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Fish Farming | Opinion On Aquaculture

Growing up with a stretch of Australia's most pristine ocean in my backyard, fishing was always an institution for me. I spent hours learning to tie knots, disassembling and reassembling fishing reels and experimenting with different gear. I learned about the tides, the moon cycles, the water temperatures, the wind and even the bathymetry of my coastline to gain an edge against any species I was targeting.

Over the years, my love for fishing taught me far more than how to catch and fillet a fish. As I grew into my teens, the desire to simply land fish for food or fun waned under the weight of a growing appreciation and respect for what fishing gave me. It taught me about our environment and to some extent, our place in it. On multiple occasions, I witnessed first-hand the cause and effect of our human interactions with marine ecosystems and how little most people seemed to know or care about how our actions impact life below sea level. Perhaps many people simply didn't know or had other priorities - even at a young age I knew that I was about as biased as one could get in my perspective towards marine conservation. In any case, I knew that I needed to learn more. 

This was no ‘light-bulb’ moment where it suddenly all came together for me. It was in every way a slow simmer of my curiosities that led me to pursue a career in marine science. I needed to understand more about this unseen world that had pilfered such a significant amount of my waking and subconscious life’s attention.

So, fast forward a few years and there I was. A graduate in marine science from University, with even more questions than when I started. In hindsight, exactly what University should do for you. But as far as my naive teenage self was concerned, I was supposed to know it all by now. I was supposed to know which species of fish should or shouldn’t be eaten. I should know which types of fishing are sustainable and which aren't. The truth is that I was left with a solid understanding of the issues that needed solving, but no clear path for how they were realistically going to be solved.

What was entirely unambiguous to me was that the oceans on a global scale were in fairly bad shape, and they were getting worse. Entire marine ecosystems were increasingly becoming unnaturally altered, perhaps beyond repair. Coupled with changing climate conditions, the influence of both land and marine-based human activities has distorted natural marine ecosystem dynamics and rendered countless species at risk of extinction.

After all, we are living in the wake of industrialisation - a period in recent history where our blind ambition for economic growth and prosperity valued human advancement above truly understanding the impacts that these advancements may have on our planet or society. We were living amid an environmental inflexion point that would present the Earth and society with challenges unlike we've ever faced before. Yet, as far as I could see, we had no reasonable solutions in sight. Paradoxically, the prospect of 'changing the system' away from our exploitative mindset seemed so dauntingly overwhelming that many I spoke to seemed to lean on the same pillar of hope that is partly to blame for landing us in this position - more technology. Technology to solve the problems of technology. I found it hard not to see the contradictions in that hope. But to me, it didn’t matter who made this bed. Either way, we are all going to have to sleep in it. I was interested in solutions. 

While I felt empowered by my new knowledge, I also felt frustrated and consumed by my overwhelming lack of tools to facilitate meaningful change as just one person. I knew too many people relied upon fish as their primary source of protein to simply suggest a cold turkey stopping of all fish consumption. Regulations of total allowable catch (TAC) based on advanced predictive modelling of fish stocks were already in place in nations with stricter environmental protection regimes, along with restrictions on what people could fish, when, and which practices they could use. But even the most scientifically aligned policies around sustainable fisheries regulations are based on extrapolated models with a significant margin of uncertainty. Why? Because collecting data about fish - an animal that moves freely around habitats we don't have complete access to - is difficult and expensive. Because of this simple limitation, only around half of our global fisheries are managed with enough solid catch data to make accurate predictions about the health of a fish stock. And those other 50% of fisheries without the good fortune of big budgets to collect this data? The health of those fisheries is an educated guess at best. 

If that wasn't enough to make you question the accuracy and viability of sustainably managing our oceans,  Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing catch still account for around 15-30% of global annual catches.1 Feeling slightly defeated, I turned my attention to an alternative solution to policy and marine management - fish farming. At this point, I was only aware of aquaculture as a concept, but like many, I'd heard the relentless reporting of all that was wrong with it. All I heard was that 'it was polluting our seas' or 'it was breeding deformed sick fish filled with antibiotics'. And despite believing that to trust all you see on TV is to be naive, I did exactly that. I started to believe that even aquaculture may not be a sustainable option. But the numbers didn't add up - aquaculture was now the fastest-growing food sector worldwide. There had to be something to it. At least more than I'd taken at face value through anti-farming pop-science pieces. 

So, with an open mind and somewhat of an anxious impatience to seek genuine solutions, I dove head-first into the very industry that had been so destructively portrayed in mainstream media. I needed to understand first-hand how fish farms operated and whether the sentiment they often preached about being a solution to growing demand and diminishing supply really held merit. I left all preconceptions and prejudicial thoughts at the door and became an aquaculture technician, or put more simply, a fish farmer.

Fish farming myths

Were they really just the money hungry tycoons from the newspapers and TV? Did they really hold any genuine intentions to preserve marine resources by providing a sustainable alternative to diminishing wild fish populations? A cause aquaculture so often seeks to align with. I, of course, cannot speak for every farming operation and their respective honesty to practice what they preach. But, I can speak for what I have personally seen, a perspective that I hope could give you more insight into the complexities of aquaculture. In the nature of protecting company confidentiality, I'll spare you the details of exactly how the cogs turn from the inside. But there are a few key points I have taken away that helped to shape my own opinion on aquaculture’s place as a sustainable protein producer.

Myth #1 | Farmed fish have poor health

The first and easiest myth of aquaculture is that of fish welfare. What was abhorrently clear from day one, was that animal welfare meant everything. Despite the multitude of reports of horrendous fish health in aquaculture operations around the world, I was perhaps ignorantly surprised by a team who seemed to care more for the health of the fish than that of their own. Whether the motivation for this is entirely based on ‘pretty’ fish holding greater market value or not, the result is the same. The bottom line is that if the product (fish) is unhealthy or looks untoward, that fish will not sell next to a fish that looks the way people think it should. For this reason, endless investment is poured into fish health via scientists, researchers, veterinarians, technology and feed in order to give farmed fish a life conducive to good health and as little stress as possible. Of course, this does not exclude the notion that there are poor farm managers, or that mistakes can occur which could lead to ill health in farmed fish. At the end of the day, however, regardless of whether the fish's health is preserved on a purely monetary motive or on ethical foundations, the end result sees fish that are looked after as well as is humanly possible. 

Myth #2 | Farming only turns small wild fish into large farmed fish

The second ‘fact’ I feel makes perpetual loops of the anti-aquaculture movement, is the common assumption that the diets of farmed fish are comprised entirely of smaller wild fish and that they consume quantities even greater than would occur naturally in the wild. Not only is this factually incorrect, but aquaculture actually boasts the lowest feed conversion ratio (FCR) of any major animal protein source. Even high energy-demanding salmon now require just over 1.1kg of feed to produce 1kg of sellable fish in farmed scenarios. Compared to the ~10kg of feed it takes to add around 1kg of body weight to a fish of the same species in the wild, there is little room to argue that producing fish in farms is robbing natural marine resources at a faster rate than wild populations would if left to their own devices.2 

Even this figure is not completely reflective of the truth behind feed conversion ratios, as in almost all instances, they are assuming the feed is purely fish-based. Forage fish dependence ratios (FFDRs) on the other hand, give far more accurate estimates of the amount of wild-caught fish used to produce 1 kg of salmon. From 1990 to 2013, the forage fish dependency ratio for fish meal decreased from 4.4kg to 0.7kg in Norwegian salmon farming.3 The result of all this means that only 0.7kg of wild foraged fish is needed to produce 1kg of farmed salmon, with the remaining constituents of fish feed coming from vegetable-based proteins and fillers. It’s a lot of numbers, I know. But the numbers matter here. 

My point is that the entire aim of the game regarding aquaculture is maximising efficiency - growing fish faster and growing fish with less input. This may mean experimenting with selective breeding - not indifferent to that done with almost all vegetable-based agriculture - or nutritionally tailoring feed to maximise growth, even using new gene editing technology like CRISPR. Whatever the method, if an argument towards reducing aquaculture is claiming sustainability as its basis, I cannot help but question what angle of sustainability it is drawing upon. Using a fraction of the resources to produce the same quantity of product is undoubtedly a more sustainable alternative to hauling fish from the ocean and hoping for the best, with the undesired bycatch thrown lifeless overboard.

Myth #3 | Aquaculture pollutes the ocean

Another commonly believed issue when it comes to aquaculture is the level of pollutants that off-shore or near-shore sea cages create. This is undeniably a real issue, particularly when it comes to farming in relatively low-flow waters such as fjords or lakes. Intensive farming in these types of waterways can have a significant impact on the ecology in surrounding nearby waters, with flow on effects to other marine organisms sharing that waterway. Oxygen-depleted waterways, excessive nutrient build-up resulting from fish waste, and heavy sedimentation below sea cages that have damaged benthic habitats have been observed on a number of occasions in farms lacking thorough environmental management plans.4

What is often over-inflated however, is the overall scale of these impacts, and how far beyond the farm they actually reach. On top of this, the effort directed into avoiding this through research and technological innovations is unparalleled when compared to competing livestock industries like beef, pork or chicken. Careful site selection, rigorous third-party environmental testing, and constant reporting to national environmental authorities are all requisites if you decide to set up a farm of your own. While these barriers protect the environment, they also add significant costs to farm operators before they're even allowed to place a fish into the water. When so much risk rests upon meeting constant assessments, you can be damn sure they are doing everything possible to avoid impact below and outside the cages.

Allow aquaculture to learn and progress

Sure, aquaculture has made some mistakes in the way things once operated, but has every other form of agriculture not similarly gone through developmental phases? Every vegetable that has ever been grown commercially has been cultivated the way it has off the back of generations of trial and error as to what works and doesn’t from a productivity and environmental impact perspective. Aquaculture, like its older food-cultivating predecessors, is similarly going through these trial and error phases, only at triple speed and with the world's eyes on it. Eyes ready to focus on every single proportionally insignificant pitfall that it may hold, doing blatant injustice to the advancements that continually help fish farms to evolve and become more efficient, ethical and less environmentally impactful.

In 60 short years, commercial aquaculture has gone from almost nothing to projections showing aquaculture supplying over 60% of global seafood supply by 2030.5 Norwegian salmon farming company MOWI holds both the 2018 and 2019 awards for the world’s most sustainable protein producer.6 Fish can be produced for a fraction of the environmental and economic cost they were only decades ago, new technologies now allow for growing on land-based tanks in recirculating water-saving systems, in-situ tech is helping farmers monitor fish health and minimise food wastage with next to no disturbance to fish, bi-products such as skin and bones are being repurposed to create dietary supplements, and feed producers are experimenting with insect-based formulas, potentially eliminating the need for any fish meal at all.7 Make no mistake, aquaculture has tried and failed in a number of cases. But, to deny its rapid progress as an increasingly sustainable producer of global protein would be to deny the truth in its most unambiguous form.

Consider other perspectives

Last, but certainly not least, was what I learned about human behaviour and how it inevitably shapes food production. For decades, it has been globally recognised that we should be eating ‘lower order’ marine species like shellfish, sardines or even seaweeds instead of larger fish like tuna, mackerel or salmon. These lower order species often have shorter life cycles, grow in greater abundance and require generally less maintenance and resources in controlled growing scenarios. It has also been recognised that as the vegan movement suggests, if everyone were to halt eating meat entirely, our overall environmental footprint would be dramatically lowered. This is accurate and true. We absolutely should all eat less meat or at the very least be far more selective about the meat we choose. We should also absolutely eat lower order seafood species with shorter life cycles that can repopulate more rapidly than larger species. Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that over 3.2 billion people rely upon fish to provide over 20% of their daily protein intake.8 It doesn’t change the fact that around 2 billion people are currently employed in either livestock or fishing industries.9 It doesn’t change the fact that many cultural identities are inextricably entwined with animal protein production and consumption. So, I ask, what is to become of these people? Deciding from a place of relative privilege that a significant portion of the planets population should stop living the way they do and to take up a new livelihood (assuming there are even realistic viable alternatives) is a notion that is lazy at best, and decidedly ignorant at worst. Harsh, I know. But, it is not productive nor a solution to passionately push unrealistic goals that are achievable for the pusher, without consideration for the pushed.

It is in this sense that aquaculture can provide at the very least a partial solution, even if only to serve as a temporary bridge connecting us to a more ecologically functional food system. Aquaculture, unlike many other forms of agriculture, actively seeks to address a global issue through unparalleled investment in science-based research exploring the most efficient farming practices possible. I am not saying aquaculture is a solution to the excessive demand we place on our oceans, but I am confident that is a step in the right direction towards alleviating at least part of the stresses placed on it by human demand and development. It may not be perfect, but it holds true promise.

What can we do?

What we need is a fundamental change in the way we view food. It means accepting ‘ugly’ vegetables or less desirable seafood species. It means coming to terms with the possibility of eating the odd insect-based burger instead of that Sunday steak you might look forward to. Real change takes real effort and real sacrifice to what feels familiar to us. We probably shouldn’t be producing large sensitive fish in farms, however, until the day comes that the majority of us wake up and decide we prefer shellfish and seaweed rather than salmon, the best we can realistically ask is to produce that salmon at as low of an environmental cost as possible. Aquaculture isn’t the big bad immoral money juggernaut it is touted to be. It is only facilitating what you, the consumer, demand of an ocean that can no longer provide what is asked of it.

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References
  1. “Global Implications of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing”. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed 22 September 2019.
  2. Tom, P.D & Olin, P.G (2010). “Farmed or Wild? – Both types of salmon taste good and are good for you”. Accessed 23 September 2019.
  1. Ystrestøl, T, Synnøve Aas, T & Åsgård, T (2015). “Utilisation of feed resources in production of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) in Norway”. Accessed 23 September 2019.
  2. Wu, R.S.S, Lam, K.S, Mackay, D.W, Lau, T.C & Yam, V (1994). “Impact of Marin Fish Farming on Water Quality and Bottom Sediment: A Case Study in the Sub-tropical Environment”. Accessed 24 September 2019.
  3. “Fish to 2030 – Prospects for Fisheries and Aquaculture”. The World Bank. Accessed 25 September 2019.
  4. “Mowi ranked world’s most sustainable protein producer for second year”. Undercurrent News. Accessed 25 September 2019.
  5. “3 Promising Alternative Feeds for Aquaculture”. Rubicon Resources. Accessed 25 September 2019.
  6. “World’s fish consumption unsustainable, U.N. warns”. Thin Lei Win. Reuters. Accessed 26 September 2019.
  7. “Livestock”. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. Accessed 26 September 2019.
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