Time for aquaculture to speak up

While Europe can boast of having some of the world’s most advanced consumer markets, many of which lead the way in their adoption of so-called “new farmed species,” most Europeans outside the seafood industry are in the dark when it comes to understanding the overall importance of aquaculture and how it has enhanced retail.

Clearly aware of this lack of aquaculture insight, even among individuals interested in fisheries, Peter Hajipieris, chief technical, sustainability and external affairs officer for the Birds Eye Iglo Group, spoke of the advantages farmed fish have compared with wild at a high-level conference in London last week.

Birds Eye Iglo is the No. 1 food brand in Europe, with annual sales in excess of EUR 1.6 billion (USD 2.2 billion). In the seafood category, the company mostly sells wild fish products. At the “Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum Keynote Seminar: Fishing and the Marine Environment,” Hajipieris told delegates he disagreed with the common belief that the reason for the strong growth in aquaculture — now half of all seafood consumed in the world — is a result of the failings of wild fisheries.

“Aquaculture is definitely here to stay,” he said. “In Europe, Iglo sells directly through supermarkets, and so we have good insight into the attitudes of these stores and their customers. One of the main reasons aquaculture is so popular is the evolution of the supermarket supply chain. This has happened in almost all European markets.”

Hajipieris explained that, in terms of end products, aquaculture offers far more consistency than wild products can, particularly in delivering steady prices and high quality.
Farmed products also give much greater traceability as the retailer knows exactly where the product is coming from, he said.

“Product quality is absolutely crucial in fish,” reiterated Hajipieris. “There’s a great deal of waste in the fish category, either because it’s not handled properly or because it doesn’t have the right shelflife. I’ve got figures from some of the supermarkets, which I wouldn’t like to share, but they show very large amounts of fish that we waste as a result of short shelflives. Aquaculture, certainly on the chilled sector, helps stores reduce waste.

“It’s a fact you can control fish farm products a lot more effectively than those from wild capture, partly because in Europe we’re importing a lot more fish from across the world, which is challenging in itself,” he added.

Another reason why aquaculture has been so successful is it enables supermarkets to conduct specific promotions, particularly around the Christmas and Easter holidays, as production can be modeled to tie in with stores’ marketing and supply chains.

“There are very few markets in which we operate now where supermarkets aren’t the dominant retail outlet. This is very important in the context of fisheries management,” said Hajipieris.

And he believes that given time all aquaculture can become sustainable. “Aquaculture standards have been industry-centric, which is no different to those in wild capture. It’s a 50-year-old industry, but it’s now much better in the way that it’s managed. Food security couldn’t exist on this planet without aquaculture.

“One of the challenges [to sustainability] is the ‘fish-in, fish-out ratio’ — the feed conversion rates — and these are coming down. But it’s more complex than just taking a lot of wild fish out of the sea and feeding them to farmed fish.”

There’s a lot of vegetable feed that’s going into feeds too, pointed out Hajipieris, adding that different eco-label standards are available to the fish-farming sector to steer producers onto the right path and that “hopefully” the new Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) would also start certifying products next year.

Of course, there are those who can see benefits in farming fish but who are still concerned by producers’ effects on marine ecology. Dr. Peter Jones of University College London, who also spoke at the conference, summed up the mood in that particular camp by saying it’s likely the food chain is being damaged by the removal of certain wild fish species for the manufacture of aquaculture feeds.

“Total global wild capture fisheries production has leveled off at around 80 million metric tons, whereas marine and freshwater production is increasing steadily year-on-year. But a large proportion of pelagic fisheries are being fed to farmed fish, so even if we get that conversion rate down to 1:1, it won’t address the impact on marine ecosystems,” said Jones. “Until we can de-couple aquaculture from wild fisheries, aquaculture will not be the answer to sustainable seafood supply.”

Jones confirmed that there’s a lot of work going on in this area at the moment, particularly the use of vegetable proteins and oils in feeds. But he also raised the question of whether vegetarian fish have the same health properties as those fish raised on feeds manufactured from other fish, which, depending on the answer, would have significant consumer connotations.

There are many people who believe this is one of several consumer-related questions the aquaculture industry needs to answer directly, but the sector has long been criticized for its lack of a public profile and for subsequently failing to remove the smoke and mirrors surrounding fish farming practices.

As the commercial success of farmed salmon, shrimp or tilapia prove, the industry has come a long way in recent years and is doing some brave and bold things. But who is telling aquaculture’s story and fielding questions from the floor? As good as the endorsements are, it shouldn’t just be the likes of the big frozen food brand or the supermarket chain speaking up. Surely, it’s time the aquaculture industry found its own voice.

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