Seafood accounts for about 17% of the animal protein in the global human diet. Since the peak of wild-caught fishing in the 1990s, aquaculture has risen to meet the increasing demand. However, increased output means increased environmental impact. With the sustainability movement gaining steam in the plant and animal agriculture sectors, some fear that fish farming may lag behind. This article highlights some promising trends that could make farmed seafood more sustainable.
Seafood Consumption Is Trending Upward Worldwide
Like other animal protein sources, fish convert feed into highly bioavailable nutrients for people to enjoy. As a result, seafood farming, also known as aquaculture, has grown in popularity over the last 30 years, more than doubling between 2000 and 2012. However, to meet the increasing nutritional needs of a growing human population, it is likely the amount of farmed fish will have to double yet again by 2050.
As concern grew over the environmental impact of industrial-scale aquaculture, the industry evolved and became much more efficient. For instance, most countries no longer allow the conversion of native mangroves into shrimp farms, and modern operations can cultivate a staggering amount of fish. Nevertheless, in the face of limited resources, aquaculture still has a long way to go before it is genuinely sustainable.
Sustainability Requires a New Incentive Structure
Businesses generally follow incentives. If it is cheaper to clear out a mangrove and start to farm shrimp, most aquaculture operations will do it. However, changing the incentive structure through public policy initiatives can make a tremendous difference.
For decades, Thailand's shrimp farmers had damaged the environment by setting up their facilities in contravention of government guidelines. However, the Vietnamese government flipped the script and started offering many incentives to the farmers who adhered to environmental regulations. Sustainable shrimp farmers are now eligible for tax breaks, priority wastewater treatment, low-interest loans, and other perks.
Consumers Can Incentivize with Their Buying Habits
In many ways, the problems with fish farming mirror the hazards of animal agriculture. Cattle require an enormous amount of feed to maintain an appropriate mass or milk production. On one level of analysis, this is not an efficient use of resources – likewise with some fish. Consumer focus on fish that reside low on the food chain would reduce the environmental impact of fish farming.
First, fish like catfish, carp, tilapia, and others feed on vegetation, not other fish. On the other hand, tuna, marlin, and swordfish often feed on other fish, which in turn need to eat vegetation. The fish lower on the food chain require fewer resources to cultivate, making them a more sustainable dietary choice. Fortunately, developing nations tend to prefer this type of seafood. A concentrated effort in more affluent countries could go a long way toward reducing resource consumption.
New Tech Can Radically Improve Aquaculture Efficiency
The power of technology has increased the sustainability of agriculture greatly over the last several decades. Large-scale aquaculture, on the other hand, is a relatively new industry. In many parts of the world, traditional methods are struggling to keep up with the demands on breeding rates, feed consumption, disease control, and environmental impact.
The most significant advances in productivity and sustainability have come in parts of the world (even developing countries) that have embraced new tech. For example, in 2000, Vietnamese fish farmers adopted new breeding methods and began important high-quality feed. As a result, Vietnam's total catfish production rose from 50,000 tons in 2000 to over 1 million in 2010 – a factor of 20. However, the catfish pond area only doubled.
Geographical Density Is a Crucial Factor
There is a limit to the efficiency of a given area of water's ability to produce fish. And although the natural environment has the regenerative powers to offset a certain amount of waste from heavy fishing, intensive farming can devastate any waterscape. Unfortunately, most governmental regulations apply only to individual fisheries, and few jurisdictions regulate the overall density of aquaculture.
Proper zoning regulations can ensure that the fishing industry does not overburden the water, leading to water pollution and fish diseases. For example, Norway regulates how many salmon producers can set their operations in a given area, ensuring the environment stays resilient, and the facilities produce healthy fish.
Satellite Data Can Monitor Global Aquaculture Impact
Satellite technology can map the Earth at a very high resolution. In addition, ecological modeling, data aggregation, and information management have grown in sophistication. The result: we now can develop a global planning and monitoring system to encourage sustainable fish farming.
An integrated environmental monitoring system would allow governments to plan for resilience, drawing attention to dangerous levels of pollution, excessive energy use, or low-quality fish products. Moreover, the system could track currents, water temperature, and other factors to predict the future viability of areas. Finally and perhaps most importantly, such a system could help people hold big businesses and governments accountable for the effects of their policies on the environment.
Headed in the Right Direction, More Progress Is Needed
With the growing demand for quality nutrition to serve a higher and higher population, we need to increase the sustainability of all our food sources. Industrial aquaculture is a younger industry than its land-based counterparts. This disparity is both a challenge and an opportunity – small changes could have huge impacts.
Consumers, governments, and other institutions can alter the incentive structure by choosing to buy more sustainable fish, giving tax breaks and other benefits to compliant farms, and developing new technologies to make aquaculture cleaner and more efficient. Ultimately, large-scale, global efforts may allow us to plan, build, and monitor a sustainable seafood industry.
Go Low – Change your order to catfish or tilapia. Low on the food chain, they require fewer resources to farm than swordfish or salmon. Taking personal responsibility for the environment never tasted so good.
(Shell)fish Fridays – Clams, Oysters, Mussels, and Scallops are beloved delicacies worldwide. Fortunately, these bivalve mollusks feed on nutrients in the water – they're as low as you can go on the food chain. Also, they produce almost no waste.
Find ASC or MSC Labels – Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council certifications have standards for cultivating seafood. While no certification process will please everybody, the ASC has more stringent sustainability standards. The blue and green labels should be on your seafood.