There is a lot going on in aquaculture

We have found that Zintro has many experts who are interested in aquaculture and want to share their expertise; after all it is a new and growing field that has its challenges and opportunities. We asked our aquaculture experts about what they think are the critical issues facing the aquaculture industry today and the top solutions that are surfacing to tackle these issues. Here is what they had to say.

Stephen Newman, PhD, a well-known global expert in aquaculture, thinks that aquaculture is the last wave in the shift from hunting to an agricultural paradigm. “It is a complex practice involving hundreds of species in many different ecosystems,” says Newman. “Whether land, ocean or lake, pond, open or closed system, there are many challenges that must be overcome for aquaculture to be sustainable and ensure that humanity will reap the rewards of this source of high quality nutrients”.

Newman defines aquaculture as the cultivation of plants and animals in water, and it has been growing at a phenomenal rate for decades. It has not been without its detractors, and the path upward has not been a consistent process with different species showing significant variability. “While the overall trend is towards increased production, several factors are impacting this progress,” says Newman. He says that there are three primary issues.

  • The first is sustainability. “What this means is a source of considerable debate, but simply put, it means that the practices of today must not diminish the ability of the industry to flourish and meet an ever increasing demand in the future,” says Newman. “Practices that allow environmental damage to occur or diseases to proliferate are not consistent with long-term economic viability and are not sustainable. While there are organizations developing standards that link certification with sustainability, the truth is that what is occurring in the field is not truly sustainable.”
  • The second issue is that some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) criticize aquacultural practices by making generalizations about specific sectors and apply them to the industry as a whole. “In some instances NGOs advise buyers, and buyers may develop unrealistic expectations about the nature of the process and end products,” says Newman.
  • The third issue is disease control. “There is no sustainability without disease control, and when standards fail to adequately deal with these issues, aquaculture practices are not sustainable,” says Newman

Newman says that the solutions to these issues are linked.

Disease management programs: “Certification programs, best aquaculture practices, general accounting procedures, codes of conduct, and so on must take into account the impact of disease and actively require proactive disease management programs that consider all of the elements needed to ensure that disease is not going to impact operations,” says Newman. “China,Vietnam, andIndonesia are currently experiencing serious disease problems, even on certified farms, because of inadequate disease management programs.Thailand, on the other hand, through government programs and a concerted effort on the part of some major players in the industry, is successfully dealing with disease problems.”

Proactive disease management programs are programs must address the underlying causes of disease, not just what is fashionable or immediately relevant. “The best example of this is that companies that routinely stress animals as a common element of cultural practices experience lower survival rates and poorer overall productivity because of it,” points out Newman. “Yet, these companies fail to take the steps needed to improve culture conditions because of cost and the failure of companies that demand certified product to pay more for certified products.”

Disease is normal in any intensive agricultural process and considerable effort must go into proactively managing disease. “When and if the consumer is willing to pay a modest premium for seafood that meets the desired criteria, it will be easier for many aquaculturists to justify the costs of disease prevention programs,” says Newman.

NGOs should focus on real issues: Newman says that Some NGOs that criticize the aquaculture industry claim that the worst case scenarios represent the norm. “Many NGOs still stick to non-issues, such as the use of fish meal and oil in feeds, and try to link this to overfishing and other issues that the facts just do not support,” he says. “Some NGOs are beginning to move toward moderation and perhaps may eventually see that they have a common goal with the producers.”

Certification programs need input: “Most certification programs are flexible enough to evolve with time, provided the proper input is there,” says Newman. “Widespread understanding of the critical role that exportation of seafood plays in many government economies is needed and this will result in tighter regulatory controls that could eventually lead to true sustainability practices.”

Patrick Wood, an expert in the seafood and aquaculture industry, says that aquaculture is a relatively new endeavor in the Western hemisphere. “Getting the right risk-free species that are market successful is important,” he points out. “Salmon, shrimp (vannamei), and tilapia are now domesticated, which helps lessen dependence on external factors and creates a basis for further enhancements.”

Wood says that the major critical issues are the same for any other growth industry: money. In addition, he recognizes the following other issues:

  • Access to funding for capital expenditure, operational costs, trade finance, and seed (larvae) and feed;
  • Suitable species for aquaculture and genetic developments;
  • Disease management;
  • Routes to market; and
  • Innovation and application of new technologies.

Wood says that some potential solutions include the consolidation of businesses to develop the industry and addressing the needs of financing specific to the industry. “Market demand is happening with explosion of Southeast Asia’s middle class that has purchasing power, which includes eating seafood,” says Wood. “Prices are rising and fisheries cannot supply shortfall and capital needs to flow into the industry.”

Bill Manci, a consultant that specializes in aquaculture and fish farming projects, says that most of the fish and seafood that we directly consume today is now produced at aquaculture facilities. “Aquaculture faces some important challenges, but the most pressing are the cost of feeds, the ability to manage disease, and the availability of water and land for aquaculture production and expansion,” he says. “Aquaculture is how the majority of our fish will be produced in the future, saving wild populations from overexploitation.”

Manci points out that in many cases, feeds are the most expensive cost component in aquaculture, primarily because of raw materials costs, such as fish meal and fish oil. “Governments and private scientists are developing alternatives to fish meal and fish oil at lower cost and preparing them in facilities that are more biosecure than could ever be expected from the wild populations of fish used to produce these products,” says Manci.

Manci says that rather than fighting disease episodes with antibiotics, which can linger and potentially harm people and the environment, aquaculture managers are using probiotics (i.e., beneficial bacteria), vaccines, and benign compounds that stimulate fish immune systems. “Probiotics crowd out disease-causing organisms and promote good health. Vaccines prevent infection and immunostimulants allow fish to manage their own health,” Manci says.

“As water and land become scarcer and more valuable, aquaculturists have taken steps to make facilities smaller and more efficient,” explains Manci. “Re-circulating aquaculture systems grow fish at high densities and require less space and water to operate. Fish are reared in tanks and in water that is used, filtered to remove wastes and replenish oxygen, and then reused by the fish. In some cases, the wastewater from these systems is directed into greenhouses for the production of flavorful lettuce, tomatoes, and vegetables and flowers. This process called aquaponics is very popular and facilitates production in compact facilities near major markets, producing locally grown food.”

By Maureen Aylward