Responsible and sustainable aquaculture

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With input from the seafood supply chain, the authors discuss aspects of aquaculture where industry and regulators need to deliver on sustainability in order to attract investments.
By Anton Immink, Dave Little, Dominique Gautier and Manish Kumar


It has been said many times that aquaculture can help to meet the world’s growing demand for protein. Value chain actors, politicians and chefs are amongst those emphasising the efficiency of aquatic species in feed conversion and highlighting the health benefits of seafood in the diet. There has also been plenty of debates about how aquaculture can help small-scale farmers, support national food security and boost foreign revenue earnings. Of course, aquaculture has its critics and sceptics, but the growth of the industry over the last decades, the increasing variety of farmed products seen in fresh fish markets and the volumes of farmed fish and shellfish now sold in supermarkets indicate that aquaculture plays a crucial role in the provision of protein for the burgeoning world’s population. However, for an industry that is here to stay, aquaculture still has many mountains to climb before it can call itself ‘sustainable’, especially in Asia where it is dominated by numerous, small family-run farms.

What is being sustainable? 

Aquaculture covers a whole range of species, production systems and intensities. Feeding the world with seaweed and bivalves farmed in open seas could be considered to have the least impact on the environment based on life cycle assessments, but would require a lot more of the sea and coasts to be managed or production intensified. Moreover, a key issue will be whether people could change their diets and eat more aquatic organisms found lower in the food chain, including carps that have traditionally been farmed using methods with lower environmental impact. Even in China, by far the world’s largest producer of various species of carps, wealthier consumers are moving away from this group of fish. Traditionally, carps were produced quite extensively on local, mainly plant-based resources but in recent decades there has been a trend towards the use of formulated feeds, similar to that used in the production of the big four farmed commodities – salmon, shrimp, tilapia and catfish. Improving breeds, feeds and management can enhance efficiency and reduce the adverse impacts in their farming. We can consider sustainability against the classic economic, social and environmental elements.

Floating cages in China Courtesy of Jack Morales
Small scale shrimp farms in Mamuju, West Sulawesi
Indonesia (March 2015). Courtesy of Jack Morales.

Economic sustainability cannot be taken for granted, even when it appears that farmers are making money. Many aquaculture sectors especially those dominated by small-scale farmers, ride a fine line between success and failure, particularly when disease strikes or when adverse environmental conditions occur. This has consequences for farm owners, staff, processors, as well as other stakeholders in the neighbourhood. The economic fallout may impact the social dimension of sustainability on a multitude of scales and disrupt environmental sustainability. Recognising that sustainability is a complex concept this article will highlight some issues and solutions that cut across different aspects of sustainability with the aim of supporting improvements in Asian aquaculture that will enable the industry to thrive and remain the aquatic engine to feed the world.

Scale of impact 

Current certification standards address environmental and social aspects of aquaculture, and define management practices expected from responsible operators. But they seldom set performance indicators that would measure the broader sustainability.

Responsible farming 

Farmers can act responsibly, but still go out of business because of the poor practices of their neighbours that could compromise the sustainability of their activity. Production systems are not (yet) sufficiently isolated from each other to give farmers the confidence that they are almost exclusively in control of the risks they may face. Despite strong examples of innovation in more biosecure, contained production systems it will be a while before that level of control is the norm in aquaculture. In the meantime, industry-wide management systems will need to accommodate a wide variety and scale of risks.

A good crop of quality tilapia from a farmer using data to improve farm management. Credit: China Blue.
Seafresh farm, between a mangrove forest (left) and agricultural land (right) showing advances in technology with greenhouse nurseries, lined ponds, central sludge drain, and water reservoirs. Photo copyright: Seafresh Group.

Good farm management can be validated through certification to give the market some confidence that a particular supply is contributing to their sustainability goals. But just as Dr Manoj M Sharma commented previously in Aqua Culture Asia Pacific (March/April 2019, p8-13) “responsibility must come from all producers and planners/regulators if the industry is to move towards sustainability.” The risks and impacts of one farm are minimal, but significant industries connected across landscapes need good management to protect themselves and the resources they rely upon.

Sectorial governance 

Without a positive mix of good farm management and good governance in the sector, the industry becomes its own worst enemy, especially in creating significant disease and water quality problems. Production costs can increase for individual farmers and catastrophic industry-wide losses can put many farmers out of business. Dr Andy Shinn has reported at TARS 2016 and in various articles the multi-billion-dollar economic impact of acute hepatopancreatic necrosis disease (APHND) on the Asian shrimp industry. Despite the huge economic losses governments and industries themselves are not investing in coordinated disease management systems or emergency disease response planning. This is a major reason for investors holding back on expansion and for withholding insurance growth to the small-scale farmers in Asian aquaculture.

Data and technology 

Many small players in the Asian aquaculture industry still live within a cycle of making enough money from the good crops to cover the next loss. This can limit investments in management approaches and technologies that may help smooth out the boom-and-bust cycles because the investment is seen as adding to costs. In the short term, and without broader adoption of sustainable practices across the industry and wider governance, this is true. A new generation of innovative and industrial farmers and companies are starting to develop new concepts of intensive aquaculture systems based on the use of improved genetic material and biosecurity and to use new technology. Many of these innovative farmers recognise that experience can be mixed with tools to help predict the timing of harvests, increase feed efficiencies and mitigate impending disease problems.

Diagnostic testing at the pond side taking place in Hainan,
China. Credit: China Blue.

This longer-term view could increase sustainability, but can also help connect to a new generation of consumers who want more information and assurance on how their food is produced. These tools need data, which can address some of the traceability demands from the market and also start to address the concerns of investors and insurers. Such development could truly transform Asian aquaculture supply to both international and regional markets.

Governance challenges 

Changes in regulation will only partially meet the governance challenge; building sector-wide capacity is essential. Putting industry-wide management systems in place helps the long-term profitability of an industry. The Aqua Culture Asia Pacific magazine regularly highlights the need for longer-term vision in the industry, for planners and regulators to address cumulative impacts and shared risks (especially disease) and for industry associations to demonstrate leadership and deliver guidance to members on best practices.

Collective efforts of producers in some countries, such as the Ecuadorian shrimp industry, in collaboration with government agencies, seems to be a way forward, not only for improving the sustainability of their industry, but also to gain market trust. These efforts need to be oriented towards responsible production practices, controlled development and management plans, and concerted initiatives to prevent and mitigate the impact of diseases. Even in Europe the success of aquaculture has not just come from clearer regulatory systems enabling investment confidence, but from strong industry associations enforcing good performance from members who form the majority of producers.

Reducing production costs for farmers and meeting increasing market demands are not just about technical solutions. Farmer-led area management systems for coordinated disease control can reduce the costs for individual farmers if everyone follows a few basic practices. Linking this to better data use by farmers can further support greater efficiency gains and enable small- and medium-scale producers to stay in the game (therefore addressing social, economic and environmental sustainability). This would also start to practically address the aspirations for “sustainable intensification” a process that needs careful implementation so as not to be just another buzz word that may cover up the rush to grow production without the required governance.

Some current improvements 

There are some positive examples already taking place where farmers, processors, governments, international buyers and NGOs are collaborating to address sustainability more holistically. These include:

  • In Surat Thani and Chumpon provinces in Thailand some of the authors here are collaborating with other actors in the SHRImp Project (Shrimp Health Resources Improvement Project) to build a more effective health management system across whole areas of production. The intention is to provide farmers and regulators with an early warning system if productivity drops or if disease problems emerge.
  • In Hainan, China the tilapia industry (farmers, processors and international buyers) has created a new association and a local code of good practice to enable farmers across the industry to determine how best they can improve to fulfill international market demands.
  • In Indonesia, there are several multi-stakeholder projects underway, (including SI3P, Shrimp Industry Improvement and Investment Program) which work with farmers to increase productivity and build environmental carrying capacity tools to help planners understand how aquaculture – and other activities – may impact the environment. New partners are always welcome.

The future 

Asia remains an exciting place to farm seafood and there are lots of innovations and aspirations to make it more truly sustainable. The industry and regulators across the many countries of this aquatic powerhouse need to deliver on sustainability in order to attract new investors and insurers – and keep them interested and reassured. Addressing common risks and challenges through working with neighbours and demonstrating best practices using data will need to be the norm.

Anton Immink is Aquaculture Director at Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, an NGO engaging all levels of the seafood supply chain to support the growth of a sustainable aquaculture sector. He has worked across Asia and Africa on a range of projects over the last 25 years.

Dave Little, PhD, is the Chair of Aquatic Resource Development and Research Director of the Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling, Scotland. With 40 years professional experience in aquaculture, his main research and educational interests focus around the societal impacts of aquaculture.

Dominique Gautier is Director of Sustainability at Seafresh Group, a producer and distributor of seafood products operating in Asia, Europe and the Americas and investing in improving the sustainability of aquaculture and fisheries. Dominique has 30 years of sector leading experience in aquaculture across Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Manish Kumar is CEO of Fishin’Co, a major supplier of responsibly produced seafood to some of the world’s largest retailers. Manish has significant experience of the aquaculture supply chain across Asia and is supporting improvement projects in key sourcing countries, notably China and India.

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