Aquaculture is the cultivation of fish, seafood and marine plants in coastal and continental waters. The sector is growing more rapidly than any other realm of animal production, including traditional fish from the sea. “Aquaculture represents the most efficient and sustainable way to guarantee that there is enough protein to feed a world whose population is increasing,” explains Arne Sorvig, director of the Council of Sea Products in Norway. Aquaculture attempts to achieve sustainability in the fishing sector.


Currently, 43% of all fish consumed in the world come from fish farms. This equates to 45.5 million tons of fish each year, worth about 63 billion euros ($79 billion). According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global exports [of aquaculture products] in 2005 were 95 million tons. Although Europe only represents three percent of global aquaculture production, it is the leader in such species as trout, Dorado, sea bass and salmon.  


Those realities are reflected in “The Global State of Aquaculture in 2006,” published in New Delhi. The data from the FAO are alarming: Six out of every ten commercial species are over-exploited. Barely 30% of ocean resources are guaranteed. The FAO calculates that, if immediate measures are not taken, such popular species as the codfish could disappear within 15 years.


Chile and Norway are two the main players in global aquaculture, controlling 70% of salmon products that are traded in world markets.


Consumption is on the rise. If the global population continues to grow at the same rate that it has until now and maintains the same levels of consumption, global fish output should reach 120 million tons of fish a year by 2010, up 85 million tons because of rising demand. Experts agree that there is only one possible solution to rising demand — aquaculture or fish farming.


How could rising demand for fish be satisfied when the volume of fish caught at sea has stayed practically the same since 1980? The FAO report says there is not much chance of producing considerably more fish at sea. In addition, it notes that of the 600 species that have an important commercial value, 52% are exploited, 7% are exhausted, and only 1% is in a recovery stage. Another 20% are exploited at a moderate rate. Only 3% of all species are just barely exploited.


Towards Sustained Growth


Global aquaculture is achieving sustained growth. In recent years, a series of factors has enabled it to develop: a positive environment among consumers because of the image of healthy products; and the incorporation of new cultivation techniques, processing and food security.


The most worrisome factors are the loss of natural habitats, the utilization of antibiotics and fish foods, the invasion of local ecosystems by outside species, the inclusion of products made with genetically modified soy, and doubts about whether communities in some countries are receiving a fair share of the profits from aquaculture.


The FAO is working with countries around the world to promote international cooperation that creates a future that is sustainable, responsible and equitable for the global aquaculture sector.


According to the FAO, there are many barriers to the growth of aquaculture. Producers don’t have enough money to invest; there is a shortage of land and sweet water; energy costs continue to rise; and the environment has been damaged to a certain degree. The shortage of sites for developing aquaculture, says Sorvig, limits the industry to some extent. However, conditions in countries like Norway are excellent: long coast lines; fjords that protect against the forces of nature; high quality water; excellent rural infrastructure, and large markets in every direction.”


What difference is there between a fish that has been raised in the sea and another that comes from a fish farm? “When production methods are adequate, fish that come from fish farms offer a higher level of food security, since the entire life cycle has been rigorously controlled. We know where it was born, where it died, and what it ate throughout its entire life,” continues Sorvig. One example of greater security is the fact that “Norwegian salmon that comes from aquaculture are 100% free of anisakis, a parasite that infects marine mammals. But that is not the case with wild species.” Gerard Costa, a professor at Esade, agrees that the consumer “does not perceive any difference if you don’t tell him that this fish comes from a fish farm. The only difference is the price.” In addition, Costas agrees with Sorvig that there are other positive aspects. “We have higher production, there is an impact on prices, and we can control the entire sanitary health cycle of the fish.”


The challenge of aquaculture lies in its novelty. “The image of a domestic fish farm runs up against mindsets rooted in our memory for centuries,” says Sorvig.


There are many people who oppose fish farming as a general proposition, without distinguishing between bad practices in the sector and the benefits that we all obtain when things go well. “Unfortunately, this prejudice has created a negative breeding ground for rumors based on some studies that are incomplete and unbalanced. In the food sector, issuing alarms is profitable when it comes to information, which immediately awakens interest in society,” continues Sorvig.


But reality shows that the development of aquaculture is quite complicated, especially because the use of antibiotics, pesticides and other chemical products in fish farms can alter the ecosystems of the zones in which they are located. In Norway, explains Sorvig, “We know that it is important to collaborate with everyone involved, from environmental organizations to those groups who control food security. We cannot overlook gastronomy experts when we try to get better flavor and better texture. In a short time, we are able to respond to any question, basing ourselves on the data accumulated over years, and in our research in every field. We are proud to have an aquaculture industry that has solved one problem after another since it began thirty years ago.”


This year, the Norwegian city of Stavanger hosted AquaVision 2006 during the final week of September, a meeting that has become more and more important in the global aquaculture sector. The goal of the event is to analyze the direction of aquaculture. It was organized by BluePlanet, Marine Harvest and Nutreco. All the speakers agreed that there are a vast number of opportunities in aquaculture that must be explored. The speakers at the conference all agreed that we face a serious problem when it comes to global supply. The solution appears clear: In a globalized world, we have to supply food to humanity in a sustainable way.


Opportunities in Chilean Aquaculture


Although the different regions in Chile are very different from one another, aquaculture has been developed in many of those regions, thanks in great measure to collaboration between the public and private sectors. In Chile, 15 marine species are currently cultivated. There are 2,500 specialized centers, 700,000 tons of production, 50,000 employees, and exports worth $1.8 billion. The goal of national aquaculture policy is “to promote economic development as much as possible to conditions of environmental sustainability,” explains Carlos Hernandez, assistant secretary of fishing in Chile. He agrees with the other experts that the world faces greater demand for fish production. “We are talking about a range of opportunities where the challenge of sustainable development is the guide that governments use when taking action.”


Japan, the United States and Europe, he adds, “are our main destinations.” Hernandez has witnessed the emergence of sustainable development in recent years. A curious fact: “Most of the revenues in aquaculture come from a handful of species; 94% of aquaculture revenues in Chile come from salmon.”


Fish Meal


According to experts, 2005 was a challenging year for the industry that produces fish food. Prices of primary products, especially fish meal and fish oil, increased significantly because of greater global demand. But while these fish products are in demand, but they are in limited supply, and will be even scarcer in the future.


The most important point in this collaborative effort is to take advantage of the great challenge facing this sector: How to continue to maintain sustained growth without altering the balance in the source of primary products.


Sea products give us oil and meal which, although they are not used for human consumption, are used for feeding cattle. According to FAO data, aquaculture supplies 35% of all fish meal worldwide. In 2006, it produced six million tons of meal and one million tons of oil. According to Jonathan Shepherd, director general of the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization (IFFO), “In 2010, feed production will reach 30 million tons.” It takes more than 2.5 kilos of feed to create one kilo of salmon.


Preventing a Depleted Sea


All of the experts have noted that key challenges involve the health of the fish and the environmental capacity [for aquaculture]. Their goal today, and especially tomorrow, is for aquaculture to provide society with food that is of high quality, secure and healthy using only techniques that are environmentally acceptable and socially just.


Ceese Van Riel, professor at the University of Rotterdam, outlines some of the keys for aquaculture to get out from under its ‘evil eye.’ “You have to take advantage of the catalytic power of emerging markets and win the confidence of consumers by issuing quality certificates.” Sorvig does not believe that “aquaculture is not well thought of….Sea products that come from aquaculture are in every fish store. Millions of people enjoy them daily throughout the world. Demand is growing every day. Authorities impose many controls in markets so that companies guarantee an excellent level of products. Although there is always been some controversy, research has proven that our products meet standards of security, health and quality.”


Futurologist John Naisbitt warns that the players in this sector have forgotten a fundamental principle: “Educate consumers about the value proposition of aquaculture.” Wout Dekker, chief executive of Nutreco, a company that specializes in animal nutrition, advises people to “share a global dialogue so that everyone involved resolves the problems that still exist.” Dekker says that a significant challenge is to make consumers aware that 30% of Atlantic fish does not come from traditional fishing grounds. Gerard Costa agrees that the sector has to communicate its value to society. “You have to make the consumer aware that there are not enough fish, and aquaculture is necessary. The problem is that this is not a topic of great concern for consumers.”


Experts agree aquaculture is strong in the areas of production and technology. The challenge ahead? To become more appealing to investors.