Shaping a vision for European Aquaculture development

EM4 19 AQ Verona conf DSC3203Aquaculture continues to grow faster than other major food production sectors reports the FAO’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 (SOFIA). In the last few years this statement has become a motto for the European aquaculture sector to persuade local, regional, national and European regulators to develop consistent strategies and programmes to replicate global growth in the sector at the European level.

In 1956 only 1.2 million tonnes of farmed fish and seafood products were produced globally, a figure that climbed to 3.73m tonnes in 1976 (about 300%), and to 26.54 million tonnes (about 700%) over the next 20 years. Between 1996 and 2016 global aquaculture reached a peak of 80 million tonnes (about 300%) and is still growing, while growth in the European Union lags far behind. In this context the International Organisation for the Development of Fisheries and Aquaculture in Europe (EUROFISH) in collaboration with the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), the Italian Ministry for Agriculture, Food, Forestry Policies and Tourism, and the Italian Fish Farmers Association (API), organised an event to discuss the future of European aquaculture as seen by a wide range of stakeholders. The international conference “Aquaculture Today & Tomorrow. Unlock the Potential” was attended by more than 100 participants from 28 countries.


Current status and challenges: realising aquaculture’s potential

Fabio Massa, Senior Aquaculture Officer at GFCM, took a deep look into the Mediterranean and Black Sea countries’ aquaculture which directly and indirectly employs 450,000 people, comprises more than 35,000 farms, and generates about USD6.2 billion from more than 100 aquatic species. The GFCM’s strategy for the sustainable development of Mediterranean and Black Sea aquaculture includes building an efficient regulatory and administrative framework to secure sustainable aquaculture development, enhancing interactions between aquaculture and the environment while ensuring animal health and welfare, and facilitating market-oriented aquaculture and enhancing public perception. Achieving this means having an inclusive, transparent, and participatory approach and better communications between all stakeholders. This will not only improve and simplify the regulatory schemes, which should be based mainly on self-regulation, but will provide also the scientific support for sustainable aquaculture development and for increasing social acceptability of aquaculture which is nowadays affected by various misconceptions and a lack of robust data.

One of the most debated subjects all over the world is climate change and its impact on global food security. Graham Mair, Aquatic Genetic Resources Programme leader, FAO said that “although aquaculture is not benign with regard to contributions to greenhouse gases its impacts on climate change are not likely to be significant relative to other impacts on the environment and the relative impacts of other forms of agriculture”. On the other hand, there is a wide range of positive, neutral and negative effects on aquaculture which are taking place over different time and spatial scales and the main problem will be tackling their cumulative effects. Some of the ways of boosting the European aquaculture even within this uncertain context were identified by Marco Gilmozzi, President of the Federation of European Aquaculture Producers (FEAP). The European Union produces 2.6 kg of seafood per capita while the global average is 10 kg/capita and Norway produces 280 kg/capita. By 2050 the main source of fish for human consumption will be aquaculture (75%). But the question, addressed by many speakers, is how can the EU join this growth? According to FEAP, we need institutions to reduce bureaucracy and licensing time, we need rules to increase traceability and to achieve a level playing field.

Growth in EU aquaculture will continue to lag that in Asia

With one third of the wild stocks still overfished aquaculture is considered to be the optimum seafood source for consumption. Short term prospects for aquaculture by 2030 were presented by Adrienne Egger, FAO Fishery Officer responsible for statistics on fishery and aquaculture utilization, consumption, production, and trade. Freshwater inland fish farming dominated by carps and other freshwater diadromous fish and molluscs will be the engine of aquaculture growth in the next decade, but Asia will still lead this growth and Europe will still not meet its potential, mainly due to uncertainties such as availability of sites and water resources, diseases, financial resources or regulations.

As new concepts are trying to conciliate development and the environmental concerns, such as circular economy, the participants were offered the Norwegian salmon industry’s approach by Mari Moren, Research Director at the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research (NOFIMA). The research at Nofima focuses on two approaches: using better what we already use and using well what we don’t use yet. And as the salmon industry is based mainly on high protein diets the main challenge was to explore alternative protein sources such as marine low trophic species by products or other aquatic organisms, fish processing trimmings, land animal by-products, insects, plants and single cell bacteria or fungi. The concept refers not only to the inputs but also to the outputs and identified the sludge as a potential land fertiliser, biogas source and compost producing. The use of salmon by-products for various industries from bioenergy to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals has been explored and assessed.

Sustainable aquaculture practices and innovation

The husbandry of aquatic organisms developed in the last four millennia as a response to the need to have seafood for human consumption at the right time, in the proper quantity and with the appropriate freshness. The second session of the conference was dedicated to the innovative development of different types of aquaculture and to the rediscovery of old practices which still fit into the new concepts. One of the most dynamic aquaculture sectors in the Mediterranean and Black Sea Basin is found in Turkey and for this reason Sinan Toplu, a marine biologist and co-founder of ASC Aquaculture JC, provided an insight to the Turkish cage farming and off-shore mariculture. Between 2008 and 2018 Turkey succeeded to almost double its production from 150 thousand tonnes to about 300 thousand tonnes farming three main fish species: rainbow trout, seabream and seabass. Exploiting the tremendous carrying capacity of open seas was the main reason for the growth rate registered by the Turkish aquaculture sector.

Not only is climate change influencing the aquaculture production but also the market is changing permanently, and farmers must adapt to all these challenges. Marco Fuselli and Paola Salvador from Treviso Fish Producers, Produttori Ittici Trevigiani (PIT) a three-generation old company dealing with trout farming and processing in Italy, explained their approach on tackling both pressures. Apart from diversifying the production of rainbow trout from white trout classical size to pink trout at higher portion size which has been very well received by the consumers, they also opted for producing at high standards and short chains. They are also preparing the future consumers, the millennials, by using packaging with little environmental impact, easy to use and with an extended shelf-life and by promoting a better communication with schools and parents through nutritional education, farm visits and training.

Innovation contributes to aquaculture’s sustainable development

Another example of the role of innovation as a tool to responsibly develop aquaculture came from Hungary, where intensive pond fish farming can be sustainable. Béla Halasi-Kovács, director of Szarvas Research Institute for Fisheries and Aquaculture (HAKI) stressed the importance of pond fish farming not only for fish production per se, but also as a mean of recycling nutrients discharged by more intensive systems such as recirculation aquaculture systems (RAS) or intensive pond monoculture farming. Strong scientific arguments were presented showing that multifunctional fishponds are a unique segment of European aquaculture, a good example of a circular economy, and a net provider of ecosystem services that contribute to the achievement of Natura 2000 and Water Framework Directive goals.

In fact, at global level, the pond freshwater fish farming is still the main engine for aquaculture growth and production volumes of carps are the highest of any species. In order to understand the present and to shape the future of aquaculture an interesting perspective of the history of fish farming was provided by Cătălin Platon, President of the Romanian Fish Farmers Association (ROMFISH). The development of freshwater fish farming in Europe was linked for more than eight centuries to common carp as historical data shows. Concepts as multitrophic aquaculture or circular economy are not new, the use of different species having different nutritional niches or the use of pond muck to fertilize non-productive arable land were known since the Middle Ages. The reasons that European aquaculture is not a part of global growth were identified as bureaucracy and multiple layer regulation, poor access to marine and inland water, and the lack of long-term development policies and strategies dedicated to aquaculture.

RAS are an answer to constraints on space and water

One of the responses to difficult access to space and water is the recirculated aquaculture system. A very comprehensive insight into the actual status and the perspectives for RAS was offered by Eva Kovacs, international expert on inland fisheries and aquaculture at FAO Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia. The advantages of RAS for some species and some areas are obvious, but as in any other production system, there are some aspects that should be considered in order to avoid failures. In aquaculture one size doesn’t fit all and that is why research and innovation is needed to constantly improve. One of the new challenges of RAS is decreasing the environmental impact using integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA) by recycling discharged nutrients, which has been investigated by HAKI.

Another important segment of European aquaculture is shellfish farming and the current status of the Italian shellfish sector was described by Giuseppe Prioli, President of the European Mollusc Producers Association. The shellfish producers identified the same constraints for development as the entire European aquaculture sector, such as excessive bureaucratic burden, lack of legislation dedicated to aquaculture (marine or freshwater), acknowledgement of environmental services provided by filter-feeder species, spatial planning and allocation zones for aquaculture. The second major contributor to global aquaculture production after finfish inland farming is aquatic plant farming which reached in 2016 an output of 30.1 million tonnes. Miguel Sepulveda, a marine biologist and Coordinator of the Mariculture Program for SELT Marine Group in Tunisia, Mozambique and Zanzibar described seaweed farming and industrial processing for obtaining natural polysaccharides used in a wide variety of applications in the food and pharmaceutical industries. A very useful perspective of the European Organic Aquaculture niche market was offered by Dominique Aviat, founding director of AND International (France), also involved in the design and the development of EUMOFA, the first market observatory of fisheries and aquaculture products covering the entire EU. The core of the presentation was based upon the first attempt to assess the importance of EU organic aquaculture at EU level and for each of the Member States. The study has shown that the share of organic production in the EU is still low, 3.9% (in volume) as there is a reluctance among retailers towards organic fish because consumers do not clearly differentiate between organic and environmental-friendly, and because farmers see organic as a niche market which cannot provide economies of scale, yet.

Expanding the farmed seafood market

A successful market for aquaculture products requires a proper match between the values of the product with the values looked for by consumers. Katia Tribilustova, market analyst at EUROFISH, provided an edifying overview of aquaculture products and markets, focusing on the main species produced by the European aquaculture, dominated, by far, by Atlantic salmon. Even with an 10% average increase of EU production between 2012 and 2017 of marine species (mussels, Atlantic salmon, gilthead seabream and European seabass) and also of freshwater species (carps), extra EU imports of Atlantic salmon, gilthead seabream and European seabass, continue to increase, while the EU continues to be self-sufficient in mussels, trout and carp. Products, whether from inside or outside the EU, all need to be packaged appropriately. Packaging is not only a method for preserving the freshness, the taste and flavours of seafood but also a way of communicating to the customer, a condition for itemization and an opportunity to differentiate the product by adding a personal touch. Gonzalo Campos, Fish Marketing Manager Europe Sealed Air Food Care, USA, presented the novelties in seafood packaging as tools for transforming fish commodities in value-added seafood nutritional concepts and develop sales in new markets.

An interesting insight into consumer demands and perceptions in Italy was offered by Andrea Fabri, Director of the Italian Fish Farmers Association (API). The decision to buy or not a certain aquaculture product is strongly influenced by media in all its classical or modern forms. Lots of more or less real information about aquaculture is released continuously overwhelming the farmers capacity to react. Some of the solutions, like labelling and certification, induce, in many cases, more confusion. An important role in clarifying this confusion rest upon farmers’ organisations which by developing codes of good practices and communicating them to the consumers is expected to improve their awareness that the European aquaculture products are respecting the social, environmental and welfare rules. Adding value to the farmed product and, more importantly, capturing it for the farmer’s benefit was the core issue for the Editor of the Polish Fish Industry Magazine, Tomasz Kulikowski, who analysed these mechanisms for carp and trout markets in Poland. Some of the proposed solutions for capturing the added value at the farmers level which could be tackled individually or combined are the vertical integration of the process, a diversification strategy, science, innovation and production reorientation and the joint activities of producers’ organizations.

Certification can help overturn prejudices

Aquaculture is often falsely linked with hazards and risks to occupational, environmental, food safety and public health. Because the complexity of aquaculture in terms of species, techniques, environments and technologies the public perception is strongly affected by these generalizations. One of the tools intended to overturn the bad press related to aquaculture is the certification and detailed data beyond the required audits in order to be granted with one of the multiple schemes available on the market were presented by Melanie Siggs, Director of the Global Aquaculture Alliance. During the conference presentations lots of solutions were identified to increase the role of European aquaculture in consumers’ preferences, but at the core of these solutions are the producers’ organisations (PO). Pier Antonio Salvador, President of Italian Fish Farmers Association, explained to the audience the roles and missions of a PO both in terms of increasing farmers knowledge, competences and science-based actions and in terms of the dialogue with all the stakeholders which are influencing the viability of the sector. According to Pier Antonio Salvador the aquaculture sector is like an orchestra where the farmers are the violins, the R&D is flutes, oboes, bassoons and clarinets, politicians are the brass wind instruments, the public administration is  trumpets, trombones and tubas, the NGOs are the percussion, the media is the timpani section, other stakeholders are the guitars, pianos, harps and basses. Everybody is wondering who is writing the sheet music and who is conducting the symphony!

The three sections of the conference were followed by a panel discussion on sustaining the future of aquaculture and aquaculture products that was moderated by Steve Chaid, TV and radio presenter, Austria. One of the main challenges to the future of European aquaculture, as Katia Tribilustova mentioned several times during the debate, is improving the public perception of aquaculture products. This is a task not only for the producers, but also for the administration and other stakeholders. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has to be used also by aquaculture as a tool for improved communication and refined marketing strategies based on AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) concept according to Kadu Melo, Executive Creative Director at BMO Tactile Branding, Spain. Aquaculture producers are mainly micro or small/medium enterprises, as pointed out by Giuseppe Prioli, and for that reason are not financially strong enough to support promotional campaigns at the level of other industries. So, as Tomasz Kulikowski sees it is more important to have a good communication strategy developed by aquaculture producers in order to provide the consumers with a high-quality information about a high-quality farmed product. Mari Moren highlighted that an important part of the communication strategy on aquaculture must be based on scientific data and the researchers must join the farmers in building up trust and increasing the authenticity of their messages.

Aquaculture’s complexity creates layers of bureaucracy

The future of European aquaculture depends on every stakeholder involved in this sector, because an aquaculture strategy should not be only for the public authorities responsible for aquaculture but also for the ones responsible for environment or water management. The complexity of the sector generates a multilayer governance which in most cases is the origin of the growth-hindering bureaucracy. Things are to be done by the administration at all levels like simplifying the access to fresh or marine waters and the licensing procedures including water management, environment and aquaculture practices. It is also very important that aquaculture research plays a more important role in shaping the public perception about farmed products and the partnership between farmers and scientists must be increasingly supported and encouraged. This should contribute to the social acceptance of some forms for aquaculture which are often subject to fake or incorrect portrayal in the media. Social acceptance of aquaculture practices could also be increased by highlighting the socioeconomic role of the sector together with the environmental one. “I think it’s important to emphasize also the importance of ecosystem services provided by aquaculture and the positive role played by fish or other aquatic organisms farming, in rural communities for the local development,” said Riccardo Rigillo, General  Director in the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forestry Policies and Tourism, in his concluding remarks.

Vision for the sector is based on three pillars

The three main pillars of a vision for European aquaculture were mentioned by the speakers and the participants: more adapted, flexible and simpler governance, more research and innovation and better communication. These are key to the sustainable development of European aquaculture and should be considered by all policy makers and stakeholders.

Catalin Platon, President of the Romanian Fish Farmers’ Association (ROMFISH),

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