Is Aquaculture Doing More Harm Than Good to the Global Seafood Industry?

Feb 04,2020

Annually, people around the world consume around 160 million tons of seafood. Of these stocks, around 50 per cent has been estimated to come out of aquaculture operations. Further, much of the wild catch including forage fish such as anchovies and sardines pulled from the oceans each year, is used as food supplements for shrimp, salmon, tilapia, and trout growing operations in the aquaculture industry.

According to a recent estimate by the United Nations, the production from aquaculture operations is expected to rise by more than 30 per cent by 2026, and expectations for the industry are expected to continue growing in the near future. Further, researchers have been increasingly pushing to develop artificially manufactured alternatives to fish feed made from forage fish, without directly impacting human food sources.

It is important for the global aquaculture industry to move away from its dependency on forage fish, to be economically and environmentally sustainable. The business of aquaculture is currently very dependent on the promotion of farmed fish as a safe avenue to saving wild fish. It primarily leans on the theory that by substituting wild stocks with farmed seafood, the pressure on wild seafood would be reduced. This theory has been gaining popularity even as around a third of global wild stocks have reached a status of being overfished.

Aquaculture Does Little to Protect Wild Fisheries

According to recent studies, the increased production from the aquaculture industry has failed to result in a reduction of wild catches. Instead, researchers have found that aquaculture operations have been contributing to wild catches on a global scale.

The most common factor behind this trend is the use of wild fish to feed carnivorous farmed fish. In addition, the northern hemisphere has displayed a predisposition towards the consumption of high value seafood options, which have an intensive impact on the environment, which has pushed aquaculture operators to focus on expansion instead of conservation.

A major gap between supply and demand is being caused by the types of seafood being farmed, many of which are not accessible to a large portion of global consumers owing to factors such as culture, cost, and locality. In addition, aquaculture businesses have prioritized the production of high value commodities, instead of the growth of products, which are key to current human needs such as shellfish and seafood.

Consequently, the production of aquaculture commodities such as farmed salmon is not alleviating pressure on wild stocks, nor is it an affordable source of protein, which can be easily accessed by global populations.

Importance of Alternative Proteins in Fish Feed

Concerns about the impact of unregulated and illegal fishing, and falls in wild fish stocks have increased efforts towards developing and finding alternatives to forage fish for the aquaculture industry. According to researchers, a potential answer to sustainable aquaculture can be traced to urban cities, where high quantities of quality food waste is produced on a daily basis. Researchers have been searching for ways to convert urban food waste to fish feed.

Consequently urban fish farming aquaculture operations can potentially become sustainable sources of seafood, with a minimal environmental footprint. Businesses around the world are increasing investments towards alternative fish feed, while working to maintaining health benefits to seafood consumers.

Evonik, a German chemicals company has managed to produce a type of marine algae, which is rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Such products provide better nutrition to aquaculture- farmed fish in terms of DHA and EPA, in comparison to feed grade fish oils, which is essential to the health of farmed fish.

While Europe and North America have witnessed substantial advances in algae, researchers in Asia have been pushing for the cultivation of single cell proteins, and the growth of larvae from the black soldier fly. Researchers in Africa have also developed feed made from processed cassava waste, for feeding fish in aquaculture operations.

For researchers, boosting up the scale of such operations is the key challenge to success. The production of enough algae or insect feed requires massive inputs, while also having to keep the prices low. Aquaculture farmers will continue to choose cheap grain, until the microalgae industry is able to develop additional, sustainable avenues for revenue to maintain feasible operations.

Crawfish and Catfish Aquaculture Operations Gain Traction

The production of aquaculture sourced seafood, particularly in North America has started to stagnate, with brief spurts of growth for various species. However so far, there has been no major impetus. Overall, the farming of catfish and crawfish accounts for more than 85 per cent of freshwater aquaculture operations within the United States.

Further, the aquaculture operations for freshwater trout has also witnessed an incremental increase, while farmed salmon has witnessed stagnation and in some cases has even declined. The issues with the aquaculture industry in North America primarily stems from lower rates of investment and tougher frameworks for regulations in the industry, as potential investors struggle to push through existent red tape.

An increasing number of analysts are touting the growth of the land based aquaculture operations, which is a potential lifesaver for the North American aquaculture sector. However, the land based sector is highly dependent on technology to maintain feasible marine and freshwater conditions, without access to rivers and oceans.

As the global population continues to rise, the consumption rate of seafood is also likely to witness a proportional upwards trajectory. However, oceans are limited in terms of supplying adequate seafood for the global population.

Estimates by experts in the aquaculture industry have stated that aquaculture operations will have to double their production by the end of 2050, to produce adequate seafood to meet global demand. In addition, the amount of fish coming out from aquaculture is expected to surpass that of wild catches by 2022.

The labels of organic, local, and fair trade are rapidly gaining traction in the sustainable food movement. The impact of overfishing can be managed through the use of alternative aquaculture feedstock, which will aid in the recovery of oceans and rivers, and can consequently result in sustainable aquaculture harvests for the future.

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