The first-ever global assessment of the environmental costs of aquaculture shows that farmed seafood is less ecologically damaging than livestock production, and that there is great potential for improvements in efficiency.
A new and comprehensive analysis released by WorldFish Center and Conservation International (CI) has investigated the environmental impact of the world’s major aquaculture production systems and species, and offers a first-ever global assessment of trends and impacts of cultivated seafood. The analysis has found that, from the 75 species-production systems reviewed, more production means more ecological impact, but that compared to other forms of animal protein production such as livestock, aquaculture is more efficient.
The report, ‘Blue Frontiers: Managing the environmental costs of aquaculture’, along with a companion policy recommendations paper, concludes that the demand for aquaculture products will continue to grow over the next two decades as a key source of animal protein for growing urban populations, and that the industry needs to meet this demand with improved efficiencies and reduced environmental impacts.
Among the landmark report’s major findings are two key highlights: (1) the environmental impact of aquaculture varies dramatically by country, region, production system and species , and (2) a review of published information found that aquaculture is more efficient and less damaging to the environment, compared to other animal protein production systems such as beef and pork, and is likely to be among the most important sources of protein for human health and nutrition in growing urban populations in many parts of the developing world. The report also highlights that there is great room for improvement, by identifying and sharing best practices, increasing investment in innovation, and strengthening policies and regulations.
$100+ Billion Industry
Driving the scientists’ research was the recognition of aquaculture as one of the fastest growing food production sectors in the world. It has grown at an average annual rate of 8.4% since 1970 and total production reached 65.8 million tonnes in 2008 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Today, aquaculture is a $100+ billion industry that now provides more than half of all seafood consumed in the world, surpassing wild-caught seafood.
Using all available data from 2008, the study compared aquaculture’s global demands across a wide variety of species groups (13), geographies (18 countries), feed types (5) and numerous production systems in use today, allowing scientists to compare and contrast 75 different types of species-production systems, to determine their environmental impacts on acidification, climate change, energy demand, land-use demand, and other ecological factors.
Following almost two years of data gathering and analysis, researchers found that:
* China and the rest of Asia collectively supply an overwhelming majority of the world’s cultivated seafood, at 91% of global supply. China alone accounts for 64% of global production.
* On the other end of the supply chain, Europe produces 4.4%, South America produces 2.7%, South American produces 1.9%, and Africa produces 1.6%.
* Most popular aquaculture by country: carp tops the list for China and the rest of Asia; salmon is number one for Europe and Latin America, finfish (tilapias) rank highest in African aquaculture.
* Aquaculture with the highest environmental impact include: eel, salmon, and shrimps & prawns, due to significant energy and fish feeds required for production – these represent greatest opportunities for improvement.
* Aquaculture with the lowest/least environmental impact include: bivalves (mussels and oysters), mollusks, seaweed (those toward the bottom of the food chain; don’t require additional feed).
* Efficiency of salmon production methods: while salmon production trends toward the high end of the environmental impact scale due to the use of wildfish for feed, production methods in northern Europe, Canada and Chile were found to be more efficient than those in China and other Asian countries (in terms of acidification, climate change, energy demand and land occupation).
* Efficiency of shrimp and prawn production methods: cultivation in China was found to be much less efficient than other producer countries (e.g. Thailand) in terms of acidification, climate change and energy demand.
* Aquaculture vs wild-caught fisheries: aquaculture today accounts for a significant majority of all consumed seaweeds (99%), carps (90%), and salmon (73%), and also delivers half (50%) of the total global supply of tilapia, catfish, mollusks, crabs and lobsters.
Looking toward the future of seafood cultivation, ‘Blue Frontiers’ projects that global aquaculture production will continue to grow at current rates, with conservative estimates of 65-85 million tones produced in 2020, and 79-110 million tones by 2030. By comparison, 69 million tonnes of cultivated seafood were produced in 2008.
“China, India and the rest of Asia with their growing middle classes are where we can expect demand for fish to rise most significantly,” says co-author Mike Phillips, a senior scientist at WorldFish. “Current trends indicate that the majority of the increase in global production will come from South and Southeast Asia, with a continued drive by major producer counties such as China and Vietnam towards export to European and North American markets.”