Fish farming is a growth industry and as global fish consumption continues to rise, putting more pressure on already depleted marine fish stocks, aquaculture is likely to play an increasingly prominent role in the fish market. Chris Lyddon reports.

The fact that seven of the top ten marine fish species are fully exploited or over exploited, according to UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) data, and global fish consumption is expected to keep rising, can mean only one thing. Fish farming is likely to play an increasingly important role in the global fish market.

But the degree to which aquaculture can alleviate the problem of over-fishing remains a subject of considerable debate, not least because of the environmental question-marks over fish farming itself.

According to the FAO, total world consumption of fish (food and feed) could increase from 47m tonnes in 2002 to 179m tonnes by 2015, spurred by the widely acknowledged health benefits associated with eating fish. The FAO believes that most of that new demand will have to be met by aquaculture, which could account for 39% of all fish production in 2015.

That would continue a trend already observed in recent years. The proportion of world fish production which comes from fish farming increased from 25.8% to 29.9% between 1998 and 2002. Over that period, production from capture fisheries grew by 6.3% while aquaculture production increased by 30%. Since 2000, the amount of fish caught, rather than farmed, has been stable.

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The prime advantage fish farming has over wild marine fisheries is the reliability of supply. “That’s the good thing about farming. You can ensure they are there,” said Ken Hughes spokesman for the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation.

While salmon is a comparatively well developed farmed product, farming is now being practised for many other species, notably cod. Indeed, aquaculture has been heralded by some as the most obvious solution to the problem created by falling stocks of cod, a fish in perpetually high demand.

According to Karol Rzepkowski of Johnson Seafarms, a pioneering producer of farmed cod, cod stocks are one tenth of what they were in 1970. “The only rational solution is a professionally run, science-based aquaculture industry,” he wrote in an article for Marine Conservation. His company expects to produce 16,000 tonnes of organic Shetland cod a year by 2010.
Craig Burton of the Inshore Group of the Seafish Industry Authority, known as Seafish, also sees great potential for cod farming. “Cod is a great hope for aquaculture,” Burton said. “Aquaculture production can compete very well in the upper sector of the market.” Like Hughes, Burton sees certainty of supply as aquaculture’s key advantage over sea fishing.

Burton also points out that halibut and turbot are now being farmed in the UK.  “We are producing very good quality fish,” he said. “The economics are quite challenging at the moment but in the longer term it is likely that we’ll see an upturn.”

Shellfish is another section of the aquaculture industry which is growing fast. “The shellfish industry has doubled output in the last five years,” Burton said. “The indications are it will do the same in the next five years.” In addition to basic types of shellfish such as muscles, premium species like oysters and scallops are also being farmed. “There’s been a small step up in Pacific oyster production and that is likely to continue,” Burton said. Native oysters are also cultivated. “It’s quite a small niche market. It’s a case of a building that industry very slowly from scratch. They are more difficult to farm.”

“The picture for aquaculture is very encouraging,” Burton said. “The opportunities are there. The markets are there. People are looking for a high-quality product where they want it and when they want it. The fishery can’t match aquaculture on that. Aquaculture can’t match the fishery on volume. It is definitely an expanding industry.”

That view is supported by Ichiro Nomura, FAO assistant director general for fisheries, who sees fish farming as part of the solution to the problem of declining fish stocks. “In light of current trends, the continued improvement of management of wild fish stocks is essential,” Nomura said. “Aquaculture may help reduce pressure on capture fisheries by reducing demand for wild fish and lowering prices, but that’s only part of the solution.” The FAO insists that growth in aquaculture will not make improvements in current fishing practices and management any less important.

Rather than being in opposition to one another, Burton, whose organisation primarily represents the sea-fishing industry, believes the two industries can exist side by side.  “Fish farming is part of the answer,” he told just-food. “It is probably unlikely ever to fully replace a wild fishery. It can sit alongside the fishery supplying product to the market. Both require clean seas and a well-managed coastal environment.”

Not all views are so sanguine, however, Friends of the Earth believes fish farming represents a threat to natural ecosystems, wild stocks and human health. The environmental campaign group believes fish farming is leading to higher concentrations of pollution from fish sewage, antibiotics and other drugs, while disease transfer to wild fish through escaped farmed fish has been a constant problem. Greenpeace also points to the higher fat content and lower nutritional value of farmed fish.