Aquaculture America 2014: Bridge to Asia
Forty years ago, Patrick Sorgeloos attended his first international aquaculture conference in Charleston, S.C., and he has been active player on the global scene ever since. The Ghent University professor is a leader on many aspects of aquaculture, including fish and shellfish larviculture, live food production, international cooperation, and sustainability issues. He was an apt choice to open Aquaculture America 2014, which stressed so many of these themes. The event, held in Seattle from 9 February to 12 February, is the largest aquaculture conference in the Western hemisphere.
Sorgeloos' plenary address, "Aquaculture: The Blue Biotechnology of the Future," began by documenting aquaculture's phenomenal growth, especially compared with capture fisheries, which has flatlined ever since the 90s. In 2011 aquaculture, the world's fastest growing food-production industry, yielded almost 84 million metric tons of food, including seaweed, worth USD 135.5 billion (EUR 98.9 billion). Nearly 90 percent of the product came from Asia.
Sorgeloos went on to look at different culture systems and compare industrial and traditional aquaculture. The latter produces food mainly for local consumption, is often integrated with other terrestrial plant and animal production, and is low-tech and ecologically benign in that it mostly uses local resources. In contrast, industrial aquaculture is mostly monocultural, profit- and technology-driven, and has detrimental environmental impacts.
The biggest challenge the industry faces is increasing demand for healthy and affordable seafood spurred by the growing world population. Ten years from now, aquaculture will need to produce 50 percent more per year than current annual production to meet expected per capita consumption needs. Now the seas, which cover more than 70 percent of the earth, produce less than 2 percent of our food needs. Sorgeloos said that before long, we will witness a significant shift to farming the oceans for food, fuel, pharmaceuticals, and other products.
The need for more integrated production systems for plant and animal farming is a priority, Sorgeloos told the more than 1,800 attendees from 54 countries. Coastal and offshore farms will play an increasingly important role. He touted integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, or IMTA, for food production and bioremediation and cited Chinese efforts to maximize nutrient recycling for different niches of the ecosystem: fish, shellfish, and seaweeds. Even wind, wave, and thermal energy generation can be built into the system.
In his talk and during an interview afterward, Sorgeloos stressed two main themes: sustainability and cooperation with Asia. He said, "Just as with terrestrial farming, many of our standard and 'successful' aquaculture practices are not sustainable. The feed ingredients we use or our environmental impacts, such as eutrophication from our wastes, are examples. We need to develop innovative integration practices that make managing waste cost-effective and ultimately even profitable. This will be accomplished through a step-by-step multidisciplinary approach with sincere stakeholder interaction."
Sorgeloos emphasized the need to rethink how we manage waste, saying, "We cannot simply keep treating it. We need to adjust our monoculture approach and build integrated systems. The salmon farmers and other growers know they will have to do this eventually, but since they operate on such small margins, they can't do it now. Tax credits and incentives are needed." Sorgeloos cited the example presented at the conference of New Hampshire providing financial support for such transitions.
Despite serious problems remaining to be addressed, aquaculture is making real progress Sorgeloos said, citing a more than 50 percent decline in the use of fishmeal in aquatic feeds over the last 20 years. He advocated full independence from fisheries stocks for lipid and protein ingredients in aquatic feeds.
East-West relations was another of Sorgeloos' themes. "North America and Europe need to be more open to constructive and equal partnerships with Asian countries, where aquaculture has been refined over centuries," he said. "We face common challenges and can and must develop win-win solutions through doing business, research, and education together. We need to build bridges, not raise barriers."
Sorgeloos believes that Asians are catching up fast on food safety and eco-friendly solutions to environmental problems. He reports that bad press on Asian aquaculture is not uncommon in Europe and leads to a lot of resentment in Asia that the West is preaching or dictating to them. This discord must be replaced by collaboration. If not, the product we need in the future may not be available because of increased demand in Asia and the lack of good relations.
The Chinese have much to teach the West. They actually are farming the sea on an enormous scale by managing the entire ecosystem holistically. The waste of one species provides food for another. The culture of seaweed not only provides food and other products but also removes nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon from the water, reducing harmful algal blooms and eutrophication.
Sustainable Aquatic Feed
After his talk, Sorgeloos made a case for tunicates as a potential alternative feed source. These marine filter feeders, usually found at shallow depths, are extremely efficient at purifying water and quickly producing biomass. (Common names for some species are sea squirts, sea pork, and sea liver.) Sorgeloos predicts they could be a prime protein and carbohydrate source of the future and a way to reduce pollution. He said, "We need more of such innovative, out-of-the box thinking and action to develop new concepts and products, in order to make aquaculture more sustainable."
The concerns expressed in the keynote were largely reflected in the sessions that followed. Conference program chair Wendy Sealey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that, "In general, nutrition-focused sessions drew the largest crowds and there were many to choose from." Feed-source options were high on the agenda. There were two days of workshops on biofloc, the microbial ingredients used as protein sources, most commonly for shrimp.
A dozen sessions focused on current knowledge of taurine and its future role in aquaculture. The amino-acid-like substance has not yet been approved by the FDA for use in aquaculture in this country, although it is widely used in the rest of the world. Attendees had useful discussions with Charlotte Conway of the FDA, and the next move will be to gain support for a widely circulated petition requesting taurine approval.
Sealey also said the conference kept its tradition of including sessions on a relatively new species to aquaculture, one that had a "regional flair." This year it was sablefish. NOAA has been driving research on the species, including at Seattle's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. All-female production of sablefish is a near-term goal at the center that would capitalize on the more rapid growth of females relative to males and immediately benefit sablefish aquaculture.
On the agenda for future conferences?
Among the 740 talks and 185 posters presented at Aquaculture America 2014, none dealt with ocean acidification (OA). And several of the conference attendees didn't know what OA is. A few asked: "Ocean certification? What's that?" There may not be many such conferences in the future where OA is not discussed.
The future of shellfish aquaculture will increasingly require closer attention to seawater carbonate chemistry. Some hatchery operators now believe that monitoring seawater carbonate chemistry in order to avoid "bad" water or buffer it with carbonate minerals is on track to become standard practice in the industry globally. Aquaculture and hatchery-supported wild stocks have the greatest potential to adapt to changes in ocean chemistry driven by global CO2 pollution. These changes are looking increasingly likely to erode fishery production, especially in shellfish stocks dependent on natural recruitment. The adaptive capacity of aquaculture rests on hatcheries. Without them, it's all but impossible to protect vulnerable marine seafood species from the early life-stage impacts of OA.
Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest shellfish grower in North America, put it starkly at a recent Seafood Summit when he said, "If we don't begin addressing ocean acidification promptly, I believe the future of the seafood industry is at stake, and we are consigning our heirs to a world of increasing scarcity and conflict over ocean resources. All our efforts at marine conservation and resource management will prove inadequate if we don't tackle the most basic problem of all—ocean acidification."