Last Tuesday night, Heather Lane and I attended an event in Baltimore, Maryland, hosted by the Maryland-Asia Environmental Partnership. As part of the event, we had the opportunity to tour the aquaculture research facility at the University of Maryland’s Aquaculture Research Center at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology. There we had the opportunity to see a new sustainable future for aquaculture.
As we have seen all over the world’s oceans, global fisheries are suffering from overfishing, bycatch, and degradation of habitat. The collapse and near collapse of certain fisheries threaten not only the health of our ocean, but also a major source of protein for the majority of the world’s people. Some small-scale subsistence, artisanal and recreational fishing can be sustainable if managed well. However, because no wild animals can be captured in quantities sufficient to sustain global scale consumption over time, aquaculture is the future source of the world’s protein from fish. Unfortunately, aquaculture carries its own challenges in being taken to scale to help feed 7 billion people.
From an economic perspective, aquaculture has been successful: the industry is growing rapidly and now represents more than half of all seafood consumed globally. What aquaculture promises is the production of animal protein for alleviating global shortages (from fish, shellfish, and invertebrates) all with less economic and environmental costs than terrestrial animal production. However, its environmental consequences must be addressed to ensure that the protein promised by aquaculture is not overshadowed by harm to the environment.
Currently, more seafood is imported into the United States than is exported (some of which is our own seafood returning as higher value products after being processed abroad). The U.S. federal government is increasingly focused on creating incentives to build the domestic aquaculture industry to address this “seafood deficit.” This push includes permitting the growth of aquaculture farming operations in federal waters. If domestic production can be increased, jobs and economic development may result especially if the processing that has moved offshore to China and elsewhere comes back. However, if development is not undertaken in a responsible manner given how much we know about the negative effects of the salmon, shrimp, and tuna farming industries, then efforts to support the aquaculture industry could continue to degrade the environment. The coming years offer many opportunities to influence policy development and ensure that irresponsible and unsustainable practices do not receive government support, if Congress and federal agencies take seriously their responsibility to protect both the economy and environment.
Nearshore and coastal aquaculture facilities have been tagged for habitat destruction, pollution, escapes of non-native fish into local streams, high levels of nutrient, antibiotic, and food waste pollution, as well as the introduction of diseases into local fish populations. And farming of carnivores requires the capture of other wild fish (eg. anchovy and menhaden) to feed the captive fish. Many of these issues are as present in offshore aquaculture operations. Thus, instead of solving the problems, it just moves them out of sight. In addition, steaming in and out by boat to operate and maintain these facilities has a huge climate footprint, and while they may offer better dilution of pollution, the facilities have been found to be vulnerable to both oil spills and increasingly intense storms, pose a danger to migrating animals in the sea, while still being subject to the same kinds of escapement, disease, and other issues as their nearshore counterparts.
The environmental harm caused by aquaculture would be reduced or mitigated through the robust application and enforcement of existing regulations, however, the development and implementation of new laws, and the creation of financial and regulatory subsidies or incentives for responsible production may become necessary. To date, some of TOF’s aquaculture work (in partnership with the Environmental Law Institute) has focused primarily on how third-party certification systems are designed to ensure that they will effectively reduce the impacts of aquaculture. This led to the development of the “Gold Standard” that was the result of analyzing many eco-labels and eco-label projects to determine what best governance practices should look like for certification of aquaculture to ensure it is truly sustainable.
In short, The Ocean Foundation staff, Board and Advisors have been looking at aquaculture for decades and we are familiar with the main tenets of truly sustainable and commercially viable aquaculture:
- Closed recirculating systems – to avoid any interference with wild species and contamination/pollution
- Multi-species production, integrated with hydroponics for market diversity, and sustainable use of waste—a concept in practice in China and elsewhere for centuries
- “Zero waste” incentives – strive for a completely closed-loop system to capture and reuse waste
- At or near market – Farming and processing should be near their markets to reduce carbon footprints
- Avoid carnivorous fish – this further lessens the pressure on wild stocks caught to produce feed for aquaculture, and the use of fossil fuel to catch them
As we saw on our visit to the University of Maryland’s Aquaculture Research Center at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore on Tuesday night, there are exciting opportunities for growing protein on site, so that even carnivorous fish, a high-demand, high-value fisheries commodity, may be grown sustainably.
At this facility, they are growing algae to feed to phytoplankton and in turn, to make feed pellets with the oil and proteins needed for fish feed. This closed-loop system enables them to produce carnivorous fish that are in demand for commercial consumption, including the high value cobia, striped bass, bronzini, sea bream and blue crab. They are even raising nurse and bamboo sharks on site for medical science research purposes!
They are using their own saltwater mixture, which they make from the municipal water system, and then recycle the water used throughout the facility. The fish excrement and waste sludge is used to create fuel grade methane to help power the facility. Thus, other than burning the methane and releasing some nitrogen into the atmosphere, there are no negative by-products from this operation. And in fact, another experiment they are conducting on site, in partnership with HyTek Bio, would even address that issue by using algae to eat the CO2 emissions from burning the methane.
If the aquaculture technology from this project can be ramped up to a commercial scale for a city-sized market, it certainly looks like it can be responsive to local demand, yet also be responsibly promoting consumer demand for sustainably-farmed food and for the types of fish that are themselves, from a lifecycle perspective, sustainable.
One place we may be able to do this is in New Orleans East at the Viet Village Urban Farm, a project of The Ocean Foundation’s Ocean Doctor and the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation. The Viet Village Urban Farm is a new model for improving economic stability, which integrates an organic garden to grow produce for local restaurants, an aquaculture facility, and hydroponics. As a commercial model, we hope it can then be replicated in other locations for decentralized production.
We would love to see the world’s wild fisheries rebound to their historic levels because we identify better, more cost-effective ways of providing fish for human consumption at the global scale. We are proud to be part of examining how to make aquaculture more sustainable, and to support all of those working for the oceans (you too can be part of this support, just click here).