Lack of collaboration and consistency presents existential challenge to aquaculture

Published on
June 28, 2018

A negative perception of aquaculture is one of the biggest challenges to increasing per capita seafood consumption in North America, according to Bill DiMento, the head of quality assurance and sustainability at High Liner Foods.

Once primarily dependent on Canadian-caught cod for sourcing, that fishery’s closure in 1992 left High Liner with no option but to turn to aquaculture, DiMento said. With that closure set to continue for “many years to come,” High Liner is expecting to become more and more dependent on aquaculture for its sourcing, DiMento said while speaking as part of a panel on the state of the aquaculture industry at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit in Barcelona, Spain on 19 June.

And while the future looks bright for aquaculture, DiMento called for better enforcement of quality and standards, arguing that inconsistencies continue to create a negative perception of farmed products among consumers in the United States.

Improvement of aquaculture standards must come from both government and the industry itself, DiMento said. Without action from those two parties, non-governmental organizations will continue to assert themselves and play an outsized role in how the industry is shaped, he said. Moving forward, DiMento said pre-competitive collaboration among companies in the industry is key to improving consistency of governance.

Also speaking on the panel was Avrim Lazar, the convenor of the Global Salmon Initiative, an industry umbrella group aimed at driving standards and sustainability in salmon farming. With aquaculture set to increase “radically” in volume, “We have to get radical about expanding aquaculture,” said Lazar.

Lazar is also a major proponent of pre-competitive efforts as a means to boost the aquaculture sector. In Lazar’s view, the competitive model leads to stratification of companies with bottom performers retaining old, non-sustainable practices. 

“Pre-competitive collaboration, however, could lead to bring the bottom performers up to higher standards,” he said.

To illustrate pre-competitive collaboration role in a market system, Lazar detailed how his organization brought together salmon industry figures from Chile and Norway to collaborate on solutions to sea lice, which led to Chilean producers adopting solutions from the Faroe Islands. 

“Furthermore, Chilean officials were then brought together with European counterparts to change laws allowing for new methods to be adapted,” Lazar said. “Ultimately, it was realized through further collaboration that only non-chemical methods could work.”

Calling for innovation, Lazar said there’s too much focus on the merits of individual aquaculture systems, rather than the goal of increased production. Scale and speed will be vital, in Lazar’s view, and companies must work together to achieve that end.

“If one [company] finds a solution, they share it,” he said.

Certification schemes like the Aquaculture Stewardship Council or the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) program also have an important role to play, but should be seen as signposts to improvement rather than an end in themselves, Lazar said.

Robert Jones, global head of aquaculture at the Nature Conservancy, said plenty of other big issues remain to be resolved for aquaculture to thrive. In the U.S., access to sites is a challenge, as the federal government’s permitting bureaucracy makes it very difficult to get access to coastal locations, Jones said. The Nature Conservancy is currently working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on tools for better siting of aquaculture facilities in the United States, which can then be shared overseas, Jones said. 

Internationally, developing nations face almost the opposite challenge, with a lack of national land management and spatial planning resulting in problems in the industry, Jones said. 

Reviewing other major issues facing the aquaculture industry, Lazar said the sustainability of feed remains a big question. Diversifying sources of feed for aquaculture will entail an initial high investment, but with scale, this cost will be reduced, according to Lazar. Meanwhile, insurance coverage is at a mere three percent for the aquaculture industry. 

Meanwhile, in the debate over land- versus ocean-based aquaculture, it could be that sea-based production is more resilient in a world where droughts are more prevalent, according to Jones. And regarding the industry’s ability to respond to issues like droughts, overproduction, and other such crises, Lazar said certain parts of the sector are better-positioned. For instance, the small-scale nature of much of the world’s shrimp production means producers are able to make shorter-term decisions compared to salmon producers.

On another front, financial sustainability of the industry may be an overlooked priority, Jones said. Examples of firms that are financially sustainable are also crucial to convincing more players to enter the industry and to encourage investment in the sector, Jones said. 

“The last thing we need is another recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) company to go under,” he said.

DiMento, Lazar, and Jones had a greater divergence in views over the role of consumers. Lazar argued the onus to drive greater acceptance of farmed products is on producers rather than consumers. 

“Consumers buy what we put out; they don’t know where or how it was produced,” Lazar said. “Our products are more commodities and are much less differentiated by sustainability than they could be.” 

Lazar called for governments to push aquaculture onto their populations.

“Get all the government agencies to talk about the social and economic benefits, the health benefits and environmental benefits. Talk about the benefits of doing it right and then we can increase consumption per capita,” Lazar said.

Consumers are already predisposed to like aquaculture as a result of their growing demand for sustainability and traceable seafood products, according to High Liner’s DiMento – and aquaculture is well-positioned to deliver on those demands.

“Consumers want to know the back story, where it comes from and how sustainable the product is,” he said. “We are working very hard on education.”

But when it comes to sustainability, aquaculture still has a lot of work to do and self-reflection to complete, Lazar said.

“Having projects makes us feel good, but the Earth is being trashed by the majority of the production projects,” he said. “Even though aquaculture is more ecological, its stresses on the planet add to what’s already there, and can we afford to add to that? 

Even with a case for its sustainability bona fides mounting, the aquaculture industry still requires “radical change” if the much-heralded “Blue Revolution” is to happen, Lazar said.  With the industry still in its build-out phase, he said he sees an opportunity to learn from the mistakes made in the mechanization of agriculture. 

“We all talk about the ‘Blue Revolution.’ But the ‘Green Revolution’ was the number-one insult to the earth,” said Lazar, a reference to the increase in agricultural output of recent decades through chemical additives like fertilizer. “Yes, it fed the human population, but we can’t repeat the mistakes.”

Photo courtesy of The Natural Step Canada

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