Global Aquaculture Poses Serious Risks To The Environment

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That red and rich piece of salmon that you’re eating for dinner may not have been the ocean-roaming creature you imagine. Global aquaculture, one of the fastest growing food sectors on the planet, is putting lots of seafood on our plates these days. New opportunities and challenges in seafood marine production under climate change scenarios require the industry to design effective and efficient use and protection of the oceans if we are to feed an enormous percentage of the planet’s population sustainably.

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Average per capita seafood consumption has doubled since the 1960s, and capture fishery production has been relatively static since the late 1980s. Starting in 2014, aquaculture has provided more of global seafood production than fisheries. While you might think that meat is the #1 global protein source, it’s actually fish — the annual growth rate of fish consumption surpasses that of meat from all terrestrial animals combined. The expansion in fish consumption has been driven not only by increased production but also by a combination of many other factors, including reduced wastage, better utilization, improved distribution channels, and growing demand linked with population growth, rising incomes, and urbanization.

Over 1/3 of aquaculture is produced in marine waters. The total production included 80 million tons of food fish worth $231.6 billion, 30.1 million tons of aquatic plants at a valuation of $11.7 billion, and 37,900 tons of non-food products selling for $214.6 million.

ESG Concerns with Global Aquaculture

Yes, major improvements in processing as well as in refrigeration, ice-making, and transportation have allowed increasing commercialization and distribution of fish in a greater variety of product forms over the past few decades. However, the investor network FAIRR has released a literature review that highlights ways that aquaculture problems are contributing more than previously understood to environmental degradation. While the industry is flourishing right now, aquaculture in the top 21 producing countries is responsible for 1.82% of global methane emissions. In 2016, according to the FAO, 85% of the global population engaged in the fisheries and aquaculture sectors was in Asia, followed by 10% in Africa and Latin America, and 4% in the Caribbean.

The FAIRR overview explains why aquaculture must overcome an array of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risks before it should be considered a sustainable solution to meeting the growing global demand for protein.

ESG criteria are a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments. Environmental criteria consider how a company performs as a steward of nature. These risks could have a significant impact on the future growth and financial performance of aquaculture companies. Average annual growth in the aquaculture sector has increased almost 6%, and fish farming has overtaken wild fishing as the main provider of seafood on our plates. Much of the growth is based on more intensive, high-density farming that is associated with ESG risks.

Maria Lettini, director of FAIRR, offered an exclusive quote for CleanTechnica:

“As the $230 billion global aquaculture industry expands at a breakneck pace with nearly 6% annual growth, it is critical that we properly recognise the sector’s increasing environmental footprint. It will surprise many, but emerging research suggests that greenhouse gas emissions in shrimp, for instance, can be as intensive as beef production, while freshwater aquaculture in the top 21 producing nations has been found to be responsible for 1.8% of global methane emissions. With the world’s population expected to expand by 2.2 million by 2050, it’s imperative that the industry adopts a more sustainable production model. Business as usual in the aquaculture sector is not an option.”

The report lists 10 areas of serious global aquaculture concerns.

1. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Seafood’s carbon footprint is primarily affected by fuel consumption. Where the seafood is processed also can increase its carbon footprint. Even if caught without much travel, shipping seafood for foreign processing and then importing it for sale can skyrocket fuel and energy consumption, leading to higher emission rates. The tools used to catch seafood can also have variable climate impacts.

As fish farming increases in prevalence and importance, so, too, do its climate impacts. In 2018, researchers reported that crustacean farming leads to higher carbon emissions than the production of pork and cheese. Catches and fish feed prices depend heavily on El Niño and other weather phenomena that are caused by global warming. For example, in Ecuador, shrimp production is likely to outweigh demand in 2019 due to El Niño weather condition, so the increased harvest reduces the price of shrimp. The effects are starting to be noticed – in February, 2019 the average price for shrimp was $2.67/lb, compared with $2.96/lb in the same month last year. In Southeast Asia, production of marine finfish is expected to drop by up to 30% by 2050 due to rising ocean temperatures.

Picking domestically or locally caught and processed seafood can be one of the best ways to combat the supply chain costs resulting from foreign catch and processing.


2. Effluents

Algal blooms, caused by nutrient-rich effluents, have disrupted production in the salmon industry. The impact of their blooms is directly related to the potency of the shellfish toxins they produce, many of which are among the most potent bioactive compounds yet known.

In recent decades, new scientific and technological knowledge in parallel with the rapid development of aquaculture has resulted in the detection of new HAB species in different geographic areas, thus globally increasing the number of known harmful species. Increases in the frequency and intensity of toxic events at a global scale have also become apparent, partly explained by the progressive increase in the exploitation of coastal resource such as aquaculture, the exponential growth of monitoring programs, and, perhaps most importantly, increased microalgal growth and dispersal due to anthropogenic factors, in particular water eutrophication and climate change.

As of May 2019, the Norwegian salmon industry was suffering from the worst algal bloom in 30 years. Government reports indicate the loss of 10,000 tons of salmon. An early estimate from Sparebank Markets suggests it could impact up to 1% of Norway’s salmon supply. A Nordea Bank analyst estimates the loss reduces forecasted global supply growth from 6.6% to 5.0%.


3. Habitat Destruction & Biodiversity Loss

Biodiversity loss is considered to be one of the most severe global environmental problems. In our oceans, this decline is heavily influenced by habitat degradation stemming from human activities. Without action, more than half of the world’s marine species could be on the brink of extinction by the year 2100, according to UNESCO.

Multiple drivers of species growth, including shifts in temperature, chlorophyll, and ocean acidification, point to potentially greater declines in bivalve aquaculture compared with finfish production. 80.3% of the total CH4 emitted originates in shallow earthen aquaculture systems, with far lower emissions from intensified systems with continuous aeration. Greater adoption of aerated systems is urgently required to address globally significant rises in CH4 emissions from the conversion of paddy fields to aquaculture.

Companies are making significant investments to prevent farmed fish from escaping. As of February, 2019, Scottish Sea Farms said it had installed new nets at 21 out of 45 salmon farms in Scotland at a cost of £4.2 million and aimed to install them at 9 more farms in 2019.

If marine habitats can successfully be replenished with life, this means that ecosystems could recover from the damage caused by industrial development.


4. Fish Feed Supply

According to the Rabobank figures, the supply of protein for aquaculture either from pelagic catch or alternative sources could reach 5.4 million metric tons by 2022, based on forecasts of an additional 500,000 metric tons over the next 5 years of alternative protein on the current pelagic raw material supply, which is around 4.9 million metric tons.

Prices tend to fluctuate heavily with changing weather, especially when impacted by severe El Niño effects. In 2014, warming waters caused a reduction in anchovy yields in Peru, the world’s top fish feed exporter. As a result, fish feed prices surged to $2,400 per ton, compared to the average of $1,600 per ton.

“With the ever-present risk of El Nino, it is difficult to speculate what long-term price dynamic will be in this ever-changing market,” the report said.


5. Disease

Aquatic animal diseases are threatening the economic and environmental sustainability of aquaculture, the fastest-growing food production sector in the world and a source of income for almost 20 million people, according to an announcement from the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). Careful management of the health of aquatic animals has, consequently, become essential to supporting the development of sustainable aquaculture. It is also necessary to overcoming sanitary and biodiversity challenges emerging from high production and trade volumes as well as from the open environment in which these populations often live.

In Chile, the salmon farming industry experienced an outbreak of infectious anaemia (ISAV) that cost the sector $2 billion and 20,000 jobs. Due to the impact of the epidemic, banks chose to renegotiate loans. However, they also considered forcing companies into bankruptcy, highlighting the severe risk that disease presents to aquaculture.

6. Antibiotic Use

Antimicrobials are used in livestock and farmed fish production to maintain health and productivity. Antimicrobials are widely used for disease prevention and growth promotion in food sources. The use of antimicrobials as growth promoters and therapeutics to support the growing demand for meat is placing ever greater selection pressure for resistant strains of bacteria to evolve. These practices contribute to the spread of drug-resistant pathogens in livestock, farmed fish, and humans, posing a significant public health threat.

The US imports about 70% of its seafood from Asia, half of which is cultured. In 2016 the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) saw a record year for refusals to import Asian shrimp due to contamination with banned antibiotics. In January, 2019 the FDA prevented 26 shipments of Indian shrimp from entering (15% of the total for that month), due to detection of banned antibiotics. India is the country’s top shrimp supplier, making up 35.2% of all imports. The US is therefore highly exposed to risks associated with antibiotic use in the Asian market.

Initiatives are needed to preserve antibiotic effectiveness while simultaneously ensuring food security in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

7. Transparency & Food Fraud

International seafood supply chains are complex and contend with many difficulties in bringing an enormous variety of products to market. A major challenge involves accurately labeling products such that they comply with a diverse set of regulatory frameworks, ranging from country-of-origin through to the final point of consumer sale. Mislabeling can result from species misidentification, use of inappropriate common names, incomplete and/or out-dated regulatory frameworks, or through market substitution.

In 2015, Chilean authorities intercepted 37,200 cans of ‘horse mackerel’, which turned out to be Pacific menhaden, a lower-value species. If sold, the mislabeled cans would have retailed for over $19 million. The costs of global seafood fraud for unknowing retailers and consumers have not yet been monetized but are significant.

Implementing seafood traceability throughout the supply chain and harmonizing labeling regulations between countries can help to ensure industry compliance in a globalized market, while sampling at multiple points in the supply chain can help to reveal causes.

8. Forced Labor

Over the course of 18 months, Associated Press journalists located men held in cages, tracked ships, and stalked refrigerated trucks to expose the abusive practices of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. The reporters’ dogged effort led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves and traced the seafood they caught to supermarkets and pet food providers across the US. Now free, some of the former slaves are lucky to find odd jobs paying pennies an hour in cramped slums and rural villages in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Others must travel far from home for back-breaking labor.

In 2015, the European Commission issued a ‘yellow card’ warning to Thailand following numerous human rights abuses in the country’s seafood supply chains. The Commission threatened to ban seafood imports from the country altogether if they did not see improvements. The warning was lifted in 2019 but highlights the legal and compliance concerns that could severely affect the operations of some companies.

9. Community Resistance

British Columbia Premier John Horgan has unveiled an agreement with 3 Indigenous communities to shut down up to 17 net-pen salmon farms in their traditional territory off BC’s coast. The agreement is part of Horgan’s vow to implement protections in a province that has long struggled with unresolved aboriginal title and a lack of treaties over much of its area.

Ten of the long-standing provincial tenures between Kingcome and Knight Inlets off the north end of Vancouver Island are to be gone by 2023, and the other 7 can continue only if the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis, ‘Namgis and Mamalilikulla First Nations give their consent.

The salmon farming companies, Marine Harvest and Cermaq, will relinquish their sites. They are allowed to apply to the federal government for new aquaculture licenses elsewhere on the BC coast. Indigenous communities are to establish monitoring and inspection of remaining sites in the region. All sides praised a new spirit of cooperation, but a ‘Namgis councillor said the deal doesn’t change the community’s long-standing demand that ocean-based salmon farms are on the way out of their territory.

For the First Nations people in Canada, aquaculture has brought much-needed jobs, skills and leadership development, and wealth creation. These successes have demonstrated that aquaculture can significantly improve the socio-economic wellbeing of First Nations communities. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, aquaculture can become a more important economic driver for First Nations communities, generating more revenues for First Nations through their direct involvement in all facets of the aquaculture value chain (hatchery, raising, harvesting, processing, packaging, and shipping or delivery), as well as indirect involvement through the provision of support services (environmental services, construction, diving, boat repair, water taxi services, etc.).


10. Fish Welfare

The majority of farmed fish are subject to overcrowded and restrictive conditions, which, if unchecked, can quickly deteriorate water quality, cause severe stress, and result in increased mortality. Aquaculture practices and production—including handling, grading, transport, genetic manipulation, aggression from conspecifics, predation, physiological stress, and inhumane slaughter—compromise the welfare of these animals, according to a report from the Humane Society. With the expected growth of the human population and increased per-capita fish consumption, the aquaculture industry will likely continue to experience growth. It is, therefore, critical that producers act now to develop methods to ensure the health and welfare of the increasing numbers of farmed fish.

Welfare standards have been linked with the financial performance of aquaculture companies, demonstrating how companies that prioritized welfare issues experienced financial outperformance. Mitigation of reputation risk and the fish health benefits associated with higher welfare standards produce environmental as well as fiscal successes.


Final Thoughts

The reports surveyed in this article underline the importance of responding to climate change in a coordinated manner across all food systems. Wherever possible, opportunities need to be maximized and negative impacts reduced to secure food and livelihood provision, including that of the aquaculture industry.

As the world considers how to feed an additional 2.2 billion mouths between now and 2050, an increase in farmed seafood is seen as a large part of the solution. Yet, with pollution from fish farms leading to algal blooms that cost aquaculture companies multi-million dollar losses and other problems associated with global aquaculture, climate is set to hurt fish farming.

The FAIRR literature review was backed by pension funds including Aviva, CANDRIAM, DNB, and KLP. The report was issued as the world’s biggest salmon farming company, Mowi, and others are under investigation for misreporting of chemical use.

All images are copyright free via Pixabay.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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