Is There a Future for Sustainable Fish Farming?

by 4Ocean Team August 31, 2018

Is There a Future for Sustainable Fish Farming?

Photo credit Cristina Mittermeier, SeaLegacy

As the human population grows, so does our consumption of fish. Is fish farming an effective, sustainable solution that can feed our growing appetite?

 

Mom always told us there would be more fish in the sea, but our long-held belief in an infinitely bountiful ocean just isn’t true. Populations of countless fish species are in decline. In fact, experts say that 80 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or over exploited. Our seafood supply is being overfished. In some areas, the problem is so bad that the fisheries are collapsing and some species, like the bluefin tuna, are going extinct.

 

Enforcing protective measures is tricky in international waters

Commercial fishing mostly happens in the international waters of the open ocean. Scientific organizations, particularly ICCAT (The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), can and do make recommendations for size and catch limits that would help protect overfished species and allow them to recover. However, the ICCAT has no authority to enforce their recommendations in these waters. 

In fact, there's no obligation to follow ICCAT recommendations at all unless a country voluntarily agrees to do so. Until we can devise better ways to manage our fisheries and enforce protective measures as a global community, overfishing will likely continue.

Unless, of course, commercial entities choose to become stewards of the fisheries where they operate, like the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies (ARK) did for the declining krill population in the Antarctic.

 

Fish farming ramps up to meet soaring demand for seafood

The farming and husbandry of aquatic species in a controlled or semi-controlled environment is called aquaculture, or fish farming. Fish farms already contribute to more than half of the seafood consumed globally. And when projected growth for the human population looks like this…

 


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...it’s clear that the number the fish farms we’ll need to feed ourselves is only going to increase. The only issue? Environmental risks are rampant with our current methods of aquaculture, especially in farms that are set up in an enclosed part of the ocean. While aquaculture has its benefits, there’s no denying that it’s currently an imperfect solution with drawbacks that must be addressed.

 

5 things that must be addressed for fish farms to be sustainable

  1. Disease outbreak: Many fish farms are set up in an “open system,” or an enclosed area of the ocean, where infectious diseases can spread from cultured fish to native fish. 

  2. Escape of non-native species: Open systems also create opportunities for non-native or genetically modified species to enter the environment and threaten or reproduce with the native species, which upsets the local ecosystem and fish populations in surrounding waters. 

  3. Feed production: Some of our favorite seafoods are also top ocean predators like tuna and salmon. These are large, carnivorous fish that require high-fat diets. Many prey species are overfished in an effort to feed and sustain these cultured fish. Some farms use “fish meal” as an alternative. However, this combination of fish oil, wheat products, and chemicals isn’t easily digested by fish who aren’t designed to metabolize carbs.

  4. Waste management: Densely-packed fish farms not only facilitate the spread of infectious diseases, they also create waste that gets discharged into local ecosystems where it can contaminate the surrounding environment. This is a concern even for solid, closed-wall, and fully contained aquaculture systems maintained on land.

  5. Efficiency: While “closed systems” may be a better alternative to existing aquaculture methods, there are barriers to implementing them successfully. The high energy costs associated with the systems’ water pumps and the cost of electricity to keep them running are both barriers to operating them at a commercial scale.

 

Green ocean farming is in its infancy, but successful so far

In Galicia, Spain, our overfishing partner, SeaLegacy, has been working with small-scale ocean farms to share the success of “multitrophic aquaculture,” a type of fish farming that works in harmony with nature by using the entire water column and zero pesticides or antibiotics.

Not only does this system show promise as a sustainable source of seafood, it can also become a source of biofuel, help clean up the environment, and reverse climate change. While initial experiments with multitrophic aquaculture have been successful, we still need to figure out how to scale these small operations commercially.

 

A future of sustainable fish farming might be on its way

We once thought sea life was so abundant that we couldn’t affect their populations, let alone drive them to extinction. Now we know better. We face a future where global food security is potentially at risk because we’re pulling fish out of the water faster than they can reproduce. But if fish farming can be optimized to work in harmony with nature, we may be able to create sustainable sources of protein that feed millions of people without overfishing or damaging the delicate balance marine ecosystems have achieved through millennia.

 

Use your dollars to show that sustainable fishing matters to you 

Finding seafood from a proven sustainable source can be a bit tricky, but there are resources that can help. Seafood Watch is a program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that makes recommendations on choices that have less impact on the environment. On pre-packaged foods, you can look for the labels from the Marine Stewardship Council, which sets standards for sustainable wild-caught fish, and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which does the same for fish farms. While not an option for everyone, some experts recommend choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle to reduce demand. 



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