Many have looked to aquaculture to fill in the gaps left by dwindling fisheries. Undoubtedly, this is a genuine possibility. Its realization, however, will depend on how the aquaculture industry develops in the future. At this point in time, the development of aquaculture is at a crossroads.
Unsustainable development will only generate short and medium-term profits for multinational corporations at the expense of long-term ecological balance and social stability. More sustainable development alternatives are needed to ensure that in the future aquaculture can contribute to the growing need for seafood products.
There are a number of alternative ways forward in the development of aquaculture, which can offer more sustainable solutions. In some cases these methods have been around for centuries, but they have rarely been adopted in the modern aquaculture industry, and in other cases they are innovative practices that can be explored by aquaculture proponents.
Alternatives include ecological aquaculture, organic aquaculture, polyculture, mollusc farming, and closed and low discharge systems. These alternative practices have been successfully implemented in different areas of the world; however, they must be examined for their application on a wider scale.
While each of the potentially sustainable practices mentioned in the following discussion does have some environmental impacts, they can be greatly minimized if the systems are managed well. In addition to environmental considerations, social and economic aspects must be considered when assessing each of these practices.
Ecological aquaculture has been defined as “an alternative model of aquaculture research and development that brings the technical aspects of ecological principles and ecosystems thinking to aquaculture, and incorporates – at the outset – principles of natural and social ecology, planning for community development, and concerns for the wider social, economic, and environmental contexts of aquaculture.”
There are six main principles of ecological aquaculture: to preserve the form and function of natural resources; to ensure trophic level efficiency (using animal wastes and plants, rather than fishmeal as sustenance); to ensure that chemicals and nutrients from the system are not discharged as pollutants; to use native species so as not to contribute to “biological pollution”; to ensure that the system is integrated into the local economy and community in terms of food production and employment; and to share the practices and information on a global scale.
Ecological aquaculture focuses on the development of farming systems that preserve the environments in which they are situated and enhances the quality of these environments while at the same time maintaining a productive culture system. All aspects of the operation are interconnected in order to minimize negative impacts on the community, both natural and social.
Ecological aquaculture can also be incorporated into sustainable fisheries management and coastal zone management.
Sustainability is one of the main goals of organic food production. Aquaculturists who aim for organic farms wish to “manage food production as an integrated, whole system that is an ‘organism’ whose individual parts mesh together into one whole production system.”
In organic food production, all parts of the operations are connected and integrated with each other, such as the nutrient inputs, the animals, the environment, and the wastes being produced.
Organic fish producers must comply with all of the same regulations that other organic certified producers do. Some substances or practices are prohibited from organic operations.
For example, the addition of antibiotics to the fish feed is tightly regulated and the inclusion of genetically modified organisms is strictly forbidden in organic production. Rather than rely on the use of chemicals and drugs to improve the production of their fish, farmers instead optimize the living conditions, through lower stocking densities and cleaner, healthier water.
Organic aquaculture standards have been developed in many nations around the world and they are in the final stages of development in the United States. Some of the basic principles of organic aquaculture according to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements are as follows: to encourage natural biological cycles in the production of aquatic organisms; using feed that is not intended or appropriate for human consumption; using various methods of disease control; not using synthetic fertilizer or other chemicals in production; and using polyculture techniques whenever possible.
There are several obstacles to the implementation of organic aquaculture, including: farming carnivorous fish with a diet of wild (non-organic) fish, management and recycling of wastes, escapes of fish, and controlling diseases and parasites.
Similar to organic certification, other certification and labeling programs also are under consideration. These “ecolabels”, together with organically farmed seafood, have great potential for allowing consumers to know that the fish they purchase were farmed in environmentally friendly ways. Additionally, they could provide responsible farmers with a way to take advantage of the increasing consumer demand for food grown with environmentally friendly practices as well as receive a premium price for their product.
Kathryn White, Brendan O’Neill, and Zdravka Tzankova