By Mike Urch, Contributing Editor
Published on Monday, December 14, 2015
The seafood industry is increasingly reliant on aquaculture to obtain the raw material it needs to feed a fast growing world population. However, despite this ever increasing reliance on farmed fish and shellfish, aquaculture doesn’t receive the support it deserves, particularly in the Western world where it is a relatively new industry.
Perceptions of it need to be improved if the almost constant avalanche of adverse criticism is to be halted, perhaps even turned around so that positive aspects of the industry are highlighted for a change. This means greater transparency within the industry and with the various stakeholders which are involved in producing and utilising the raw material it provides.
According to the FAO report “Perceptions and misconceptions of aquaculture: a global overview” published in September, the strongest consumer concerns are the health and safety aspects of farmed products. Evidence is mixed, the report said, on whether people perceive aquaculture as causing environmental and animal welfare problems, and this differs among countries and regions.
It can’t be disputed that environmental and social issues need to be addressed, particularly since the bulk of global aquaculture production takes place in Asia where these issues are traditionally considered secondary to the need to produce food.
However, as the report pointed out, it is important to compare the costs and benefits of aquaculture with other animal production systems which aren’t subject to the same scrutiny.
In this context it is interesting to note that animal farming is currently experiencing problems because of the antibiotics which are routinely incorporated in manufactured feedstuffs, problems with which the aquaculture industry is already familiar and has had to deal with.
It is also interesting to note that pigs and poultry are often fed large amounts of fishmeal in their diets which doesn’t cause any adverse criticism, whereas the incorporation of fishmeal in fish feeds is lambasted because of the wild caught fish used in its production.
The effect of animal farming on climate change is also raised from time to time, but without any public outcry. It is hard to imagine that fish farming would escape such charges so lightly.
So far the public debate on aquaculture has focused mainly on the risks associated with it, while the benefits have largely been ignored. There needs to be a balanced evaluation of aquaculture’s risks and benefits so that policies which reflect production realities can be developed.
Fortunately for the aquaculture industry, the great majority of seafood customers do not care where the farmed seafood they buy comes from and how it has been produced. In fact they are usually unaware of whether the seafood they are purchasing has been farmed or wild caught, even though this fact will be printed on the label of the pack or on a shelf sticker.
For them factors such as quality, price, taste and convenience are more relevant than the various social and environmental issues of fish farming which generate the most publicity. Also sustainability aspects, so beloved by NGOs, are only taken into account by a limited number of consumers.
To improve public awareness of aquaculture, the industry needs a more open, broader dialogue which will increase transparency in the sector, the report said. If it is to communicate the benefits of aquaculture more effectively, it must collaborate more with other stakeholder groups viewed as credible by the public. Moreover, greater synergy and cooperation are needed among the various subsectors of aquaculture in order to speak with one voice and thus achieve a greater political hearing.
The rapid growth of intensive aquaculture production, in some cases not well planned, has caused concern about environmental impact, human health and social issues. The bulk of global aquaculture production is in Asia. Yet opposition to aquaculture development is strongest in Western countries where modern aquaculture is competing with well-established activities.
In addition, the increasing dependence of developed countries on farmed seafood imports from developing countries and insecurity regarding product environmental, social and safety credentials have attracted considerable negative media attention. Moreover, scientific uncertainties and conflicting information on seafood consumption have further confused the public.
This presents tremendous challenges to the sector, to policymakers and to the aquaculture community at large. Improving perceptions of the sector will be vital for its future development.