“Oh No!” After all, It’s a Myth!
Blue Bioeconomy Collaborative Laboratory launches a new campaign to clarify myths about Portuguese and European aquaculture, regarding the European Day of the Sea, which will be celebrated this Thursday.
How many times have we heard that “aquaculture fish is less healthy and has less omega-3 than wild fish”? Or that “farmed fish does not taste as well as wild fish, and that it does not have a ‘sea flavour’? Or even that “aquaculture fish is full of antibiotics and is fed with flours”? These are some examples of myths surrounding farmed fish that the Blue Bioeconomy Collaborative Laboratory (CoLAB B2E) wants to clarify with the “Oh No!” After all, It’s a Myth! campaign, which is launched this week, on the occasion of the European Day of the Sea, which is celebrated this Thursday, May 20th.
Portugal is the third-largest seafood consumer in the world and the first in the EU, with a consumption of around 60 kgs per capita. However, at the European level, only 10% of seafood consumption comes from EU aquaculture. “National aquaculture has excellent quality, freshness and safety, and many of us have lived for years with myths that perpetuate ideas completely contrary to reality. Portuguese aquaculture products are very healthy and nutritious, produced in a sustainable way, using environmentally friendly processes and promote animal welfare”, reveals CoLAB B2E Technical-Scientific Coordinator, Elisabete Matos.
The campaign is available at the CoLAB website and social media pages, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram powered by the Tik Tok meme videos music phenomenon “Oh No”, a remix by the artist Kreepa. It is also a part of B2E’s commitment, included in the “Make Europe Blue” campaign (#MakeEUBlue), launched by the European Ocean Coalition (EU4Ocean), to mark the European Day of the Sea, already involving several European institutions.
The Great Myths of Portuguese Aquaculture
There are at least four major groups of myths surrounding aquaculture products, about: quality and nutrition; production, feed, and environmental impact; antibiotics and other hazardous compounds; and, finally, origin, reveals CoLAB B2E, one of the 35 national collaborative laboratories created by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education, and monitored by the National Agency for Innovation.
“It is important to note that aquaculture is not equivalent worldwide. A fish produced in Portugal – and in Europe – lives according to a set of well-established laws, rules and regulations developed to guarantee environmental protection, water quality, food safety and the protection of public health, being, therefore, perfectly safe”, adds Elisabete Matos.
Quality and Nutrition
Myth – Aquaculture fish is less healthy and has less omega-3 than wild fish.
Just as wild fish, farmed fish is rich in nutrients: in vitamins A and D, important minerals (iodine, zinc, magnesium, iron, selenium) and has low levels of cholesterol, together with highly digestible proteins. However, it is higher in fat than wild fish, which contains nothing less than the desired omega-3s, which are so good for us. In fact, the amount of omega-3s found in aquaculture fish is generally higher than that found in wild fish.
Myth – Aquaculture fish does not taste as well as wild fish, has no ‘sea flavour’ and is too fat.
Most Portuguese consumers cannot distinguish between aquaculture fish and wild fish. A study by DECO Proteste magazine (the Portuguese Association for Consumer Protection) carried out blind tests with aquaculture species and their wild equivalents, in 2001, and showed that, in most of the studied species (sea bream, sea bass and turbot), the preference of the Portuguese was random, with around 50% preferring fish from aquaculture and the rest from wild, which denotes that they do not make the distinction. In the case of trout, 80% of the Portuguese preferred aquaculture to wild fish – which is possibly due to the higher percentage of fat, which makes the fish more succulent. At their home tables, it is common for the Portuguese to consume fish from aquaculture, apparently without knowing it.
“But they live in cages or tanks!”
Fish from Portuguese aquaculture lives a proper life, with space to swim and prey, and its environment is controlled so that its quality is not affected. The environmental conditions and water quality of farmed fish are frequently monitored, from maternities, where they are born, to harvesting.
Don’t believe that Portuguese farmed fish felt incarcerated. Densities used during production are designed to maximize animal welfare, since most of the time we are talking about species adopt a shoaling behaviour and are already naturally grouped. In Portugal, aquaculture of fish is carried out in semi-intensive or intensive regimens, that is, with animal densities per cubic meter of water of 4-5 kg/m3 and about 35 kg/m3, respectively. The fish has space to exercise and to express its natural behaviour.
Production/ Feeding/ Environmental impact
Myth – Aquaculture fish is fed flours.
These fish are fed with specific feed and these are not flours. It is feed in pellet form, composed of several ingredients, which have been tested and selected to ensure that a specific species grows in the best possible way, while ensuring the best fish quality and flavour. The main ingredients used are fishmeal and fish oil, vegetable proteins and vegetable oils (soy, rapeseed, corn), and by-products of the agri-food industry, also rich in protein and fat. Most of the species we produce in Europe are carnivorous and, as such, do not need carbohydrates in their diet.
“But giving wild fish to fish is not sustainable.”
You are absolutely right: feeding aquaculture fish with wild fish is not sustainable. That is why the amounts of protein and fish oil of wild origin used in aquaculture are decreasing, and both aquaculture and feed producers have been using for some time more sustainable ingredients in their diets, such using by-products from the canning industry. “To where do you think the heads of the canned sardines you consume are going?” Asks Elisabete Matos. Other ingredients used are oilseeds and legumes, rich in proteins and fats, and it is now possible to replace 100% of marine ingredients of wild origin.
“Giving soybeans and other plants to fish is also not sustainable.”
Truth: that is why aquaculture goes hand in hand with science and innovation, so that researchers can find new nutritional sources (such as microalgae, bacteria, insects, fish by-products, among others, preferably following the principles of circular economy, a future trend of which this publication is an example), which provide the same essential nutrients necessary for the development of all animals, including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and amino acids.
However, note that all animals need to be fed, and farmed fish are more efficient at converting food into protein for human consumption than any other animal produced, such as cows or pigs (as you can see here).
Antibiotics / Other hazardous compounds
Myth – “Aquaculture fish are full of antibiotics and hormones.”
Oh no! Fish feed do not have antibiotics nor are they full of hormones or toxins. Ingredients used in diet formulation are subjected to regular testing and motorized to avoid contaminations. The use of antibiotics in a preventive way was banned in the EU in 2006 and, when it is necessary, for clinical reasons, to give antibiotics to fish, this process is done by a certified veterinarian, using as little as possible and permitted by law. After treatment with antibiotics, fish undergo a “mandatory quarantine” process, being retained in the farm for the necessary time for all traces of antibiotics that could be found in the body, to disappear. Only then, after this period, may fish be caught for human consumption. In fact, DECO has been analysing aquaculture fish and has not detected any trace of antibiotics (see here, at minute 29).
And we add, in aquaculture, science and innovation have taken great steps towards the development of vaccines – and alternative methods to the use of antibiotics – and to them it is due the successful farming of some aquaculture species. As for hormones, their use in animal production is not permitted across the EU, in any type of animal production, since 1981.
Myth – “But fish feed must have something because fish grow faster than in the wild.
Unlike what happens in the ocean, where available food varies depending on the time of year and weather conditions, in aquaculture fish are fed frequently, which explains the faster growth. It is true that the producers want to take their fish to the market as soon as possible. But at any cost? If the fish is not good, nobody will buy it and the business is no longer profitable. That is why fish are given diets developed specifically for a certain species and stage of development. In fact, we even alter diet composition that fish adapt better to certain natural environmental conditions – more and more frequent with climate change. An example are the specific diets for gilthead seabream during winter, as this species is very sensitive to low temperatures and needs nutritional and immunological support during this period, to avoid pathologies. Everything is done for the best growth and development of the animal. A seabream from Portuguese aquaculture takes an average of 18 to 24 months to reach 400g. A fish over one kilogram can take 3-4 years to reach that weight, with its growth depending on the temperature of the water.
Myth – aquaculture fish are slaughtered with great suffering.
In Portuguese aquacultures, when fish is caught, a crowding procedure is made and fish are removed through nets and immediately placed in a mixture of water with ice, between 0-2 ºC. The temperature shock anesthetizes the fish, making the process practically painless and relatively fast, with death occurring after 30 minutes. In traditional fishing, fish is not slaughtered this way, and dies of asphyxiation, which can take a few hours. Fish are considered sentient beings (sensitive and conscious) with the ability to feel pain and experience suffering. Over the past few decades, research has been carried out in the EU regarding fish welfare during farming and slaughter. The correct handling of fish in aquaculture is challenging, since several factors affect individuals and species differently. For example, in the case of salmon, at slaughter, the mixture of water and ice is ineffective, and other methods of stunning are used, such as electric or percussive shock (used in terrestrial animals as well, such as chicken, swine and cattle). It is essential to have experienced and highly trained personnel in aquacultures, who are responsible for fish and their welfare, to minimize possible risks (such as stress and injuries) associated with practices currently used. It is also absolutely necessary that exposure to air is kept to a minimum, and further research is needed in order to develop methods of pre-slaughter and slaughter that avoid animal stress.
Good practices will be reflected in what we like the most about fish: high nutritional value and excellent taste.
Myth – aquaculture fish is not sustainable and is not as fresh as the wild.
The ideal is that aquaculture products that arrive at our tables are either national or European. In addition to the importance of origin, by consuming local fish we are contributing to the stability and sustainability of the trade balance (currently around 65% of the seafood consumed in the EU is imported). What is certain is that any import of food products into the EU follows strict food security and control rules and, at its origin, production must follow duly regulated standards. Even so, Portuguese aquaculture is ecologically more sustainable and, due to its proximity, will reach the market in less than a day. There is nothing fresher than this. In addition, by consuming Portuguese aquaculture products you will be contributing to the reduction of the famous carbon footprint and, consequently, contributing to a better future.
But aquaculture is not just about producing fish. Seaweed, mussels, clams, and oysters can be farmed. And they are not fed at all: they are filtering animals and feed on the nutrients present in the water. This is as sustainable as any food production can get.