Aquaculture and Sustainability
In the current context of war, post-pandemic, climate change, socio-economic and financial uncertainty, and use of finite natural resources, the global challenge of feeding over 9 billion people by 2050 has become a complex UN goal, placing aquaculture as the most efficient and viable animal production to meet the challenges of nutrition and food security.
In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”1. However, these needs should encompass three fundamental pillars for the well-being of individuals and societies: economic development, social inclusion, and environmental protection.
In this way aquaculture should not only intensify its production for interim growth and individual economic profit, but it should also provide fair, equitable and distributed growth to create more and better employment opportunities and social inclusion and ensuring integrated management of natural resources and ecosystems.
How can Aquaculture be sustainable in these 3 pillars?
Social and economic pillars
Aquaculture has proven to be a revitalizing economic force in many coastal communities worldwide, particularly in areas where sustainable economic development is difficult to implement.
According to FAO, 20.7 million people are involved in the primary sector of aquaculture production alone, of which 28% are women. However, the same report shows that small producers are still vulnerable, with sometimes precarious working conditions (FAO, 2022)2. It then becomes urgent to build a strong and well-regulated sector at a global level, allowing more and better working conditions, at local level. In fact, access to safe, quality and nutritionally complete and affordable food is fundamental for building a fairer society and that is possible through aquaculture. Being able to produce animal protein, such as fish, locally is fundamental to human health and allows the communities that produce this food to improve their primary processing capacity and ensure fresh and high-quality products.
A developed and strong aquaculture sector promotes more employment opportunities that go beyond production: in processing and transformation of fish into value-added products (canned and frozen), in trade, as well as feed and equipment manufacturing industries, among others. In addition, aquaculture generates employment throughout the year, which becomes a very relevant fact, for example, in the Algarve, a region that hosts the largest number of aquacultures in the country and where most of the employment is generated by tourism and, therefore, of a seasonal nature. It should be noted that in Portugal, in 2020, aquaculture registered 1162 workers in its service, in 458 companies, and that it fed, along with fishing, sectors such as fish preparation and preservation, feed, sales and retail trade – which together employed around 16,500 workers and generated a turnover of around 2 million and 700 thousand euros (DGPM2022)3.
The growth of aquaculture in the future will be achieved by increasing the number of farms, both on land and at sea, and by the sustainable intensification of farming processes, based on technological development and modernization. In more industrialized countries, the technological and scientific system has become essential for the advancement of the industry.
Government incentives and support were and are essential, generating knowledge that has been and continues to be taken into the industry. In turn, the industry also invests in innovation, allowing technological and innovative companies to be created along the entire fish chain, helping to improve the productivity and efficiency of the entire sector and adjacent industries. These synergies generate more highly qualified jobs, improving the standard of living of communities and at the same time allowing the sustained development of the sector.
On the other hand, conflicts sometimes arise over the use of land and water in communities close to aquaculture farms. Here, dialogue, literacy and an inclusive community-based approach can help overcome these issues, showing, for example, that the ecosystem services generated by aquaculture farms can promote an increase of fish in the area, protect coastal areas from rising sea levels, or even improve the biodiversity of the surrounding environment, facilitating social acceptance and creating synergies with other activities, such as tourism, generating capacity for communities to grow economically in the long term.
Aquaculture is the fastest growing activity in the animal production sector, contributing to more than 50% of the food produced for human consumption globally, and it has great potential to feed and nourish the world’s growing population2.
For this to happen, the intensification of aquaculture production is foreseen. However, the rapid expansion of the sector has been associated with many environmental sustainability concerns. Aquaculture activity is totally dependent on the natural conditions of the environment and can be affected by environmental changes resulting from industrial and anthropogenic activities, such as pollution from oil, gas and other mineral exploration, agriculture, and livestock farming.
However, aquaculture itself, if poorly managed, can affect the environment through increased excretion products from the species produced. The intensification of aquaculture production requires the use of larger quantities of water, causing a greater volume of rejected wastewater, fostering conflicts with other users of water resources4. There are also potential impacts such as eutrophication, toxic and ecotoxic impacts, use of antibiotics, use of land and water needed for feed production, decrease in biodiversity, introduction of non-indigenous species into the wild, spread/amplification of parasites and diseases, genetic pollution, dependence on capture fisheries5. It therefore becomes essential that aquaculture is developed in a sustainable manner with respect for the environment. The extent of the environmental impact depends on the species, the farming method, the density of production, the feed, the geological conditions of the site and the management of production – this being linked to laws and regulations that vary from the EU to non-EU countries.
The success of any aquaculture activity is based on the regulation for good management practices, such as the handling optimization, investment in disease prevention, such as the production of vaccines, prebiotics that improve the immune system of the fish and help decrease disease outbreak, etc… Still, many diseases do not have vaccines, so it is necessary to resort to pharmaceuticals. These generate some concern due to the impact they may have on the environment3.
However, in Portugal and in the EU, their use is limited and only carried out when strictly necessary. Furthermore, wastewater resulting from aquaculture production is increasingly being studied to be treated in a natural way (bioremediation) and reused for other purposes. Aquaculture is also considered a practice in balance with the environment, especially when its production is based on integrated multitrophic aquaculture systems (IMTA) or e.g., when producing bivalves – considered an incredibly sustainable source of protein, they are carbon-fixers, remove phosphorus and nitrogen from the water, and do not use fresh water or occupy land space6.
Currently, environmental impact studies are compulsory to obtain aquaculture production licenses, which, combined with increased restrictions, has led to focus on developing research, evolving techniques to increase production and profitability that simultaneously reduce or cancel environmental impact. It should be noted that in 2021, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority (IMR) analyzed 14135 farmed fish for illegal and undesired substances and concluded that the levels of pharmaceutical products and environmental toxins are below the limit value defined by the EU as being safe for human consumption.
The use of fishmeal and fish oil in diets from capture fisheries is a major contributor to the idea that aquaculture is not sustainable. The application of the FIFO (fish in, fish out) concept, although considered inaccurate by scientists and researchers in the field, is widely used by the public and mass media in a negative way. The idea that one is “feeding fish with fish”, which can serve as human food, has led to a greater investment by the industry to find alternatives to fishmeal and fish oil7. Thus, in recent decades animal nutrition experts have formulated aquaculture diets aiming at reducing dependence on limited marine resources, using, for example, plant-based ingredients, coproducts from fisheries and aquaculture and coproducts from land animal production that, together with insect proteins, have the greatest potential to provide the proteins required by fish. Food industry coproducts also have great potential through their biorefinery and/or bioconversion into raw materials. Microbial biomass also has tremendous potential however its production has high costs; biomass from microalgae have scalability limitations and from macroalgae protein limitations7. Worth noting that in 2016 1,627,478 tonnes of feed ingredients. In these, marine ingredients constituted 405,921 tonnes (25%), while 1,156,135 tonnes (71%) were of plant origin, and 65,422 tonnes (4%) were other ingredients9.
Outside the European Union laws and regulations are different and there may be production models that are potentially polluting and destructive to the aquatic environment – such as shrimp production, in some countries. This is why it is crucial to know the origin of the fish we eat. One of the crucial points in this matter of sustainability is the certification of seafood products.
Currently there are four schemes responsible for most of the certified production in aquaculture: Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Aquaculture Practice (GAA BAP), Global G.A.P. (GG), and Friend of the Sea (FoS). Each certification standard has a list of indicators and corresponding requirements, which are intended to ensure responsible sustainability practices (e.g., environmental, social, origin and type of ingredients used in diets, etc.).
Although these schemes have been the target of criticism in films such as Seaspiracy or journalistic articles (see Público), and being aware that they may need some adjustments, it is worth taking these certifications into account when making choices at the supermarket or at the local markets. These certifications show that there is auditing of aquaculture productions and that these must be able to meet a series of relevant requirements. In addition, certifications such as these can also be a protection against fraud, a major issue in the fish industry. It should, however, be noted that for small companies (as is the case for many productions in Portugal) it can be unaffordable to incorporate certification systems into their business. Although most criticism is directed at corruption for obtaining certificates in certain countries, we at B2E CoLAB believe that these certificates are fundamental facilitators for behavioral change for the industry and consumption.
In addition to these certificates there are mobile phone applications (apps) that guide us in choosing fish and that can help the consumer to determine whether or not the fish he intends to buy is a sustainable choice. Two of the best known are the Good Fish Guide (from the UK, from the Marine Conservation Society/MCS) and Seafood Watch, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in the USA. These apps work for both fisheries and aquaculture and operate on a traffic light system, based on local regulations, the way fisheries and aquaculture farms are managed and the health of the coastal resources, determining whether the consumption of a given species is sustainable or not. For these apps to work well, however, we need to know the origin of the fish we are buying at the time, and this is not always possible. Unfortunately, in many fishmongers and supermarkets the labels are not legible, were switched or are non-existent, not to mention in restaurants where we do not have access to the origin of the fish served. The solution is always to ask. We should always ask for the origin of the fish we are buying or eating. If the origin is not identified or if we do not know the answer, we should not buy it nor eat it.
In short, if done correctly, aquaculture can be sustainable at a socio-economic and environmental level. We should always give preference to national fish, which is well managed and applies European rules and regulations. Thus, by giving preference to what is ours, we are consuming fish of excellent quality and with low environmental impact. We are also helping the local and national economy, enhancing working conditions and contributing to reducing fish imports from countries whose production is not governed by the same rules and values as national and EU animal production.
- United Nations Brundtland Commission https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/sustainability
- FAO. 2022. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022. Towards Blue Transformation. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc0461en
- Relatório de Monitorização da Estratégia Nacional para o Mar 2021-2030 (DGPM 2022) https://www.dgpm.mm.gov.pt/post/2022-oe2
- Introdução à Aquacultura. Autores: Maria Teresa Dinis e Rui Miranda Rocha. Editora: LIDEL; Edição: 2021ISBN: 978-989-752-599-5
- Henriksson PJ, Guinée JB, Kleijn R, de Snoo GR. Life cycle assessment of aquaculture systems-a review of methodologies. Int J Life Cycle Assess. 2012;17(3):304-313. doi: 10.1007/s11367-011-0369-4. Epub 2011 Dec 24. PMID: 26069396; PMCID: PMC4456070.
- Alice R Jones, Heidi K Alleway, Dominic McAfee, Patrick Reis-Santos, Seth J Theuerkauf, Robert C Jones, Climate-Friendly Seafood: The Potential for Emissions Reduction and Carbon Capture in Marine Aquaculture, BioScience, Volume 72, Issue 2, February 2022, Pages 123–143, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biab126
- Turchini, G. M., Trushenski, J. T., & Glencross, B. D. (2018). Thoughts for the future of aquaculture nutrition: realigning perspectives to reflect contemporary issues related to judicious use of marine resources in aquafeeds. North American Journal of Aquaculture. doi:10.1002/naaq.10067
- Katheline Hua, Jennifer M. Cobcroft, Andrew Cole, Kelly Condon, Dean R. Jerry, Arnold Mangott, Christina Praeger, Matthew J. Vucko, Chaoshu Zeng, Kyall Zenger, Jan M. Strugnell, The Future of Aquatic Protein: Implications for Protein Sources in Aquaculture Diets, One Earth, Volume 1, Issue 3, 2019, Pages 316-329, ISSN 2590-3322, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2019.10.018.
- Aas, Turid Synnøve; Ytrestøyl, Trine; Åsgård, Torbjørn Einar, Resource utilization of Norwegian salmon farming in 2016 – Professional final report, Publisher Nofima AS.