Some experts are predicting this is the year in which humans, globally, will begin to consume more farmed seafood than wild-caught. Whether the milestone is reached this year or not, though, it is clear the trend is here to stay and that - with wild fish stocks continuing to dwindle - aquaculture, or fish farming, has a major role to play in ensuring global food security. With that in mind, work is being done to address the serious questions about aquaculture's negative impacts.
Over the past several decades, wild-caught fish landings have widely stagnated or declined, yet global seafood demand has continued to rise - as has, due to aquaculture, global seafood supply. The Food and Agriculture Organisation
(FAO) has predicted that, due to population growth, by 2030 we will need an additional 37 million tonnes of farmed fish per year to maintain the current levels of per capita seafood consumption.
In response to this demand, aquaculture has already emerged as the fastest growing food sector industry. An industry that produced one million tonnes of fish in 1950 has since emerged as a sprawling, USD 80 billion industry producing over five times that amount of fish with operations around the world.
But its rapid growth has resulted in myriad environmental problems being largely overlooked.
"What happens when you see that type of accelerated growth and when the majority of that is coming from the developing world... sometimes you see a greater emphasis on expansion and technology development as opposed to conservation and sustainability and managing environmental and social impacts," said Jose Villalon
, director of the World Wildlife Fund
(WWF), based in the U.S.
The negative impacts are well documented. Salmon farming, in which the fish are usually raised in pens in the ocean, requires vast amounts of wild fish as feed - about three pounds of feed fish for every pound of salmon produced. The salmon waste, as well as antibiotics and additives used to make salmon flesh pink can leak out and damage the surrounding environment. Finally, when farmed salmon escape, they can spread disease and contaminate the gene pool of wild salmon.
Other species can be farmed more sustainably, but even operations like shrimp farming sometimes have impacts - like the removal of mangrove habitat in order to set up farms. This type of impact has hurt nearby communities and the environment, especially in aquaculture hotspots in Southeast Asia and in Chile.
Still, the degree, as well as the type, of impact can vary widely depending on the species and the methods used.
"When we're talking about eating more aquaculture fish than wild-caught fish we're talking about all types of fish, including molluscs like mussels and oysters. Those are not as bad as raising carnivorous salmon in an open-net pen," noted Andrea Kavanagh, manager of the Pew Environment Group
's marine aquaculture campaign.
For now, the growth of the industry still seems to be largely outpacing the development of more sustainable aquaculture methods, and regulations and technical advances to mitigate those problems have so far been unable to keep up. But there is confidence that this gap can be overcome.
Villalon, himself a 26-year veteran of the shrimp-farming industry, points to a number of technical advances that have occurred in recent decades. While about a third of wild fish caught still go toward the fish meal and fish oil needed to feed farmed fish, he says salmon aquaculture has seen almost a halving of the feed-conversion ratios - the number of pounds of food needed to produce one pound of farmed fish. There has been a similar improvement in the farming of shrimp, he says.
Kavanagh pointed to advances in raising some freshwater salmon species in closed-system inland pens in Washington State.
"I would hope that eventually there is going to be a more sustainable way to raise salmon, given its popularity. And I do think we are moving towards that - I think we have to. It's not feasible for it to continue going the way it is," she told IPS.
WWF has also spearheaded a joint effort by NGOs and producer groups to form consensus on what sustainable aquaculture looks like for different species. The standards resulting from these Aquaculture Dialogues will be used by a new group, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council
, to certify certain fish farming operations as sustainable and thus pressure ones that are not to improve their practices.
And with many humans becoming increasingly dependent on farmed fish for their protein, environmental NGOs are not the only ones concerned about the way these fish are farmed.
The Canadian government released new rules for fish farms in the province of British Colombia this week following a court case that found fish farming off the B.C. coast impacted the ocean and thus was under federal jurisdiction.
In Washington, D.C., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) is in the process of developing an aquaculture policy that "will provide a foundation for sustainable aquaculture." Of the 47 per cent of U.S. seafood consumption that comes from aquaculture, however, 42 per cent is imported.
International certifying organisations like the Accredited Standards Committee (ASC) may therefore have a key role to play. The ASC is expected to begin its work in mid-2010, though certification of tilapia farms on an interim basis will start sooner.