Future lies with offshore aquaculture


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
October 3, 2011

Editor’s note: SeaFood Business Associate Editor James Wright is in Washington, D.C., this week reporting from the seventh World Seafood Congress.

To meet ever-increasing global demand for seafood from an estimated 9 to 10 billion people by mid-century, the world will need to lean more and more on aquaculture — and not just any aquaculture, but offshore aquaculture, producing fish several miles offshore.

That was the conclusion of Michael Schwartz, Ph.D., of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va., a speaker at Monday’s World Seafood Congress breakout session, “Where are All the Fish Going to Come From?”

“Seventy percent of the planet is water. I don’t want to say it’s unlimited, but for all intents and purposes, there’s a lot of space and a lot we can do with it,” said Schwartz.

Offshore marine environments offer tremendous potential for seafood production, he said, partly because of limits on land-based or near-shore systems; limited access, energy dynamics, disease, eutrophication and resource conflicts are among a few.

However, developing offshore aquaculture presents more than its share of challenges, Schwartz added. Technology for offshore aquaculture is advancing but still in its infancy and there are considerable cost concerns to contend with.

“We’re not talking about a quick turnaround” for investors, said Schwartz, urging a patient, long-term view.

One constraint that is being tackled with great success by government and the seafood industry is in developing feed formulations that require less and less natural resources, said Mike Rust, the science coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ aquaculture program. Rust was confident that the pressures on wild fish stocks that comprise fish feed can be alleviated through research.

“There is no reason to think that feed is going to limit the production of aquaculture of fed fish. It should not be a constraint,” said Rust. “Is there a physiological requirement for fishmeal and fish oil [for farmed fish diets]? The answer is no.”

Rust explained that 40 nutrients are necessary to raise healthy fish, but they do not have to come from wild-caught seafood. Rust admits, though, that fishmeal is the “perfect” ingredient for fish feed due to its balance of fats, lipids and proteins.

Rust looked to the future of aquaculture feed production and offered a few insights. In 10 to 15 years, he said, much of the alternative protein and lipid production will come from plant and animal byproducts; within 30 years, plant-based biofuel and bio-plastic production, which has the potential to produce needed protein byproducts, should mature; and within 50 years, the industry will capitalize on the utilization of macroalgae, or seaweed, which Rust said has the best long-term chance for success.

“It’s the balance to the imbalance that the world is in right now,” he said. “That’s where our ultimate future needs to go.”

Dr. Michael Rubino, director of NOAA Fisheries’ aquaculture program, said that a “complicated regulatory presence” including local, state and federal layers of government, is another major constraint for aquaculture producers operating in U.S. waters, second only to the cost of feed.

“It’s a complicated and uncertain process for businesses to go through,” said Rubino. “Many businesses are simply going to other countries rather than growing seafood at home.”

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