What is aquaculture? Aquaculture is farming fish, or agriculture, in the water. There is currently a lot of development and research behind aquaculture as a means of meeting the growing demand for seafood without further exploiting the wild fisheries. Aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of seafood production worldwide and is expected to outpace the wild caught fishing industry within a decade. Most of the fish that people will eat in the future will likely come from aquaculture.
“World fish production is projected to reach 194 million tons in 2026, with an overall increase of 26 million tons,” stated an analysis of global seafood consumption done by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Recall that “peak fish” from wild caught seafood was reached about 25 years ago at 80 million tons.
Modern aquaculture has been made possible by combining new technology with scientific research and can produce virtually every type of seafood we consume today. Aquatic plants, fish, crustaceans and mollusks can now all be farmed using modern aquaculture technology.
Aquaculture sparked a large controversy when it first began to appear in grocery stores, fish markets and restaurants. “People were worried about how aquaculture was being done, and perhaps rightly so,” said Erin Satterthwaite, a California State University, Monterey Bay professor and Sea Grant fellow researcher.
Starting around the 1980s and continuing through today, stories about aquaculture became sensationalized. The stories captured the negative aspects of fish farming practices such as chemical use, antibiotics, animal waste, and other pollutants that harmed fish and environmental health. Aquaculture activity can lead to eutrophication, the mass production of algae in water that is too high in plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The algae depletes the water of oxygen which can suffocate the fish.
Eutrophication is situation to the dead zone near the mouth of the Mississippi river in the Gulf of Mexico. To combat this, farmers use pesticides in their water to kill off the algae and antibiotics to prevent the fish from becoming sick.
“We should apply the lessons we learned from industrial agriculture, pesticide use and monoculture before moving forward with aquaculture,” stated Satterthwaite. Research institutions like Moss Landing Marine Labs and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (MBASFW) are working with local aquaculture farmers like Monterey Abalone Company to ensure that the lessons learned from past mistakes in agricultural practices, which are very relevant to those living near the Salinas Valley, are put to use.
“Our aquaculture scientists are looking at a different suite of criteria like feed, chemical use, antibiotic use, disease, waste from the farm and escapes,” said Peter Adame from the MBASFW program, “Aquaculture often gets a bad reputation, but when it’s done responsibly, it can be very sustainable. Our ocean can’t keep up with our growing global demand for seafood. Aquaculture is helping meet that demand and relieve pressure off our wild fish stocks.”
While local aquaculture may have to live up to the rigorous environmental standards of the Monterey Bay, globally, there are still many fish farms that are not environmentally considerate. Before buying farmed fish, check out the MBASFW recommendations for aquaculture products.