Fisheries sustainability different than aquaculture
Monday,25 April,2011 11:56:01
I recently had an opportunity to spend some time with a buyer who makes the decisions about what products are sold in a grocery store chain. As an ecologist/marine microbiologist/aquaculture expert, I have tried to help clients over the last three decades understand the concept of sustainability and endeavor to offer my clients strategies to attain true sustainability. I was naturally curious about what the buyer thought that the term meant. It became clear that the definition that they felt applied to their sales philosophy was not totally accurate but strongly reflected the biases of the parties relaying the information to them.
This confirmed what I already have found elsewhere: sustainability is a catch phrase that means different things to different people. What the retailer’s perception of sustainability is was based on what one of the many organizations that are offering to help retailers with their sourcing have defined as sustainability. This has resulted in confusion about what the term means and its widespread use by vendors everywhere regardless of accuracy. There is also confusion about what the difference is between the use of the term as it relates to fisheries and to aquaculture. Many seem to believe that the terms are interchangeable. They are not.
Fish are hunted using a variety of technologies. Sustainability of fisheries deals with the impact of the fishing techniques employed and the composition of the catch on a populations viability as a species as well as on the environment. Governments (and fishermen who are not fishing for subsistence) have a vested interest in ensuring that a hunted species is not over fished and that the manner in which it is fished is not damaging to the environment such that there is critical resource depletion (such as habitat destruction, damage to food chains, extinction of by catch, etc.). They regulate this and enforce it where they can. Unfortunately in some parts of the world, the resources simply are not available to ensure that fisheries under a high degree of pressure are not over exploited. This has resulted in a serious decline of some fisheries as well as serious damage to critical habitats or damage to other resources. While there are many NGOs that audit many fisheries there does not appear to be a universal agreement as to whether or not the criteria that are being used are truly always indicative of sustainability. This is complicated.
There are many different production paradigms in aquaculture. Concerns regarding sustainability are focused on environmental issues and the impact of the farming practices on the social order and some peripheral issues that in some cases are not universally agreed upon as to be even relevant to sustainability. Defining sustainability should be relatively straightforward as it is not as complicated as fisheries models. A simple definition would be “the farming practices of today can be done tomorrow and into the far future without damaging the environment to a degree that prevents this and that ensures that other resources are not damaged or depleted as a consequence of these activities.”
Using the concept of resource depletion leaves the definition open to interpretation. It depends on what you consider to be resource depletion. This is why some groups have focused very strongly on fish meal and fish oils as these are renewable resources that can be depleted if over utilized. Other groups (me included) look at the fact that production of these raw materials is stable and has been for many years, aquaculture has generated large amounts of recyclable wastes and that demand has driven up prices and not resulted in overfishing. So we do not view this as relevant to sustainability. High demand increases ingredient costs, limiting their usefulness when there are pricing constraints to the end user.
Certainly environmental issues are critical to sustainability. While in fisheries we are looking at damage from destructive harvesting practices and peripheral damage, with aquaculture we are concerned that the manner in which the farming is done does not destroy an important resource (such as mangroves or fresh water wells and the like) or that the disposal of wastes does not damage the environment (e.g. heavy loads of nitrogen and phosphorous can readily cause localized pollution). Unlike fisheries, where a renewable resource that we do not want to reduce to the point where it cannot be renewed is being utilized, this is typically not an issue in aquaculture. While there are still species where wild broodstock are used and even instances where wild juvenile or fry are caught and reared to market sizes, these models are becoming exceptions rather than norms. Certainly there have been instances where short sighted individuals have damaged resources to produce a short term financial gain, but this can happen in any industry and is actually a failure of government.
Some groups espouse the idea that extreme damage to mangrove habitat has occurred as a result of aquaculture practices, but they are really trying to make the public believe that extremes are the norm. Mangroves are cut down for a lot of reasons and constructing ponds to produce fish or shrimp is a minor contributing factor and is becoming ever less so. Wise aquaculture practices recognize that these soils are very poor for aquaculture and that the effort involved in changing this far outweighs any cost benefit. In fact the requirement of poor people for firewood is a major factor and in some areas (such as Myanmar) huge areas of mangroves were cut to build rice paddies. There are many different codes for the responsible practice of aquaculture that are being promulgated and as a group they do a fair job addressing environmental and social concerns. Unfortunately, auditing for compliance is not the same as actually ensuring that compliance is real and not staged.
Disease is a big issue in agriculture and no less in aquaculture. Disease can be a result of many different things. Typically in aquaculture, the focus is concerned with diseases caused by pathogens or as a result of preventable stressors not genetic or physiological (aging, heart disease, cancer, etc.) diseases (from the standpoint of sustainability). Pathogens are ubiquitous and the very nature of farming ensures that there will always be disease. Sustainable culture practices recognize this and diseases are proactively managed. In my experience, this is a serious weakness in many certification programs as well as in many farming operations that claim sustainability.
My observations are that very few companies that are certified have programs that are robust enough to afford them a level of awareness that could be stated to be indicative of true sustainability. While recognizing that disease is inherent is important, it is also important to understand that prevention is possible and desirable. All too often animal health programs are little more than reactive disease programs and the term sustainability as applied to aquaculture does not include preventing diseases. Reactive strategies are important but they are not a pillar of sustainability and if that is all that is focused on, then you can bet that the culture practices will not be sustainable. Many farms think that they are doing what they need to do because they are “certified”. Many vendors think that they are encouraging sustainability by requiring certification. From what I have seen, this is not quite as straightforward as many would like it to be.
Clearly, fisheries and aquaculture approach sustainability from different perspectives. Neither is straightforward and there will always be disagreements as to what the elements are of truly sustainable practices. It is important to recognize that as with most human activities where there are disparate interests involved, there will always be differences in opinion and that progress should be measured in terms of incremental positive change. We still have a ways to go until what we call "sustainability" for either fisheries or aquaculture can be truly called sustainable. History will tell us for sure, although there is little doubt that we are making incremental progress.
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