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Opinion Research
The Prime Source: Aquaculture


October 6, 2016
By John Nickum

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Aquaculture is now the prime source of seafood for human consumption according to the latest FAO Report on The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.  The total amount of aquaculture products used for human food exceeded the total from capture fisheries consumed as human food in 2014 and again in 2015.  This trend toward aquaculture continues in 2016.

 What are the implications of this shift from past consumption patterns for aquaculture and capture fisheries?  It has been a long time coming, but does it mean that aquatic farming will follow the example of terrestrial farming and essentially replace food supplies based on hunting and fishing?  A former colleague who worked in marine fisheries management often referred to commercial capture fisheries as the aquatic equivalent of chasing wild buffalo across the prairies ­— an unsustainable enterprise.

 Production from capture fisheries has been relatively unchanged over the past 30 years.  The catches from specific fisheries have fluctuated, but total production has been relatively constant.  A substantial portion, typically at least 20 percent, of the catch from capture fisheries is used for non-human consumption.  Whether or not production levels of approximately 90 million metric tons are sustainable cannot be predicted reliably, but my personal guesstimate is that the total production from capture fisheries will decline.  Decades of over-fishing, pollution, global warming caused by atmospheric pollution, and changes in ocean temperature patterns, will reduce fish stocks, as well as, their availability to capture fisheries.

 Many consumers and chefs have a bias toward seafood from wild, “natural” sources; however, when given the opportunity to taste aquaculture products they typically decide that these products are entirely satisfactory.  Most commonly in blind taste tests, aquaculture products are rated as equal to wild products, or even preferable.  At worst, they are simply a bit different… and the consumer knows where the farmed animal has been, how it was reared, and how it was processed.  However, aquaculturists must deal with the perception that “wild” is “natural” and, therefore, preferable.  Perhaps, that perception had some evidence to support it in the distant past, but, depending on which species is in question, as well as, when and where the wild product was harvested, there is little valid evidence to support “wild superiority” in today’s world.

 The FAO report included a finding that was somewhat surprising to me; namely, that consumption of aquaculture products is increasing rapidly in nations with developing economies.  However, after a little further reflection it makes sense to me because of three factors.  First, my initial reaction was influenced by my North American perspective: aquaculture products here and in Western Europe tend to be high-value products.  Secondly, many developing economies, formerly third world nations, are experiencing economic growth and higher individual living standards. These factors lead to greater consumption of seafood, including some high-end products.  A third factor is somewhat speculative on my part, but drought conditions related to global warming have caused decreased production of traditional crops and livestock, thus increasing demand for seafood.

 During the 50 plus years that I have been involved in aquaculture, I have learned that it’s often foolhardy to attempt predictions; nevertheless, I will take that risk and offer some thoughts about the future of North American aquaculture based on the trends identified in the FAO report and a few thoughts of my own.  Reliance on fish meal and fish oil as primary ingredients in feeds for propagated finfish is not sustainable.  Sources of clean freshwater are going to be increasingly difficult for fish farmers to obtain, and maintain.  Global warming is going to intensify, forcing some farms to either relocate or change to alternate species.   Government regulations designed to limit pollution, transfer of disease agents and introductions of non-native species will be promulgated to limit the negative environmental effects claimed by an array of environmental activists.  Production costs related to land, labor, and energy are going to be higher in North America than they are in developing nations.

 I suggest North American producers focus on domestic markets in Canada and the United States.  Whereas the greatest increases in production in other areas of the world have been with lower value products, with the notable exception of shrimp, North American consumers show strong preferences for salmonids and white-fleshed, mild-flavored fishes.  We can be competitive in oysters, clams, and mussels, but these markets are relatively small in the United States and Canada.  Efficient systems for production of our preferred crustaceans, such as, lobsters and Dungeness crabs, are not available at present.  I believe development of such systems should be a priority for our research facilities.

 A couple of potential solutions that seem to be emerging in North America hold promise for meeting the challenges associated with limited water supplies, potential escape of non-native species, pollution, and costs for transporting product to markets; specifically, development of recirculation systems and land-based production of marine fishes.  In the past, aquaculture operations were located wherever water supplies dictated, whether or not the location was near efficient transportation services, appropriate sites for effluent management, and large markets for the finished product.  Efficient recirculation systems that do not require operators to have a PhD in engineering are now available and allow producers to locate their operations based on a full set of economic and operational factors, not just water.

 I hold a long-cherished belief that nearly every desirable aquatic/marine species can be produced in captivity, but doing so efficiently, sustainably, and profitably will require extensive research and development.  Aquaculture has great difficulty competing for research and development funds.  The risks are usually greater and the potential return on investment smaller than can be found with other products.  As a result, aquaculture research and development typically do not compete effectively for venture capital and end up seeking government funding, a source of funds that is increasingly difficult to obtain.

 We must do a more effective job of convincing seafood consumers, the general public, government officials, and our elected representatives that the answer for sustainable production of the seafood needed to meet the need… the demand…for high quality seafood, is aquaculture.

— John Nickum 

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