Aquaculture, the practice of the farming of fish, shellfish and plants under controlled conditions, is becoming increasingly pervasive as a means of providing food, having rocketed from accounting for a 3.2% share of total fisheries production in 1950 to a huge 47% in 2011 (with over 50% of that destined for human consumption). According to the United Nations' Fisheries and Aquaculture department (FAO), present-day seafood generation through aquaculture now stands at 178.3 million tonnes.
Whether through oysters in the UK, salmon in Norway, or turbot in Spain, aquaculture in the 17 ICES Member Countries which actively harvest marine aquaculture (mariculture) products has shown rapid growth and diversification over the last three decades, and human reliance upon it has deepened. This comes with a spectrum of challenges for scientists and advisors.
Following its inaugural meeting this year in France, WGAQUA, an amalgamation of the former Working Group on Marine Shellfish Culture (WGMASC) and the Working Group on Environmental Interactions of Mariculture (WGEIM), now has the chief task of developing science and advice for the sustainability of aquaculture in the ICES area. In turn, this mirrors ICES vision of being able to attain a healthy and sustainable pan-regional sector in which other dynamics, such as jobs and services, play a part.
While ICES has been used more and more as a stage for the development of aquaculture science over the years, the spotlight has shifted somewhat. Initially, the major concern was building a biological base for fish farms and species development; over the past two decades, however, the environmental effects of such activity have come to prominence. Indeed, the fate and effects of waste products, the spread of diseases and parasites, organic loading, and genetic interactions between wild and cultured fish populations are all potential candidates for causing damage in aquaculture systems, and the industry itself has already been hit in certain places by nuisances such as sea lice. Alongside competition for sea space, such issues have led to heightened public debate as to an acceptable level of farming – adding another dimension to WGAQUA's work.
These are all issues that need taking into account as the group help ICES design the criteria for aquaculture sustainability that may be more globally relevant. As in Norway, where debate has been split between an industry seeking site expansion and larger tonnage licences and environmental NGOs and recreational salmon fisherman wishing to avoid negative environmental impacts, aquaculture disputes are already underway in various countries. And ICES and WGAQUA will need to be at the ready to answer questions when prompted.