Aquaculture industry challenges and opportunities

By Maureen Aylward

We asked our Zintro experts about the sectors of the aquaculture industry that are seeing the most growth and the challenges and opportunities that are surfacing.

Stephen Newman, PhD, President and CEO of AquaInTech, says that the aquaculture sector is one of opportunity with an average annual growth of more than 10 percent by some estimates; there is little evidence of a slow-down. “One of the great strengths of aquaculture is that there are many species that can be farmed. As production levels peak and demand slows, there are new species waiting,” says Newman. “Several species of fish have had large production increases within the last few years with one by far outstripping all others: catfish.”

Catfish that are members of the family Pangasiidae are widely farmed in Vietnam, explains Newman. They are referred to as basa, pangassius, panga, or, in the UK, as Vietnamese river cobbler. “Pangassius species can be cultured at very high densities due to their ability to tolerate extremely low dissolved oxygen levels in the water. This fish is an excellent tasting fish that is relatively inexpensive to produce, he says. Catfish was virtually unheard of at the turn of the century with 41,000 MTs of production in 1997. Production peaked at 1.4 million MTs in 2008 and growth is projected to continue to increase for the foreseeable future.

“The largest impediments to growth at this time are trade barriers, which are the result of lobbying on the part of the domestic catfish farming industry in the US to prevent the fish from gaining a significant niche in the US market,” Newman says. The US catfish farmers have been successful in slowing the growth of this market in the US. Actions range from persuading the FDA to disallow the use of the word catfish to describe any other species except that being cultured in the US to lobbying for punitive tariffs based on what are widely held to be illegal practices (zeroing as per WTO) and ongoing attempts to smear the industry as being irresponsible due to the actions of a few farmers who persist in using chemicals that are not approved in the US. “As these issues are resolved, there could be another surge in production, quite likely to the three million MT or more per year level,” notes Newman.

Newman says that challenges in aquaculture can be seen in cultural practices in aquatic ecosystems, which are sensitive to a host of environmental variables that are inconsequential in terrestrial ecosystems. “A simple example is the level of dissolved oxygen in the water. One rarely hears of problems with oxygen levels on farms producing terrestrial animals. Disease is an ever present risk with the close proximity of animals to each other. But aquaculture combines the presence of a myriad of stressors in the aquatic environment that are added to the dynamics of production in a third world environment,” says Newman. “There is little regard for bio-security and the principals of science, which amounts to a long-term risk to stable production. It is very likely that both existing bacterial and viral pathogens as well as new pathogens will impact the industry with potentially catastrophic consequences in the years to come. This is by far the greatest risk that this industry faces.”

Not to be diminished, though, is the rapidly rising raw ingredient costs that are driving up the major cost of production and compounded feeds. “This will impact costs of production. We could see a drop in demand if farmers have to charge too much to make money. As is typical in situations like this, the price of the fish has dropped as production has increased. This forces consolidation and increases in efficiency. Typically, corporate farms are better equipped to weather the cyclic variability of businesses of this nature than are smaller subsidence or mom and pop farms,” says Newman.

Joseph Brener, PhD, an aquaculture expert and fish nutritionist, says that the sector experiencing the most growth is the farming of warm and fresh water species such as tilapia and pangasius. “A feature of these fish species is that the production cost is relatively low as a result of their ability to consume low cost feed that is produced by using significant amounts of plant material,” says Brener. “There is a growing market for these fish. Just a few years ago, the tilapia was almost unknown in Europe and the US, whereas today it is accepted as a healthy food that is low in fat and is a source of nutrients that are essential for good health, such as omega 3 fatty acids.”

Brener says that marketing the fish products is among the most significant challenges of the aquaculture industry. “One of the possibilities to overcome this challenge is to aim to a niche market, such as the organic fish market,” suggests Brener.

Scott Zimmerman, an aquaculture director, says that the aquaculture industry is seeing growth in nutrition, larviculture, and systems design. “Nutritional advances are being made in fish meal replacement, vegetable-based additives and live feeds. Hatchery systems have increased productivity through the ability to manage water quality parameters at increased stocking densities, automated grading, and higher survivability rates with the use of probiotics. Lastly, on-growing operations explore the use of submergible cages and fully automated recirculation systems. Many of these technological breakthroughs are proving cost effectiveness in comparison to existing practices,” Zimmerman says.

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