Stronger inter-regional collaboration could promote sustainable aquaculture around the world

EM4 20 LaszloNACCEE encourages young professionals’ participation

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 4 / 2020.

Dr Laszlo Varadi has been involved in the freshwater aquaculture sector for a lifetime. Retiring as director of HAKI, the Hungarian Research Institute for Fisheries and Aquaculture, though still attached as an International Advisor, he is today the President of the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Central-Eastern Europe (NACCEE) and also works at the Department of Public Policy and Management at Corvinus University in Budapest. He shares here some of his opinions about the sector and its future.

HAKI, an institution that you led for many years, plays a key role in the development of Hungarian aquaculture by research into aquaculture, fish biology, and aquatic ecology. Could you envisage HAKI diversifying into other fields of research further down the value chain?

Multidisciplinarity and value chain approach are becoming important guiding principles in the research programs of HAKI. The management of HAKI are doing its best to organize the research program in a way to be able to assist national and international research programs in aquaculture development that contribute to the achievement of objectives of the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy. Beside the “classic” research activities, the knowledge and technology transfer, the collaboration with stakeholders for development of aquaculture and sustainable fisheries management in natural waters are also important targets for HAKI. The institute has a young and capable staff and I am incredibly pleased that I can work for HAKI as an International Adviser.

The use of recirculation aquaculture systems in Hungary is increasing though from a very low base. Currently it is mainly African catfish that is being produced in these intensive systems. Given the abundance of water in Hungary, will this mode of production ever expand to cover other species and develop into more than just a niche technology?

The production growth of African catfish is a success story in Hungary thanks to the activity of the innovative Szarvasfish Ltd. The system the company uses is not a conventional RAS, but partial water recycling and effluent treatment on wetland are essential components of the system. Hungary is rich in geothermal waters and the utilization of this unique resource for aquaculture is far from fully exploited. In my opinion there is a great potential in Hungary to combine indoor and outdoor RAS supplied with geothermal water with pond fish production. Research in this area has been started in Hungary.

Hungary has developed and implemented several technologies that increase the efficiency of freshwater farmed production. Could, for example, countries in Asia usefully deploy these methods there and do you see a role for Hungary as an exporter of these technologies and knowhow?

In the 1970s FAO assisted the development of the Hungarian aquaculture sector and since that time Hungary has been involved in numerous aquaculture development projects in developing countries especially in Asia, where pond aquaculture is dominant in fish production. Hungary has a definite role in the export of knowledge and technologies to developing countries. In my opinion this is an unexplored opportunity for many European institutions and organisations that have valuable capacity to contribute to the eradication of hunger and poverty in the world.

Hungary and Laos have a project in the field of freshwater aquaculture, for which you are an advisor. What is the project about and how did it come about? What benefits do the two countries derive from this collaboration?

Cooperation in aquaculture development with Laos started in the 1980s and was supported by FAO at that time. Later, when Hungary, as member of the EU, became donor country, Laos was one of the first Least Developed Countries that received a so-called “tied aid loan” from the Hungarian government for the development of the livestock and fish production sector. The project is a good example of how expert consultancies and R&D projects lay the foundation of viable economic cooperation. Beneficiaries of the projects are SMEs from both Hungary and Laos. We are proud of the establishment of a Hungarian-Lao joint venture company (ADC), which is producing high quality tilapia fingerling. It is also remarkable that fish culture was the “entry point” for other projects (e.g. feed manufacturing, livestock production, plant cultivation, irrigation) in the production of healthy and safe food in Laos.

You are a strong proponent of international collaboration in the field of freshwater aquaculture as can be seen in the project with Laos as well as your presidentship of the Network of Aquaculture Centres in Central and Eastern Europe (NACCEE). How can this international approach be deepened so that all participants benefit? How do you anticipate NACEE evolving over the next few years?

The establishment of NACEE in 2004 was an important step towards the reduction of the gap between the Eastern- and Western European regions in aquaculture cooperation after the economic and political changes in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The development of collaboration, however, cannot be limited to European collaboration and NACEE is ready to be an active participant of inter-regional collaboration. In the spirit of this concept NACEE in Central and Eastern Europe and NACA in Asia signed an agreement, however, in my opinion, wider and stronger interregional collaboration would be a good contribution to the development of sustainable aquaculture worldwide, in particular poor countries. NACEE makes efforts to involve young professionals in its programs. The regular Young Scientists Conference is one of the achievements of NACEE, however further efforts are needed to increase the participation of young professionals from other regions. In addition, of course, NACEE is constantly looking for new ways of benefiting both its members and the region’s aquaculture sector. Both the world and our region have already changed a lot compared to what they looked like at the time of NACEE’s establishment and we must adapt to the new conditions.

You have been involved in the field of freshwater aquaculture for several decades. What, in your opinion, are the most noteworthy developments you have experienced over that period? Where do you see the sector heading over the next 10 years?

In freshwater aquaculture - not only in Hungary but all over the world - pond fish culture has a dominant role. In my opinion the strengthening of sustainable intensification is an important development trend in freshwater pond fish farming. New systems and technologies (e.g. Combined Intensive Extensive (CIE) and Integrated Multitrophic Aquaculture Systems (IMTA) make it possible to produce more fish in a unit area besides maintaining the capacity of natural-like fishponds to provide ecosystem services. Multifunctionality is also a promising trend for the future, where fish production is combined with ecosystem and touristic services, water and landscape management, cultural and educational programs.

Freshwater aquaculture is a source of healthful protein and also provides significant environmental services (contributing to biodiversity, nutrient retention, water management, and carbon sequestration among others). Yet in Europe annual production has increased by less than 1% over the last decade. What prevents the sector from growing faster?

There are various reasons, that have been revealed by numerous studies, including the massive import (partly due to the lack of a “level playing field”) and the sometimes too strict regulations. However, in my opinion one reason is the inefficient and slow transfer of knowledge and technology from research to the industry. I hope that organisations like European Aquaculture Technology and Innovation Platform (EATiP) will contribute to the exploration and application of available and new research results for the benefit of European aquaculture growth.

The influence of climate change on wild fish distribution and abundance is expected to increase in the future. What are the conceivable impacts on freshwater farmed fish and what consequences is it likely to have for the sector as a whole? Are there ways in which these effects can be mitigated?

The change in wild fish distribution and abundance may not influence significantly freshwater pond aquaculture in well managed fishponds, however, climate change has obvious effects on pond fish culture, both positive (e.g. increasing biomass production) and negative (e.g. diseases, drought, extreme weather events). HAKI was a member of the EU Climefish project and responsible for the elaboration of a case study on the effect of climate change on pond fish culture. The Decision Support Framework as a major deliverable of the project will assist farmers to adapt to the changes and mitigate the effect of climate change. Hungarian farmers are open to apply this tool.

As countries gradually lift restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the impacts of the lockdown are becoming more apparent. How has the pandemic affected the production and consumption of freshwater fish in Hungary? Has the situation resulted in any positive outcomes, for example, increased sales to local consumers?

According to preliminary estimations, the annual loss due to coronavirus pandemic is about 30-40% in the intensive aquaculture sector and 10-20% in the fishpond sector. The intensive farms mainly supply their products to the “Horeca” sector, which has virtually collapsed, while pond fish farms could release a part of their carp stock into angling waters based on an agreement reached with the national anglers’ association. The situation gives a momentum to the exploration of the potential in the local sales to proximity markets and the use of mobile fish vans. New research and innovation tasks have also been outlined to become more resilient against such crises in the future.