) and rainbow trout. While production of carp has remained largely stable the last six years at just over 2,000 tonnes that of rainbow trout has plunged in the last couple of years from 2,500 tonnes to 345. The notable drop in the production of rainbow trout can partly be attributed to unfavourable climatic conditions the previous two years, but also due to a new system of data collection, which only includes figures for the fish that is placed on the market. The old system also took into account the young fish that was used to stock ponds in the following season.  Carp is typically farmed in large earthen ponds in monoculture or polyculture with other species, commonly grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella), bighead carp (Hypophthalmichthys nobilis), silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), wels catfish (Silurus glanis), zander (Stizostedion lucioperca), pike (Esox lucius), and tench (Tinca tinca). The fish are fed with cereals (wheat, corn, rye, barley), which supplement the naturally occurring fodder in the ponds, the growth of which is augmented by fertilising the ponds before the fish are introduced. The farming cycle for carp is usually three years long. Trout is most often farmed in concrete raceways in hilly or mountainous regions, where water is taken either from the ground or from a river, and is at a suitable temperature for the fish. The fish are fed exclusively on a diet of extruded pellets.

Carp ponds are also often sites of great environmental value due to the diversity of flora and fauna that exists in and around these water bodies. Many migratory species of birds are also attracted to the ponds. The presence of all this wildlife presents both an opportunity and a threat to fish farmers. By diversifying activities into, for example, bird watching, nature tourism, photo safaris, and educational activities, farmers could create new revenue streams. On the other hand, many of the birds and animals are attracted to the ponds for a reason – the prospect of an easy meal. For many farmers predation is a major challenge particularly as some of the worst offenders are protected species, like cormorants. Increasing the production of farmed freshwater fish will to an extent depend on the development of effective mechanisms that both protect the predators and the environment yet allow the economically viable production of fish. Freshwater aquaculture production will also benefit from the implementation of a legal framework that simplifies administrative procedures and regulates issues related to the use of river water in times of drought. Other factors such as the lack of producer organisations, dissemination channels, as well as issues related to medication are common to the mariculture sector. The dependence on imports of feed, and equipment as well as the lack of processing facilities and competition from imported products are all issues that hinder the development of the trout farming sector.

Croatian aquaculture products are sold on the domestic market as well as exported. About half the production of seabass and seabream is exported, primarily to Italy, while the country’s entire production of fattened tuna is sent to exclusively to Japan. Shellfish exports to the EU have been permitted since Croatia’s accession in 2013. Production from the freshwater aquaculture sector on the other hand is sold primarily (85%) on the domestic market, the remainder is exported to Germany, Italy, Hungary and other EU countries. With accession to the EU Croatia lost access to its traditional markets in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro as Croatian products became subject to duties imposed by these countries.


Crna Mlaka
Ponds used for the extensive cultivation of fish also attract predators. Farmers may be able to diversify into nature tourism and bird watching to partly offset their losses.

Issues that affect the sector as a whole

The lack of organised breeding activities is an obstacle for the aquaculture industry in general, whether for marine fish, freshwater species, or shellfish. Hatcheries and selective breeding programmes used to be financed by the state, but today they are only carried out sporadically as private initiatives in some hatcheries and farms. As a result young fish are not produced in the numbers required by the industry and the balance has to be imported. Another issue common to the whole sector is the lack of reliable data. There is an urgent need to invest in data collection systems that can collect, analyse and disseminate data from the different players in the sector. This data should also encompass consumers and their fish consumption preferences and habits. Per capita consumption in Croatia of fish and seafood is 8-9 kg a year and increasing this will call for targeted campaigns to promote locally-farmed fish. The more data there exists about consumers and their tastes the more effective such campaigns will be. In addition to such campaigns producers need to organise themselves into producer organisations, develop and promote common standards, and create marketing channels and work closely with other stakeholders including the administration to increase the awareness and availability of farmed fish and seafood on the market. Taken together these measures should contribute to a gradual increase in production from the farming sector.