Aquaculture can be more sustainable

Aquaculture can be more sustainable Aquaculture may be the most sustainable animal protein production that we have today but there is always room for improvement, according to Adel El Mowafi. Photo: Cargill

Fish farming has made strong progress in recent years, but there’s still plenty of choppy water ahead reports Jason Holland.

When it comes to food production, aquaculture is a major success story. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), it continues to grow faster than any other major food sector, and by 2030 is expected to provide 60% of the seafood that the human race consumes. The FAO further forecasts that fish farming’s global output will reach 109 million tonnes within the next dozen years, representing a rise of 37% compared to current levels. Despite its lofty status, aquaculture certainly isn’t devoid of challenges; and if these were to be left unchecked, they would inevitably become limiting factors to the industry’s long-term growth.

According to Adel El Mowafi, aquaculture technology director at feed supplier Cargill Aquaculture Nutrition, there are five prominent issues that will define the next five to 10 years of aquaculture; namely, climate change and environmental constraints, regulatory constraints, disease, availability of improved genetics, and limited raw material resources.

“I actually look at those challenges as opportunities for us, because it’s about how we find solutions to them, how we make the industry more productive, and for everyone to make money and produce healthy food for generations to come,” El Mowafi told delegates at the recent Aquaculture Innovation Europe conference in London.

Of the five issue areas, he said that disease probably provides the biggest bottleneck in terms of expanding the aquaculture industry, with sea lice and early mortality syndrome (EMS) having the most devastating impacts on salmon and shrimp production, respectively.

The company was created three years ago following the acquisition of EWOS and annually produces 1.8 million tonnes of aquafeeds, and while it supplies diets for a broad variety of aquatic animals in many different locations, salmon, shrimp and tilapia are its “big three” – where it sees the most potential and the least financial risk. Of these, salmon is Cargill’s No.1 species.

El Mowafi said that this emphasis is despite salmon farming accounting for just 10% of the 43 million tonnes of aquaculture feeds sold globally.

“This is because we need to prioritise as a company and focus hard where there is value and find a way to compete.”

The salmon sector is also the most transparent sector when it comes to its figures, and El Mowafi highlighted that a 2017 fish health report, published by Norwegian authorities, had found that up to 20% of all salmon transferred to sea today die or disappear before they can be harvested.

In Norway, that represents a loss of approximately 53 million fish, which has “significant effects” on fish welfare, economy and sustainability, he said.

“If we could reduce those loses by 50%, that would represent almost USD 1 billion generated in revenue,” he said.

Common goals

When it comes to diseases, there are a number of factors that will mitigate risk, he said. In addition to functional feed diets, farm management, vaccination, biosecurity and selective breeding also have important roles to play. And while these controls are still not being properly incorporated into integrated disease management plans, he acknowledged that some progress is being made.

This evolution is perhaps best evidenced with sea lice. While the parasite remains one of the biggest challenges for salmon aquaculture, costing Norway alone USD 590 million a year, there has been a significant shift in the way that sea lice have been managed over the past two years, with both medicinal and non-medicinal approaches making promising headway.

In terms of the non-medicinal approaches, sea lice skirts – sheets of material mounted around the top section of salmon cages where sea lice larvae are generally found – have become commonplace. As have cleaner fish, thermal treatments flushers, lasers and sea lice traps, and more measures are under development. At the same time, there has been increased cooperation and collaboration across the salmon supply chain to find solutions.

The Sea Lice Research Centre (SLRC) in Norway, which is hosted by the University of Bergen, with partners such as the Institute of Marine Research, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Leroy Seafood Group, Marine Harvest and Cargill Aquaculture Nutrition, was a prime example of the collaborative spirit that exists in the sector, said El Mowafi.

This programme, which had a budget of NOK 30 million, concluded last year with outputs including new medicines, new resistance monitoring and control methods, the development of several functional ingredients, as well as a greater understanding of the host-parasite interaction.

“The centre developed a lot of talent, which has collectively published more than 100 papers on sea lice. We need to follow this example and develop more collaborations.”

Adel El Mowafi reckons the industry’s sustainability efforts could benefit greatly from such alliances.

“Can we be more sustainable? The answer is a big yes. Aquaculture may be the most sustainable animal protein production that we have today but there is always room for improvement. There is a lot of work going on upstream, in-house and downstream to improve sustainability. For example, the fishmeal and fish oil that we use increasingly comes from certified sustainable fisheries according to the IFFO RS and MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) standards. This means that we can continue to use the amount of fishmeal and fish oil that we are today, but we cannot expect to find more. If we want to grow the industry sustainably, we have to find new sources of protein and oil, especially those containing DHA and EPA.”

Technological platforms

The conference delegates heard that with feed accounting for more than 60% of the total rearing costs in aquaculture, a lot of innovation is now taking place in the aquafeed sector to reduce the industry’s dependence on these finite ingredients, particularly through the development of new raw materials.

Algae, microbials and insects are currently at the forefront of novel ingredient development, but these are still very small in volume and are not yet cost-effective, said El Mowafi.

“But this industry still has a responsibility to develop those supplies. I also think we need to find out more about what we need to do to put the nutrients back in the food chain; how can we up-cycle these new ingredients; and what can we do on the farm to ensure that more of the nutrients in the feed are eaten and absorbed by the fish.”

Additionally, Adel El Mowafi believes there’s “a lot to be gained” from a renewed focus on the environmental impacts of aquaculture and addressing the huge differences between regions and the species being produced. He said the aim should be to lower the footprint of the raw materials used in aquaculture feeds as well as to enhance feed formulations and improve farm performance.

Last but not least, he’s in no doubt that the emergence of new digital technology can boost aquaculture sustainability and farm performance.

“But digital disruption in aquaculture will take a lot of hard work and it won’t happen overnight. It will also take cooperation – public and private start-ups and established companies should work together to maximise the efforts and minimise the pain.

“I think that open innovation is the right way to approach it. Cooperation with third-parties will provide possibilities. No single organisation or individual has all of the answers; sometimes the best ideas come from the most unexpected places. Because breakthrough ideas can come from customers, suppliers, partners, academic institutions and others, [Cargill] actively invites approaches and emerging research from third-parties,” he said.

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