ICES releases Aquaculture Overview

New advice product incorporates interactions of environmental, economic, and social drivers of aquaculture as well as future projections and emerging threats and opportunities.
Published: 17 December 2021

*​​​​​​​​There is nothing new in writing that aquaculture is one of the fastest growing food production sectors in the world​, with its volume now accounting for more than half the world's seafood production or the important contribution that aquaculture makes to food security globally. Projections are that the growth in seafood supply attributable to aquaculture over the last few decades will continue. There is also nothing new in writing that ICES has worked on aquaculture throughout its history, and sustainable aquaculture has been an important component of ICES Strategic Plan for many years.

What is new is the advice product that ICES has published today - the first ever Aquaculture Overview

The dedicated Aquaculture Steering Group with Chair Michael Rust, NOAA Fisheries has been a catalyst for this work. 

"ICES is certainly on the path to being for aquaculture what it is for fisheries", notes Rust,"That is a community of scientists that apply their skills and research to ensuring that aquaculture is managed intelligently.  This includes both the science and the advice, plus the pathway between the two. This is a big topic and often overlooked by the relatively small aquaculture research community". 

With more active aquaculture expert groups than there has been at any time before, as well as dedicated aquaculture staff in the Secretariat and the EU’s European Green Deal support for sustainable aquaculture, the time is right to launch this new portfolio. The Norwegian Sea ecoregion is the first to be covered, becoming the first ICES ecoregion for which all three overviews (i.e. Ecosystem, Fisheries, and Aquaculture) are publishedWhat is also new is how this overview was produced and the content.

Rust comments that, "For me, the Aquaculture Overviews are an excellent chance to display the existing aquaculture industries in the ICES regions in an ecosystem context.  To some extent I think they illustrate how aquaculture is already being managed with an ecosystem approach, and can highlight where improvements can be made.

What would you like?

ICES now has extensive experience with Ecosystem and Fisheries Overviews. Using the ecosystem-based approach, ICES provides information on the status of fisheries and fish stocks in our ecoregions, as well as overviews of the state the ecoregions themselves.​

However, aquaculture is different. ICES member countries have signed international agreements to work together on fish stocks outside of national jurisdictions – as aquaculture typically occurs within a country's domain, there aren't such agreements in place.

So, for the first time in ICES advisory history, ICES asked many international and national stakeholders directly via an extensive online survey what areas they would like addressed in an aquaculture overview. The survey was carried out in 2019-2020 and included responses from industry, academic researchers, and NGOs. Overwhelmingly, the stakeholders requested climate change and socioeconomics information. 

How will climate change impact the future of aquaculture in terms of opportunities or challenges? What information is there on coastal communities who are impacted by aquaculture?

​The overviews set the social and economic context for aquaculture in the ecoregion describing the key drivers of aquaculture development and whether these drivers negatively or positively impact the nature as well as the extent of aquaculture development in the region over time, for example local food supplies and income/job creation vs international market demands and competition.

The in​clusion of the interaction of environmental, economic, and social drivers is a first for ICES advice and includes the most recent understanding on the potential environmental, economic, and social interactions to aid aquaculture planning. It also indicates the growing capability of ICES expert network to address socioeconomic issues.

Another first is providing a future perspective on threats and opportunities. Climate change, biological or ecological threats associated with aquaculture activities, and development trends (incl. emerging candidate species and production methods) are considered. 

The ​​Norwegian Sea ecoregion

Terje Svåsand, Institute of Marine Research, Norway, has been leading the work ecoregion work on this first Aquaculture Overview. The Working Group on Risk Assessment of Environmental Interactions of Aquaculture​ (WGREIA​) and Working Group on Social and Economic Dimensions of Aquaculture​ (WGSEDA) were the main groups involved but as all the information needed was not available from ICES expert group reports, a workshop was initiated (WKNORAO).

"The Norwegian Sea is an important area for aquaculture production in Norway, around 50% of national and 25% of global salmon production is produced in this ecoregion. Today, salmon lice is the main obstacle for further growth. Sustainable aquaculture growth requires production methods that reduce environmental impact while securing fish welfare". Svåsand notes that possibly this means diversification to lower trophic organisms and fish species other than salmonids. 

"The Aquaculture Overview contributes to knowledge of aquaculture activities in the ecoregion, how aquaculture interacts with environmental, economic and social drivers, and will be useful in the ongoing efforts to support cross-sector assessments and a possible future coastal integrated ecosystem assessment."

Drafting the first Aquaculture Overview

Seth Theuerkauf,  NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, was chair of the Advice Drafting Group for the Norwegian Sea Aquaculture Overview. “I wouldn't say it was an easy process, but overall it was a clear process". Balancing accuracy with brevity was a challenge, Theurkauf comments, "Aquaculture is a complex and nuanced topic, and so on matters relating to policy and environmental interactions, for example, it was key to provide enough information for understanding, while not writing a whole academic manuscript on each topic.  The diversity of expertise involved meant that a great deal of thought and differing perspectives converged on the final version, which is a very strong advice document."

As this is the first Aquaculture Overview, the Advice Drafting Group had to think through both what was needed for the Norwegian Sea overview, as well as what lessons le​arned/improvements to the structure of the overview would be useful for future ecoregions as further overviews are developed for them. "We arrived at both a strong Aquaculture Overview for the Norwegian Sea, as well as recommendations that should further strengthen the Aquaculture Overview development process for future ecoregions. We know that data availability varies from ecoregion-to-ecoregion. However, the consistent framework and process for developing Aquaculture Overviews will serve to elevate and strengthen the knowledge base regarding current status and future trends of the aquaculture sector across ICES ecoregions. This will serve to advance the state of knowledge on aquaculture within ICES ecoregions, benefiting all aquaculture stakeholders."

Looking forward

Francis O'Beirn, Marine Institute, Ireland has been involved as he will lead the work for the next Aquaculture Overview - the Celtic Seas ecoregion to be published in 2022. “In terms of learnings, the process will require considerable attention to detail with particular focus on the most up-to-date data possible. It would be important that management measures identified within the regions are underpinned by credible and robust scientific evidence."

O'Beirn says the Celtic Seas ecoregion Aquaculture Overview will follow a similar outline – however, the emphasis may change within each chapter. While issues regarding finfish interactions will be broadly similar, he notes that the Celtic Seas area has a greater emphasis on shellfish. “All Aquaculture Overviews will have to consider wider environmental pressures that may act in combination with those derived from aquaculture practices" explains O'Beirn, “and we will have to address a number of new issues including interactions with conservation features (e.g. birds) among others".

Rust's term as Aquaculture Steering Group Chair ends in 2021. He comments that the Aquaculture Overviews have been his goal from the first day. "In my own work at NOAA, it was clear that most aquaculture research work focused on industry needs or technology development. At the same time, there was criticism of the slow and inconsistent regulatory process for aquaculture and how difficult it was for companies to get permits to farm in the ocean. Science had a role to increase the quality and quantity of information for smart regulatory decisions but it was not really happening, at least it was haphazard.  What drew me to ICES was it's science-driven advice process. Using advice to provide focus for science in aquaculture will hopefully result in more informed decision making and a more rational permitting and management process for a more sustainable aquaculture."

Read the overview

The Norwegian Sea ecoregion Aquaculture Overview is the first ecoregion to be published in a series of ICES Aquaculture Overviews.​ It is available now to read and download. The accompanying science report containing the stakeholder surveys results​ can also be found in ICES library.

ICES work on aquaculture is part of a wider portfolio of work that seeks to advance and share a scientific understanding of marine ecosystems and the services they provide—and to use this knowledge to generate state-of-the-art advice for meeting conservation, management, and sustainability goals.

*Updated 21 December to include the comments of Michael Rust. ​

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ICES releases Aquaculture Overview

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