Global farmed salmon production expected to grow

An analytical tool designed to assess and compare the environmental performance of marine finfish aquaculture operations and regions will be released today.

The Global Aquaculture Performance Index (GAPI) was designed over the course of two years by Dr. John Volpe, marine ecologist and associate professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and an interdisciplinary team of researchers. The Lenfest Oceans Program and Pew Charitable Trusts funded the project.

Volpe held a teleconference with reporters on Friday to discuss the purpose and background of the index, which has a two-pronged approach to evaluating and comparing the environmental impacts — and simplifying the results — of key marine finfish species like Atlantic salmon, Atlantic cod, grouper and turbot.

The first prong is a “normalized score,” or a measure of the intensity of environmental impacts per unit of production. Normalized scores “level the playing field among producers of all sizes,” according to Volpe’s report. These scores are designed to assist policy makers in developing regulations to improve environmental performance among individual producers or industries.

The second prong is a “cumulative score,” which encapsulates the overall impact of aquaculture production across a region or within a country, allowing policy makers to assess proper scale and carrying capacity for a given area.

GAPI, Volpe said, is “a universal translator, or the Rosetta Stone of marine aquaculture” that takes available data to create “a robust, but simple, score” for a species or country of production. Volpe added that species’ scores are suited for seafood buyers interested in comparing performance across seafood products to influence their purchasing preferences.

Although Volpe said there is significant room for improvement among producers, some of the findings surprised him and the research team, including the relatively promising scores exhibited by Atlantic salmon producers.

“Salmon obviously has its problems. However, compared to the production of other species in other parts of the world, salmon deserves to be seen in a more nuanced light than it is in some circles worldwide,” Volpe said.

The key takeaway from the process, especially where farmed salmon is concerned, was that “not all marine finfish aquaculture is the same,” Volpe said.

“Even within species we found dramatic differences from country to country across the board,” he added. “Scale matters. Efficiency on a farm-by-farm basis is good but one must keep an eye on the cumulative effect. GAPI is the first initiative to take a global snapshot of aggregate impacts.”

GAPI assesses the top 20 marine finfish aquaculture species, in terms of volume. These species represent 91 percent of marine finfish aquaculture by value.

GAPI’s use of both normalized and cumulative scores demonstrates that scale of production can have major impacts on environmental performance. “Scale is everything,” Volpe said. Atlantic salmon, for example, was the third-highest ranking species on a per-unit of production basis, or normalized score. But when production volume is considered, Atlantic salmon’s cumulative score is the third-worst of the 20 species evaluated.

Conversely, cobia is one of the worst performers on a normalized basis, but because the industry is of modest size, it has a small cumulative impact compared to salmon.

The worst performers overall, GAPI concluded, were finfish-farming industries that are relatively young, such as cobia. They don’t have the benefit of years of trial and error as other species, yet they are the fastest growers at 5 to 10 percent annual rates.

GAPI only assesses marine finfish aquaculture, which represents just 7 percent of global aquaculture production, according to Volpe’s findings. Of that total, Volpe’s team was able to assess 93.7 percent of global marine aquaculture production, using data from “hundreds” of sources. All data was from 2007.

Assessment of freshwater fish farming, which accounts for 57.7 percent of global aquaculture production, is a “longer-term objective,” said Volpe, because “the scale of difference is tremendous. Differences between two lakes in one country can be greater than the magnitude of difference between two marine habitats.”

“GAPI provides a valuable tool for developing environmentally responsible fish farming,” said Chris Mann, senior officer and director of the Pew Environment Group’s Aquaculture Standards Project, which collaborated on the work. “Governments can use GAPI to inform policies and regulations to minimize the environmental footprint of fish farming. Farmers can use it to improve production practices. And buyers can use it to compare and select better, more environmentally friendly seafood options.”

GAPI is available for download at the Lenfest website.

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