Salmon aquaculture in 2050: We can do better than today

Aquaculture in the ocean is going to be a big part of feeding people 37 years from now, and while it’s made a lot of positive improvements, there’s room to do better.

That’s the conclusion which came out of a 2011 workshop involving expert scientists in fisheries, aquaculture and microbiology. The scientists, from Canada, the USA, the Netherlands and the United Nations, published their conclusions in a paper this year titled “Responsible Aquaculture in 2050: Valuing Local Conditions and Human Innovations Will Be Key to Success.”

Its conclusions are clear.

As aquaculture production expands, we must avoid mistakes made during increasing intensification of agriculture. Understanding environmental impacts and measures to mitigate them is important for designing responsible aquaculture production systems.

There are four realistic goals that can make future aquaculture operations more sustainable and productive:

  1. improvement of management practices to create more efficient and diverse systems at every production level;
  2. emphasis on local decisionmaking, human capacity development, and collective action to generate productive aquaculture systems that fit into societal constraints and demands;
  3. development of risk management efforts for all systems that reduce disease problems, eliminate antibiotic and drug abuse, and prevent exotic organism introduction into local waters; and
  4. creation of systems to better identify more sustainably grown aquaculture products in the market and promote them to individual consumers.

By 2050, seafood will be predominantly sourced through aquaculture, including not only finfish and invertebrates but also seaweeds.

Aquaculture is here to stay, and we have the unique opportunity and foresight to get it as “right” as we possibly can.

And sorry, “just putting it on land” is probably not the best solution. The scientists warn that there are environmental consequences of “closed” land-based systems, such as increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

In their LCA [Life Cycle Analysis] of alternative aquaculture technologies, Ayer and Tyedmers (2009) warned that we could be shifting—not alleviating—environmental impacts by reducing local impacts but increasing material and energy demands. This shift may result in significantly increased contributions to several environmental impacts of global concern, including global warming, nonrenewable resource depletion, and acidification.

They also point out that there is limited land for expansion of agriculture in general, which would make it difficult to find suitable places for large-scale on-land fish farms. They make it clear that expanding aquaculture in coastal and inland waters is going to be a key part of the future.

IMTA system
Integrated Multitrophic Aquaculture Systems could someday be the standard for salmon farming, reducing environmental impacts while also producing other seafood species.

And the scientists acknowledge that some of today’s fish farmers are already ahead of the game, working to improve their practices in significant ways.

Many of the environmental impacts of aquaculture are being effectively addressed by improvements in management. For example, the reliance on fish meal in feeds has been reduced to 15% for many carnivorous species by replacement with plant-based proteins or other feed sources (Naylor et al. 2009)—a change made in response to environmental and economic concerns.

This has been driven largely by salmon farmers worldwide, who have committed to continually reducing the amount of fishmeal and oil in feed over the past decade. And their reliance on wild fish for feed continues to drop.

Of course, there are many ways all fish farmers can improve, and the scientists in this paper offer hope that it is feasible and practical to have aquaculture worldwide by 2050 that is sustainable while playing a crucial role in feeding the world.

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