New study evaluates potential for ocean farming

Published on
May 9, 2019

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have just published one of the first comprehensive global evaluations of the potential for sustainable aquaculture under current governance, policy and investment regimes.  

Their study, published in the journal Marine Policy, found that marine aquaculture is a rapidly growing industry that presents both opportunities and risks for the environment and society.

Using a country-by-country approach, it demonstrates that the ability of ocean farming of finfish and bivalves to mitigate food security concerns with minimal ecological impact, largely depends on the governance infrastructure of the sector. 

Peter Kareiva, one of the researchers and director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, explained that sustainable food systems are also an important part of the fight against climate change.

"Like many environmental scientists, I see marine aquaculture as the future food system for a carbon neutral world,” Kareiva said. “But whether we get that future and a healthy ocean depends on governance and regulations—and we all know how sketchy those can be at times." 

A previous study by Kareiva found that global fish demand could be satisfied by sustainably farming just 0.015 percent of the world’s oceans. 

Marine aquaculture was viewed by the current study as less polluting than inland operations, because the open ocean disperses its impact, leading to fewer environmental problems. Sustainably farming the oceans would also allow wild populations of fish, 90 percent of which are considered by the United Nations to be on the verge of collapse, to recover while providing an important source of protein and economic benefits to humans.

The UCLA team looked at 144 countries and grouped then into three categories based on the quality of government institutions and regulations, the potential for investment, and the suitability of biological and physical environmental conditions for ocean farming. 

Sixty-seven countries were found to have conditions favorable for marine aquaculture, and lead author Ian Davies believes that the industry could help address social challenges in these places.

"There is a lot of potential in food-insecure countries, including island states in the Pacific and Caribbean," Davies said. "They have limited resources and quickly growing populations. But these are also the countries with the most productive waters in the world."

Twenty-four countries were identified as lacking in highly productive waters but still engaging in aquaculture, generally because of better access to investment. This group included countries around the Persian Gulf and Black Sea, South Korea, Italy, Canada and Norway.

The remaining 77 countries had suitable waters, but poor access to capital and unstable, corrupt or ineffective governance systems. However, sixteen of these are currently farming fish in the ocean but are causing harm to ecosystems or producing other problems in the process. 

The history of ecosystem damage as a result of poor regulation includes the 1990s shrimp farming boom in Southeast Asia that destroyed many mangroves, and more recent unregulated fish farming in northern Vietnamese waters, which led to led to a number of disease outbreaks. It is important that lessons are learned from such events.

"The more robust regulation you have, the more you can ensure the industry will be around for longer, and that it will be able to produce fish at a reasonable cost with minimal input," Davies said. "There is a palpable feeling among planners, researchers and aquaculture operators that we have the ability to do this right before the industry gets too big. Let's put the regulations in place."

The researchers found that while many countries active in marine aquaculture had regulation and environmental oversight in place, they often lacked clear frameworks for emerging growth in the sector, particularly offshore production. 

This is one of the areas that a new International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) Working Group on Open Ocean Aquaculture aims to tackle. 

Chaired by Professor Bela Buck of the University of Applied Sciences, Bremerhaven, the goal of the working group is to form an international group of biologists, engineers, economists, spatial planers, managers, industry personnel, administrations and NGOs to develop a roadmap for the future of aquaculture at open ocean locations.

“As demand for products from aquaculture increases but the supply of operational space in coastal areas is limited, there are worldwide efforts to move aquaculture more into the open ocean, or to areas that are not far from the mainland, but are subject to harsher weather conditions,” Buck said. 

The group will work out concepts for site-specific solutions that will enable the sustainable development of offshore aquaculture. 


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