European aquaculture - Too soon to be bullish

European aquaculture - Too soon to be bullish While European aquaculture is seen to be healthy and growing, output lags far behind the rest of the world

European aquaculture - Too soon to be bullish While a new study claims that EU aquaculture has ‘fully recovered’ from a recent downturn, any celebratory popping of corks will be premature, writes Jason Holland

Aquaculture has a lot going for it. Without the rapid rise of aquatic species production, the global seafood economy wouldn’t have seen the five-decade-and-counting increases in both consumption and production, nor would it be in a position to meet the future dietary demands of our fast-growing world population.

Today, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the two important markers of consumption and production have increased to 20.50kg per capita and an all-time high of 171 million tonnes, respectively. But the FAO also recognises that the growth rates of both are slowing down. It projects that world fish consumption will reach 21.50kg per capita in 2030, while production will climb to around 200 million tonnes. Crucially, of this, capture fisheries output is expected to reach about 91 million tonnes, only 1% more than at present.

With most fishery stocks expected to remain maximally sustainably fished or overfished for at least the next decade, the onus is very much on aquaculture to bridge the gap between the supply of aquatic food and the demand from a growing, wealthier global population. And yet the aquaculture landscape is extremely diverse when it comes to supply and demand.

Early shoots of change

The European Union (EU) is the planet’s No. 1 consumer of seafood, followed by the United States and Japan, with Europeans’ per capita consumption having steadily trended upwards over several years to the current level of 24kg. However, the EU-28’s contribution as a global seafood producer is a much more modest fifth-place, which sees it account for 5.6% of the world’s wild-capture fisheries output and just 1.2% of the total aquaculture harvest. Seafood consumption in member states is therefore mostly met by imported products.

Factoring in a capture fisheries sector that pretty much plateaued 20 years ago, increasing the EU’s own supply of farmed seafood seems the obvious solution to reducing its heavy reliance on imports and meeting the huge domestic demand, while also creating valuable, skilled employment. But the bloc’s aquaculture industry has also stagnated over the last decade or so, during which time its production has been increasingly dwarfed by the rapid growth of Asian output, which today covers about 92% of the global production volume. China alone produces 58% of all the world’s farmed aquatic species.

Nevertheless, in the European Commission’s eyes, EU aquaculture has significant growth potential. There are also some signs that the sector’s stagnation may be drawing to a close. Among these, the Commission’s newly-published ‘2018 Economic Report of the EU Aquaculture Sector’, finds that the overall performance of the region’s aquaculture sector is “improving”.

Compiled by the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), the Commission’s report – the sixth study of its kind – confirms that in 2016 (the most recent year reported on), the sector reached 1.4 million tonnes in sales volume, generating a value of €4.9 billion, and that production had increased by 2.2% annually between 2014 and 2016 in volume and 3.1% in value. Profit over the same period almost doubled to reach €800 million, which it says marked “a strong recovery from the bad year of 2013” in most of the large producing countries, particularly for shellfish harvests.

While these are positive figures, the report acknowledges that the financial upturns were largely due to increased prices.

Regional specialisation

As a whole, the EU aquaculture sector comprises three distinguishable sub-sectors: marine, shellfish and freshwater production. With more than €2.7 billion turnover, marine aquaculture is the largest, followed by shellfish with €1.1 billion and freshwater production with €1 billion. The main species produced in terms of value are Atlantic salmon (€1 billion, 25% of the total), rainbow trout (€615 million, 15%) and European seabass (€502 million, 12%), based on volumes of 181,000 tonnes, 185,000 tonnes and 81,000 tonnes respectively.

Meanwhile, production is dominated by five countries: The United Kingdom, France, Greece, Italy and Spain. These countries, each with turnovers between €550 million and €1.1 billion, account for around 75% of the total production volume, although each has its own area of specialisation. In the marine sector, the United Kingdom is the EU’s main producer of salmon (91% of the total value), whereas Greece is the main producer of seabass and seabream (47% of the total value). In the shellfish sector, France produces 86% of the oysters, Spain leads on mussels with 45% of the volume, and Italy is the main producer of clams (80%).

In total, the EU member states are home to some 12,500 aquaculture enterprises, mostly micro-businesses employing less than 10 people.

Growth platform

The report highlights that the reform of the Common Fishery Policy (CFP) encourages the promotion of aquaculture through a cooperation process based on national Multiannual Strategic Plans to be developed by member states. Essentially, the primary goal of this endeavour is to contribute to decreasing the EU’s dependence on seafood imports while satisfying market demand. This strategy is based on four key pillars:

  • Simplify administrative procedures
  • Secure the sustainable development and growth of aquaculture through coordinated spatial planning
  • Enhance the competitiveness of EU aquaculture
  • Promote a level playing field for EU operators

Using the growth expectations and current achievements presented in the strategic plans, EU aquaculture production is forecast to exceed 1.7 million tonnes by 2020. And while this would mean it’s moving in the right direction, it would still be a considerable way off the 56 million tonnes that China is expected to provide in the same year.

Meanwhile, in its evaluation of these plans, an STECF expert working group felt that most couldn’t be directly connected to the measures and actions that had been implemented. Fortunately, they still deemed them to be beneficial to their respective aquaculture sectors.

These experts also tried to establish if the objectives for growth in the national plans were likely to be achieved by the ending of the current funding period (2020-2023), with the report stating that using production from the base year of 2013 as a starting point, “many countries seem to be on track concerning their production goals”. But it also says that it’s difficult to assess whether this is just a catching-up effect from the weak performance in 2013 or an actual improvement in the overall EU production.

While member states have ongoing actions in one or all of the strategic pillars, only a few countries had overcome or were close to achieving the production goals stated in their strategic plans, says the report. “In many cases the evolution in production can be better explained by factors outside the strategic plan actions, such as adverse environmental conditions”.

It adds that the projections included in the plans might have been “overoptimistic” or even “unrealistic”, which would lead to the conclusion that the production goals will not be reached.

Despite these reservations, the report maintains that the design and implementation of the Multiannual Strategic Plans are both “a step forward in the lifetime of modern EU aquaculture” and “a success in coordination of the different stakeholders across countries towards a common goal and strategy”.

From a basic, consumer perspective, with Chinese aquaculture production growth expected to slow and stimulate much higher prices over the next decade, any resurgence in European aquaculture would undoubtedly prove timely for the bloc’s seafood supply chains.

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