CABI Blog

On 27 February at Aquaculture 2007, the Trienniel Meeting of the World Aquaculture Society, National Shellfisheris Society and American Fisheries Society – Fish Culture Section, the Plenary Lecture was given by Dr Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund. The theme was how the WWF is acting to promote sustainable food production, focusing on aquaculture.

The policy of the WWF, which has an annual budget of $400M has changed greatly in recent years. Rather than acting through direct-intervention wildlife conservation projects at the ‘coal face’, the charity is focusing on changing market forces to work towards nature conservation; working to reduce impacts on natural resources, and anticipating global trends to predict impacts and opportunities. By 2015, all of the Fund’s resources will be directed towards these activities.

So why is aquaculture so important? It is the fastest growing agricultural sector. Along with rapidly growing production there is rapidly growing consumption of aquatic products throughout the world. The FAO forecasts a 1.5 kg/person increase in global aquaculture-produced seafood consumption. Technology of aquaculture production of pelagic species increased greatly in the 1990s and aquaculture is now the dominant means of seafood production. Foods from sea and freshwater can generally be caught by fishing or produced by aquaculture. Fishing has direct impacts on wildlife. In theory, if done well, aquaculture should have fewer impacts. But at the moment there is very little data to establish this. Aquaculture has impacts as well.

The aquaculture industry faces a very steep learning curve as consumption and production increases rapidly; production efficiencies have to be improved along with greater understanding of their impacts. Standards are essential to reduce impacts. Impact regulation is something the industry will have to embrace as consumer awareness grows. The signs are already there. Tesco has already asked for suppliers to provide information on the energy used per kilo in production of their items, taking into account the “whole footprint”, Jason explained.

Any working model of regulation for sustainability has to be built on a consensus of key impacts and an agreement throughout the food management chain to work to reduce them. This is difficult to establish; impacts change as awareness of impacts change and they also increase as food management chains increase under the relentless influence of globalization.

The first attempt of the WWF at tackling these problems in aquaculture was a comparison of shrimp production by farming with that of trawling. This resulted in a 220-page report. Both industries had a significant impact, but the greatest impacts were those of fisheries, primarily through benthic disturbance and by-catch.

The study: Shrimp aquaculture and the environment, was carried out by a consortium; World Bank, NACA, FAO, WWF and involved 40 case studies, with the input of 120 researchers from 20 countries. FAO COFI (Committee on Fisheris) adopted the recommendations in 2006. The study now provides a template for further investigations to identify key impacts of different sectors of aquaculture and fisheries production and how to set about reducing them. See http://www.worldwildlife.org/cci/dialogues/shrimp.cfm .

The project also helped define the WWF approach:

  • Get involved. A WWF workbook will be produced as a guide to its employees, published by Island Press, and based on the modus operandi of the shrimp study.
  • Be strategic – tackle the key impacts of key species by consensus with stake holders throughout the food management chain
  • Improve market “pull” to reduce impacts using business cases
  • Build consensus through dialogue with others

The Fund has set itself the task of acting as a facilitator throughout all these processes.

So where next? The first approach has been to ask, which are the key species to investigate – those that we are producing now and are going to be intensifying production in the future? Having identified key species, Jason showed a matrix approach of grading impacts by species produced. Different species have different impacts. The matrix provides a tool for identifying species with the most impacts and which ‘issues’, ranked by impact significance, have greater resonance across species. There have been interesting findings; predator control has the highest impact resonance across all species investigated. The key impacts of different aquaculture species vary greatly. Key impacts for salmon include chemical input, benthic impact, disease transfer, escapes, feed/nutrient loading and social impacts (labour requirements), whereas the most important impact of tilapia production is the invasiveness of this species.

Each key species has been assigned a dialogue group that have identified 6 to 8 key impacts to work on. Investigations into salmon production were given as an example; each impact is now being investigated by a Technical Working Group of five to eight scientists. The groups started work in 2006 and have now started to report on requirements for next steps.

The goal of their work is to develop performance standards taking into account the practical experience of producers. Initial investigations have shown that the best regulatory approach is result-oriented rather than to define “good”, or “best practice”. “There is no best practice, only better practices”, whereas “good practice” merely relates to the legality of the methods employed, Jason explained. Different producers will have different results even though the same working practices have been followed. At the moment, about 20-30% of producers are obtaining acceptable results. This proportion needs to be at least doubled as soon as possible. A result-oriented approach seeks to elevate the performance of all producers without restricting the methods employed.

“Sustainability isn’t about compliance, but finding new ways of getting the best results”.

In order to really influence the industry, the WWF say that standards should apply to all producers, big and small, and should be voluntary. The charity is also committed to facilitating their development by a multi-stakeholder process, linking buyers to producers in the venture and working with existing organizations. The target is to vet standards for 10 to 12 species over the next 10 to 12 years.

A lively discussion in a following seminar highlighted many complexities in the process of making aquaculture sustainable. Firstly, there has to be an agreement on what is meant by ‘sustainable aquaculture’, and it became clear from the debate that individual farmers, politicians, and environmental scientists, taking a worldwide view, might all have different opinions as to what the term actually means. There are also intricacies in energy flows, and knock-on effects that need to be considered. For example, there is a generally held opinion that it is a good thing, environmentally, to reduce the amount of fish meal going into feeds, however, decreasing levels of this ingredient and replacing it with more starchy substances leads to increased levels of excretion by cultured animals. All these factors need to be weighed up carefully.

An interesting element was added to the discussion when it was suggested that the talk had been too focused on monoculture of aquatic species and that new and established methods of polyculture may hold answers as to at least some of the problems posed. A comment viewed very favourably by the expert panel.

Challenges ahead include finding a ‘home’ for the WWF’s dialogue standards and convincing the market to recognise progress. A certification process is essential and needs to be agreed. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is to educate consumers. Products with fewer impacts might be more expensive to produce, but may also be more healthful (decreasing impact might include reducing the use of antibiotics or the risks of contamination with heavy metals), as well as better for our shared environment. As Dr Clay said, “Science is on our side”, but communicating that to the general public poses a scientific and cultural challenge in itself.

The CAB Abstracts database has full coverage of all aspects of Aquaculture, including over 700 aquaculture records cross-referenced with the term, ‘sustainability’. Also see the Aquaculture Compendium for information on all aspects of the health and production of marine and freshwater aquatic animal and plant species.

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