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Currents in Aquaculture

Solutions are needed to support research, technology, and social influence

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The seemingly straightforward definition of aquaculture—the cultivation of aquatic organisms in water environments—has a web of history, controversy, and complexity beneath it. It speaks to multiple issues in the face of the environmental challenges facing the world today.

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In the beginning

Aquaculture is nothing new. While large-scale commercial fish farming wasn’t well known until the mid-20th century, evidence of various forms of aquaculture has been discovered dating back millennia.

In recent history, aquaculture began as a means to produce fish for recreational activities. Publicly funded hatcheries were built to furnish sport fish such as trout and bass, to stock public and private waters.

Additionally, with the increase in world population growth and consumption demand for fish and shellfish, it eventually resulted in stresses upon certain species. A huge shift occurred in the middle of the 20th century, and an entirely new industry was born.

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Feeding the masses

The first attempts at food-focused commercial aquaculture in the US occurred in the 1950s. By the 1960s and 70s, commercial aquaculture had spread throughout the world.

But with this new form of farming came serious environmental issues including rapidly growing shrimp farms in Asia which decimated mangrove forests and polluted local waterways. In addition, open-net pens for salmon imperiled local ocean waters and wild species.

Other common challenges that emerged included untested management practices and learning to deal with adverse consequences. These challenges still exist today, yet some have been addressed successfully by advancements in technology and proper management, as well as state and federal regulations targeting these effects.

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Pushing forward

Two of the companies at the forefront of that movement are LocalCoho and Bluehouse Salmon. Both are braving uncharted waters to find solutions.

Max Francia, director of marketing for Bluehouse Salmon, notes that, “the core challenge we face is finding the delicate balance between meeting the rising demand for seafood and minimizing environmental impact.”

CEO of LocalCoho Michael Fabbro sees climate change as the most significant challenge today. He makes a compelling argument for developing land-based aquaculture to replace open-net pen farming, which is done “in the commons” of the oceans and requires consent from governments. He wonders, “As seawaters change, will historically well-suited areas continue to be viable?”.

But both companies are energized by the challenges. “Our driving force stems from the passion to revolutionize aquaculture,” says Francia, and Fabbro echoes that sentiment: “we want to create the next great American industry.”

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Another perspective

A different approach is being used by Patagonia Provisions, a division of Patagonia—a company whose core mission is to protect the environment. Product manager Daniel Creagan uncovers how they seek to influence consumers to “eat lower on the food chain”, thereby reducing the impact on larger species like tuna and salmon.

They walk the walk with products that make target species like mackerel, anchovies, and pink salmon readily available. At the same time, they support and promote traditional local methods of farming that have proven to be sustainable and in harmony with the environment. This provides significant social and economic benefits to local communities.

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Learning and choosing

An educated consumer is a primary catalyst for supporting sustainable consumption of seafood, both wild-caught and farmed. An excellent way to make informed choices is to learn from organizations that monitor and analyze companies and data, and provide relevant recommendations to the public.

This can be done by seeking products with verified certifications, like the one bestowed by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). “ASC envisions a world where seafood farming plays a major role in supplying food and supporting local communities across the globe while minimizing negative impacts on the environment.”

Another invaluable resource originates with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Their Seafood Watch program provides up-to-date information about sustainable practices and products worldwide: “Our standards are built on a solid foundation of science and collaboration. They set the global bar for environmentally sustainable seafood.”

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A look ahead

Aquaculture is here to stay; in fact, it must expand and thrive if our protein needs in the future are to be met. It is “the world’s fastest growing food sector,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and it “plays a critical role in global food production”.

Feeding the world and protecting the environment—is it possible to do both? The search continues.

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Fish eating fish

A sticky conundrum of farming fish is that, historically, their feed has had to include protein from wild-caught fish. To minimize and hopefully eliminate that need, new sources and formulas are being explored, especially insect protein and algae oil.

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Know your farmer …

… not just for your land-based foods, but your water-sourced dinner fixings as well. Ask your fishmonger about the where, when, who, and how of your seafood.

Thirty-three percent of wild fish stocks have reached their biological limits, and more than 50 percent of fish eaten worldwide is farmed.

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Change is on its way

The newest advancements in aquaculture research and technology are seeking solutions with multiple approaches.

New technology

What is it?

Benefits 

Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS)

A system of tanks with recirculating water and specialized filtration systems

-          minimal use of water resources

-          low impact on wild fish stocks

-          enhanced biosecurity

Smart feeding technology

Automated food dispensers that use technology such as sensors, cameras, and algorithms

-          high dosing accuracy

-          optimization of human resources and interactions

-          more consistent growth rate

High-performance feed

Feed manufactured through biotech treatment of raw ingredients such as algae and insects

-          improved bioavailability of nutrients for fish

-          more digestible than traditional feed

Fish therapeutics

Solutions for improved health of fish species

-          supports the digestive and immune functions of species

-          improves the growth of beneficial bacteria

-          reduces antibiotic use among species

 

This article was originally published in the January-February 2024 issue of alive magazine (US edition).

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