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Aquaculture: The fish production of the future?

5 Jul 2020

Fish on ice

Carps, salmon, tuna: More and more fish are bred in aquacultures, on so-called fish farms, nowadays. According to Aquakulturinfo, the worldwide production of aquatic organisms amounted to 179 million tonnes in the year 2018. Of which around 82 million tonnes, i.e. 46%, originated from aquacultures. Which advantages and disadvantages does this branch of the food industry bring with it and what form will the aquaculture taken on in the future?

Aquaculture: What is it?

An aquaculture is the production of aquatic organisms. Primarily, these serve as a source of food. The term "fish breeding" is often used as a synonym for aquaculture, whereby this term only describes a smaller section. Because in addition to fish, mussels, algae, crabs and other molluscs are bred. This happens using different systems: Aquaculture takes place in ponds, recirculation systems or net pens.

China is the global leader in the aquaculture section: According to the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, the country breeds more fish annually than the rest of all of the countries in the world together. Whereas India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Egypt and Norway also export large volumes of fish bred in aquacultures, many European countries are trailing behind. Less than a fifth of all fishing yields of the European Union originate from aquacultures. The reason for this is above all the different animal welfare provisions, which prevent the member states from taking a uniform approach.

Advantages and disadvantages of the aquaculture

Opinions frequently differ regarding aquacultures. Theo Jansen is the Executive Director of Wechsler Feinfisch GmbH and sees many advantages in the aquaculture section, but also recognises potential problems: "Aquaculture is in a position to provide billions of people across the world with high-quality protein. In this way it makes an important contribution towards feeding the world and at the same time reduces the fishing of wild animals. The disadvantages of the aquaculture begin where the economy starts putting pressure on the ecology and where the maxim is making profit. When large companies get involved, farming mutates into the agricultural industry and shareholder value is the only interest, a valuable product is neither created for our nutrition, nor does anything good come about for our planet."

Sandra Kess from the Fish Information Centre e.V. feels that above all the high transparency is a major advantage of aquacultures: "All of the production steps are identifiable in the aquaculture and the production regulates itself. As a result the amounts and qualities available are plannable and traceable in comparison to the yields from wild fishing. This guarantees a higher degree of transparency, which is requested by many of the consumers." For Kess the disadvantages are strongly dependent on the production form: "Open systems, such as net pens or ponds are strongly affected by the environment, which one has little control over. Parasites or decomposition products can find their way in from the cultures or into the systems. Closed systems, such as highly-technical recirculation systems on the other hand offer the full control. A disadvantage here is the to an extent high costs to install and run the systems. The animal feed implemented is also frequently criticised: Fish oil and fishmeal are currently still important ingredients that are implemented to feed certain species."

Aquaculture as a contribution to world nutrition

Fish and Seafood

Fish and seafood are one of the most frequently traded foodstuffs worldwide. Predominantly, the growth of the world population will in the coming years lead to a strong increase in the demand and requirement for food and thus also for fish. Sandra Kess sees "a high sustainability in the aquacultures concept, which for many countries in addition to safeguarding jobs and incomes also makes an important contribution to securing the food supply. In her eyes, the focus lies on sustainability, animal welfare as well as product quality and technology. The expert is aware that great progress has already been made over the past years in order to satisfy the growing demand: "Computer-controlled feeding processes, new pen constructions, the relocation of plants to the open sea as well as breeding successes in the selection of fish, crabs and molluscs have contributed towards enabling ever-increasing quantities to be produced."

Emilia Schomburg, Communication Director of MOWI ASA, is also looking confidently ahead into the future. "We believe that we can produce an ample supply of sustainable, healthy, nutritious and affordable foodstuffs for the society as a whole through the cultivation of the ocean. 70% of our planet is covered by water, however the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that only approx. 2% of the worldwide food supply originates from the sea."

Aquacultures and sustainability: a contradiction?

Salmon on packaging

The demand for sustainable alternatives for producing food is currently huge. Aquacultures frequently come under criticism. The reproach: lacking sustainability. Theo Jansen on the other hand is of the opinion that a "certified, biological aquaculture has always been sustainable and environmentally conscious, long before these terms became the keywords of our era." For Jansen a sustainable aquaculture distinguishes itself among other things through low stocking densities, ecological feed and the best water quality. These not only minimise negative effects on the environment, but also guarantee a first-class and ecological product.

When people talk about sustainability today, the topic of the so-called ecological footprint quickly crops up. This defines how strong the demand on the ecosystem and on the natural resources of the earth is. An ecological footprint can be calculated on a wide range of levels – for individual persons, a company or also for an aquaculture. Theo Jansen sees this to be a big advantage of this type of food production: "The ecological footprint of the aquaculture is much better than that of the production of beef or pork. This will continue to improve in future, if one succeeds in replacing the maritime protein share contained in the fish food with insects."

Emilia Schomburg also shares this opinion. "Consumers could reduce their personal ecological footprint if they replaced the beef and pork in their diets with fish." According to Schomburg 7.9 kilogrammes of CO² per kilogramme is emitted for the production of salmon following the aquaculture method. 1 kilogramme of pork on the other hand leads to an emission of 12.2 kilogrammes and indeed in the case of beef to 39 kilogrammes of CO².

Aquacultures: an exciting future

Aquacultures appear to hold great potential to cover the constantly growing demand for fish and other aquatic organisms and thus also makes a large contribution towards the world nutrition. Furthermore, with regards to the global CO² emissions, aquacultures could have a positive influence on the environment. In many countries, particularly within the European Union, there is a lack of overarching regulations and provisions, which define the demands, controls and certificates, which in turn guarantee the animals' welfare.

How will aquacultures further develop over the coming years against this background? An exciting question which will be discussed at Anuga 2021 - particularly in the scope of the trade shows Anuga Chilled & Fresh Food and Anuga Frozen Food , where fish and fish preparations play a major role.