Belle: Aquaculture can feed the world


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
February 14, 2010

 Because the Earth's surface is three-quarters water and because the world's population is expected to increase by nearly 50 percent in the next four decades, it's only natural to ask how humans can make the oceans more productive.

That's what Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said on Thursday in Portland, Maine, at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute's (GMRI) first Sea State 5.0 Public Lecture Series about sustainable seafood.

Belle, who has more than three decades of experience in aquaculture, including salmon farming, says responsible aquaculture can indeed feed the world. Aquaculture represents about 47 percent of the world's edible seafood supply, he said, but should represent about 52 percent in just 20 years. The title of Belle's lecture was "Aquaculture: A Seafood Solution for the Future."

"[Aquaculture is] a good way to produce food, but it also presents challenges," said Belle, adding that the fish farming industry has only about 100 years of experience and knowledge to draw upon, compared to thousands of years for terrestrial agriculture. "It's been a fast transition and a very rapid expansion of what is essentially a very new human activity in an environment in which we are not native species."

Belle admitted that the aquaculture industry has made many mistakes, yet is always learning from them. But fish farming can be an important tool for the United States to reduce its dependence on imports, which account for about 85 percent of the U.S. seafood supply. Belle said that seafood was the No. 2 contributor to the United States' annual trade deficit, behind only oil, at USD 9.4 billion in 2008.

Maine, he pointed out, is a leader in responsible aquaculture. The limited amount of salmon farms on the state's coast are following strict bay-management techniques that include site rotation and regular fallowing, which "revolutionized our business and took our use of antibiotics to zero. We haven't used any in five years."

Bay management allows fish farmers to "break the infection cycle without chemicals. We've taken a page out of the organic farming book," he said, and now aquaculture operators from around the world are coming to Maine to learn more.

Maine's top aquaculture product is shellfish, namely oysters, but great potential lies in the easternmost state's waters for salmon, cod and halibut as well, said Belle, who currently sits on the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Standards Oversight Committee. "Maine has some of the most progressive growers in the world," Belle said.

In the end, Belle noted, responsible aquaculture development relies on four key principles: public trust, applicant rights, user conflicts and sustainability.

GMRI is collaborating with Northeast supermarket chain Hannaford to create an eco-label for seafood products sourced sustainably from the Gulf of Maine. That program is scheduled to launch next month.

GMRI's Sea State 5.0 Public Lecture Series continues on the second Thursday of each month, through May, and again later in the fall. In March, Fore Street Chef Sam Hayward will talk about "Eco-Friendly Fine Dining: Savor the Possibilities." Future lectures will be presented by Alain d'Entremont of Scotia Harvest Seafoods, Brad Ack of the Marine Stewardship Council and Jerry Knecht of Portland-based seafood supplier North Atlantic.

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