Can new approaches to aquaculture pave the way for a more sustainable future?
As overfishing and unsustainable management are threatening wild-capture fisheries, aquaculture is filling the gap. The aquaculture industry is expected to grow by a third by 2030, with production reaching 109 million tonnes, and it is predicted that it will supply most of the aquatic protein in people’s diets by 2050. World aquaculture production enjoyed an average annual growth rate of 5.0% from 2011–2015. This fell to an average of 3.7% during 2016–2019, however, the contribution of aquaculture to total seafood production has risen steadily from 39.9% in 2010 to 48.0% in 2019 and is forecast to continue growing.
The expansion of aquaculture remains controversial due to several sustainability issues. In this article, we examine the debate on aquaculture and sustainability and consider future opportunities.
What are the aquaculture sustainability and environmental issues?
Despite its obvious potential to help fill falling production from wild capture fisheries, the aquaculture sector faces a range of sustainability and environmental challenges and remains controversial.The sustainability of aquaculture has been debated for decades. Potential issues include habitat destruction, the use of marine ingredients in feeds, freshwater usage, using wild juveniles for farm stocking, influencing wild gene pools through farm escapees, and the excessive loss of stock through disease and associated overuse of antibiotics.
Losses due to disease are estimated at $6 billion per year. Diseases include parasites such as sea lice in salmon; white spot syndrome virus in prawns; and tilapia lake virus, which threatens food security in many low- and middle-income countries.
As aquaculture expands disease problems are expected to grow. There are concerns over the effects these diseases may have on wild fish populations as well as the farmed fish.
How can technology and R&D provide sustainable solutions for aquaculture?
There are many ways in which technology and improved practices can enhance the sustainability of aquaculture.
Many fish farmers are improving the feed sustainability by using offcuts of fish already caught for human consumption and fish waste rather than using wild fish caught exclusively for aquaculture feed. To reduce pressure on wild fisheries, the industry is looking to alternative feed ingredients including crop-based ingredients (e.g., soy, rapeseed, wheat, groundnuts, and corn) and terrestrial animal by-products as substitutes for fishmeal and fish oil.
One Australian company is looking to genetics, Xelect has been running an advanced genetics-backed breeding program with Vietnam based barramundi producer Australis Aquaculture. The project was based on the idea of fasting tolerance, the ability of fish to maintain weight when feed is withheld for short periods. As a trait, fasting tolerance is highly correlated with feed conversion ratio (FCR) and efficiencies. Individual fish who spend less energy maintaining weight have a lower maintenance energy requirement which translates to improved feed efficiency. In the experiment, high weight maintenance groups showed a 12% improvement in FCR over low weight maintenance individuals. According to Australis R&D manager, Bartek Wieczorek:
“Evaluating fasting tolerance gives us an accessible means to precisely evaluate individuals and assign breeding values for feed efficiency without compromising fish welfare.”
Others are looking to the potential of other novel sources of protein in fish feed such as insects. Insects are part of the natural diet of many farmed fish species and insect meals can partially or completely replace fish and soya bean meals commonly used in aquaculture.
Aquaponic systems combine aquaculture and hydroponic crop production using a recycled water system. Aquaponics can help solve several sustainability issues, such as water scarcity, pollution, increasing fertilizer cost, and depletion of fertile soils. Aquaponics eliminate dissolved nitrates and phosphates from aquaculture systems by using them as plant nutrients. Biofloc fish production systems operate with minimum or zero water exchange which can help water efficiency in arid regions.
Interest and investment in aquaponics is strong, but production is often still small scale, and producers are looking to scale up. In 2021 Les Nouvelles Fermes, a French start-up announced that it had raised €2 million to build one of the largest urban aquaponics farms in Europe. The company had previously launched ‘Pauline’, an experimental farm in the Bordeaux area, which produces 20 tons of fresh vegetables and 2 tons of rainbow trout per year.
The new project will scale up production by launching ‘Odette’, a 5000 m² urban farm, which will employ up to 17 people.
Aquaculture investment opportunities
There is immense potential in the aquaculture sector to help meet food security challenges and provide sustainable protein in the future. Investment in new aquaculture technologies will help to ensure that this is done sustainably, and at the same time will provide investors with many new opportunities.
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