Aquaculture is now the fastest growing food production sector. In 2011, the 66 million tonnes of fish farmed globally surpassed the figure for beef, constituting a 47% share of total fisheries output (with half for human consumption), a 43.8% rise since 1950. With the global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, and the simultaneous increase in demand for food, the role played by aquaculture in food security, particularly in rural economies, and growth in marine and maritime sectors will take on even more importance.
Although benefitting from aquaculture in many ways, however, these same economies can be vulnerable to the negative consequences of farming because of how the practice can affect the surrounding environment and ecosystems. These environmental concerns are increasingly being taken into account by a science portfolio that has widened from original questions of biology to include things like waste products, disease and parasites, and genetic interactions between wild and captive fish.
As aquaculture has diversified and expanded throughout ICES Member Countries, notably those in Europe, so has the discussion needed to build this science foundation. Industry representatives, stakeholders, managers and policy-makers have been involved over the course of many working group meetings and conferences. In a similar way to ecosystem-based management, examining and working with all players and components in the aquaculture story to inform trade-offs is crucial for moving towards future sustainability. This will be achieved through a healthy, well-maintained sector that treads the line between serving society through use of resources and preserving the stocks and ecosystems.
This effort involves hearing many voices from many different countries and, in both a science and an advisory capacity, juggling different interests and research priorities. Because aquaculture is a national affair, these priorities tend to vary from country to country, This was highlighted in the recent ERA-NET COFASP (Cooperation in Fisheries, Aquaculture and Seafood Processing) project, in which ICES was involved. However, issues like the development of methods to assess environmental interactions and wider knowledge of the relationship with marine ecosystems require trans-border cooperation. In this way, supporting with science and evaluating risks and impacts are two of the key areas to consider.
The pens dotting the cold coastal waters of Norway's 25 thousand kilometre shoreline contribute roughly 80% (or 1.4 million tonnes) of all European commercially farmed salmon. The birthplace of salmon farming, it is chief exporter to a global market for the species that now generates over five billion euros annually. Aquaculture there employs around six thousand people along the supply chain, boosting local communities as well as the country at large. Norway's industry, like that of its continent, has been stimulated by research investment and improvements in the technology (for example cages and nets) and biological aspects (genetic selection and growth).
Despite good sectoral management though, there are still conflicts that exist, including captive fish breaking free from their pens and potentially genetically impacting wild stocks. The large standing biomass of domesticated fish is also a breeding ground for harmful lice spreading their offspring to local wild populations.
There are also up and coming activities too, both here and elsewhere in Europe, including the farming of shellfish species such as mussels and oysters as well as aquatic plants like species of seaweed and algae. There is a need for investigation into any biophysical changes that might occur as a result of climate change effects such as altered weather patterns or ocean acidification – including the reproduction and growth of bivalve molluscs and links with spawning and mortality.
Southern Europe's Mediterranean coast is where the continent's biggest sea bream and sea bass producers ply their trade. Greece and Turkey together are responsible for 77% of output, followed by Spain at 11%, Italy at 5%, and several other smaller national producers. In 2014 this constituted nearly 300,000 tonnes, a number which has increased dramatically since inception in the early 1980s. Growth has been good over the last ten years, despite times at which the industry's economy has spiked and dropped sharply.
Most business is conducted by national small and medium enterprises (SMEs) scattered along the coast whose produce tends to be concentrated in domestic or local markets and tends to be characterized by a smaller product destined for the fresh fish market. An uneven structure poses challenges for countries in terms of communicating and strategizing, with SMEs also encountering administrative and financial difficulties that can hinder innovation.
Sectoral issues for the road ahead include collaborative work for selective breeding (marker-assisted selection), improvement of performance indicators like growth and mortality, and the need for investment in research and development for things such as nutrition and disease management. All this, channelled through closer international collaboration, are required to increase sustainable growth in the future. During COFASP, both the projects southern European participants and their Norwegian counterparts identified social acceptance and awareness of aquaculture as the number one priority.
The spectrum and diversity of research strands and interests amongst Member Countries was one item on the agenda at the recent scoping meeting, which was held at the National Marine Fisheries Research Institute (NMFRI) in Gdynia, Poland 9-10 February. Alongside the future research mentioned earlier, other topics identified as being able to benefit from ICES input included hydrography, potential productivity, socio-economic dimensions, and marine spatial planning.
Building on a foundation of aquaculture science and advice – the latter of which most recently saw a release on possible effects of salmonid aquaculture – the plan for ICES is to now intensify the workload and restructure the approach. Acknowledging the continued significance of aquaculture, and in accordance with ICES Strategic Plan, the renewed effort will be overseen by a strategic initiative, with work carried out by expert groups, which, aside from environmental interactions, will also prioritise risk assessment, carrying capacity, data collection and methodology, and foresight and projection studies.
Photo: Norsk Havbrukssenter