More thoughts on sustainability in aquaculture
Monday,31 January,2011 08:33:54
It seems that everywhere one looks today the word “sustainable” fisheries and aquaculture is being bandied about. Cities are pledging to only source sustainable products and grocery store chains and restaurants are all jumping on the band wagon. Yet, how true is this? Has everybody figured it out and everywhere only sustainable aquaculture produced protein is being sold?
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there really is no universally agreed upon definition for the term as it relates to aquaculture. When one explores this further one sees that every NGO and every organization that has or is developing standards seems to have its own variation of the definition as do the farms and associated businesses that are being or will be audited against these standards.
A lot of operations that purport to be sustainable are in my opinion (based on observation and 30 plus years of experience in aquaculture), only sustainable in the short term, making them not sustainable. After all, many operations can claim sustainability and it is really not relevant to the process it is just for the short term. While great effort may be made to ensure that the short term environmental impact makes the project appear sustainable and every effort is being made to ensure that if fish meal is required in the feed it comes from sources that are deemed to be sustainable, and that if required there is no GM material in the feeds, and considerable effort is also going into complying with acceptable social standards, often biosecurity issues are poorly thought out and ultimately pose a significant threat to the long term stability of the production system.
Many people think that closing systems is all that is needed to ensure safeguards from disease. This is simply not so. Nothing short of closing a system indoors and controlling all inputs will offer this degree of security and only then if inputs are monitored appropriately. Disease is a serious threat to many of these purported sustainable operations. Significant losses from disease are not consistent with economic viability and thus not with long term sustainability.
It is interesting to note that as standards are promulgated that many of them have what is being touted as stakeholder input, yet upon close examination the stakeholders are not always farmers. In some cases, there seems to be a disproportionate representation of NGO’s. Many of them seem to have their own, not necessarily universally agreed upon, ideas about what the elements of sustainability are. It is not possible to cover all of them, and there are many, some of which are certainly legitimate elements of sustainability, while others are not.
There is no basis to include the exclusion of genetically modified (GM) anything in the definition of sustainable aquaculture. The use of genetically modified plant proteins is widely accepted in human nutrition and there is no evidence to suggest that there have been any untoward impacts on human health. Certainly by extension they have a useful place in the nutrition of marine animals. There seems to be a pervasive fear that GM fish will somehow cause horrible problems when in fact there is no scientifically verifiable data to support these fears.
Many preach the precautionary principle. In the absence of “proof” one way or another, err on the side of caution. Unfortunately this is all too often an excuse for groups and individuals to foist their opinions onto policy makers and the public when the reality is that no science would convince them that their position is untenable. A logical and science based examination of the risks should be sufficient to allow things to proceed one way or another rather than an outright condemnation because they are GM. While caution is prudent and to some extent in everyone’s benefit, fear of GM is a separate issue and has nothing to do with sustainability. In fact, it could be argued that GM plants and animals offer the hope for true sustainability in an overcrowded and resource-limited world.
The use of fish meal and fish oils in marine animal feeds is another area that has been drawn into the definition of sustainability. It is not the use of fish meal or oil that is the threat to sustainability, it is the lack of responsible fisheries policies that allow companies to plunder resources for short term gain. There is no evidence that this has happened or that it will (at least as it pertains to fish meal and fish oil).
The greater threat to global fisheries is global hunger and the inability of poorer countries to effectively regulate (not that all of the much better off economically countries do such a great job all the time). Aquaculture offers a potential solution and while it is not a panacea (there are none short of a drastic curtailment of population growth and reallocation of resources), there should be a greater focus on what really constitutes long term economic viability with a minimal environmental impact and a significant social benefit without dragging peripheral issues into this that cloud the issue and detract from what is the real issue.
I think that sustainable aquaculture can be addressed in a straightforward manner. Are the cultural practices of today sufficiently evolved to ensure that they can continue largely unchanged into the foreseeable future? Are there mechanisms in place that allow them to change as economic and social forces evolve to ensure this? What environmental impacts are truly consequential and what truly constitutes benign impacts? Let’s focus on the real issues instead of clouding it with issues that many believe have little to do with true long term sustainability.
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