Aquaculture is growing – so will the complaints about its ecological damage

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/SHansche
Image: Getty/SHansche

Related tags aquaculture

The news that aquaculture production has surpassed wild fisheries for the first time has been met with a mixed reaction.

Fish farmed through aquaculture has surpassed wild caught fish for the first time, according to a report ​​by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Aquaculture now contributes to over 57% of aquatic animal products intended for direct human consumption.

From one angle this news underlines the growing importance of aquaculture in meeting global food needs.

According to the FAO report, aquaculture is "playing an increasingly important role" and represents "a viable and effective solution" for improving food security and nutrition. In addition to nutrition and food security, fisheries and aquaculture are an important source of livelihoods.

“FAO welcomes the significant achievements thus far, but further transformative and adaptive actions are needed to strengthen the efficiency, inclusiveness, resilience and sustainability of aquatic food systems and consolidate their role in addressing food insecurity, poverty alleviation and sustainable governance,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

That’s why, he added, the FAO advocates Blue Transformation​, to meet the overall requirements of “better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life”.

Sustainability concerns

However, the sustainability of wild fishery resources remains a concern, with the proportion of marine stocks fished at biologically sustainable levels decreasing to 62.3% in 2021. 

The FAO report calls for "urgent action" to accelerate conservation and rebuilding of fishery stocks. Aquaculture still faces major challenges from climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and other impacts.

These challenges were expressed by a group 160 NGOs who wrote to the FAO​ to criticise its definition of ‘sustainable aquaculture’ and call for carnivorous fish, like salmon and sea bass, to be excluded.

“When the FAO’s goal calls for a 75% growth in global sustainable aquaculture by 2040 compared to 2020 levels,” the open letter wrote, “we are deeply concerned about how you plan to achieve it.”

Many types of aquaculture methods are considered sustainable, such as the farming of kelp and other aquatic plants, as well as the cultivation of a wide range of bivalve creatures such as mussels, clams and oysters in small scale operations.

But the UN’s own research acknowledges that: “Unfortunately, production and distribution of aquatic foods are not without problems. Strategies to deliver healthy, sustainable and equitable food systems do not adequately include the critical long-term impacts of overfishing, habitat degradation and unequal access to resources and markets.”

The NGO letter claims more evidence keeps coming to light on the unsustainability and environmentally damaging aspects of industrial fish farming. For example, studies have linked the following problems such as increase in harmful algal blooms, exacerbating impacts from global warming; overuse of antibiotics; and large amounts of microplastics and debris left behind in the waters by the fish farms.

“These negative impacts will only increase as ocean temperatures continue to rise,” the letter warns. “The bottom line is that in our current world there is NO farming of carnivorous fin fish which is environmentally sustainable. We need concrete, enforceable international standards for the remediation of damaged environments and the expansion of genuinely sustainable aquaculture options.”

Aquaculture needs to boosted in areas that most need it

Significant investments are also needed to accelerate aquaculture development, particularly in Africa where its potential is not yet fully realised.

At present, a small number of countries dominate aquaculture. Ten of them – China, Indonesia, India, Viet Nam, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Norway, Egypt, and Chile – produced over 89.8% of the total.

The FAO report called for targeted policies, technology transfer, capacity building and responsible investment are crucial to boost sustainable aquaculture where it is most needed, especially in Africa.

Overall, the surpassing of wild fisheries by aquaculture production highlights both the growing importance and the need for sustainable practices in aquatic food systems to ensure healthy diets for the world's growing population. 

Aquaculture is one of only three sectors defying the trend of falling venture capital investment in the agtech sector​. Exciting new precompetitive initiatives are working towards new solutions to prevent bacterial diseases and reduce the use of antibiotics in aquaculture​.

Balancing the benefits of aquaculture with environmental protection will therefore be key going forward.

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