The seafood industry is at a crossroads: while capture fisheries are stagnating in volume and decreasing in profitability, they are also falling short of world demand, as the annual consumption of seafood has been rising, doubling in three decades. This trend is expected to persist in the decades to come. As was the case on land with the acquisition of food by hunter-gatherer societies evolving into food production with the development of agriculture, we can no longer depend solely on fishing. Considering the depletion of natural stocks, people developed the idea that aquaculture could be increasingly important as the solution for providing the difference between the demand for seafood and the biomass available. Aquaculture production, which already supplies 40% of the seafood consumed worldwide, has increased by nearly 10% per year over the last few decades, making it the fastest growing global food production sector: from 40 million tonnes in 2004 to an anticipated 70 million tonnes by 2015. By comparison, terrestrial farmed meat production grew by only 2.8% annually. The majority of aquaculture production still originates from extensive and semiintensive systems; however, the rapid development of intensive marine fed aquaculture (e.g., carnivorous finfish and shrimp) throughout the world is associated with concerns about the environmental, economic and social impacts these often monospecific practices can have, especially where activities are highly geographically concentrated or located in suboptimal sites whose assimilative capacity is poorly understood and, consequently, prone to being exceeded. Without a clear recognition of the industry's large-scale dependency and impact on natural ecosystems and traditional societies, the aquaculture industry is unlikely to either develop to its full potential or continue to supplement ocean fisheries.
For many aquaculture operations, monoculture is, spatially and managerially, often the norm. Species are cultivated independently in different bays or regions. Consequently, the two different types of aquaculture (fed vs. extractive) are often geographically separate, rarely balancing each other out at the local or regional scale, and, thus, any potential synergy between the two is lost. As the volume of production of these monoculture operations increases to higher levels, the sector generally moves into a commodity market where prices to the producer and consumer generally drop because of the volumes involved. This drop in profit margins to the producer encourages practices that decrease the cost of production such as implementation of more efficient automated technologies, labor-saving strategies, less-expensive inputs, and subsidy-based systems, whether they be natural (e.g., irrigation on land or capture of wild species) or social (e.g., government financial support). Other responses of the industry may be to investigate the possibilities of securing a larger market share via company consolidation, new markets, or new products. If the industry has a high capital equipment and operational overhead, shareholders will further encourage this response. One problem with this approach is that the solutions are not 'open-ended' and are ultimately limited in their effectiveness (e.g., technology can only get you so far). Another problem is that in an aquaculture environment with fixed geographic limits (e.g., lease boundaries), this increased production generally comes at the expense of the natural environment, as the farmer tends to squeeze more and more production from a fixed area. Once the natural system is destabilized, the chances for the entire operation to collapse increase (e.g., the shrimp industry in several Asian countries). The underlying, erroneous assumption of the above business model is that there is capacity within the ecosystem for almost continuous expansion; otherwise, the commodity-based system will ultimately fail at regional scales as someone will always be able to produce for less cost than you. It is baffling to understand why we promote these unsustainable practices as most people realize that it goes against the concepts of balanced ecosystems, conservation of energy, and carrying capacity of coastal ecosystems. In the natural world, to avoid pronounced shifts in coastal processes, the solution to nutrification by fed aquaculture is not dilution, but conversion of the excess nutrients and energy into other commercial crops produced by extractive aquaculture (e.g., seaweeds and shellfish).
To continue to grow, while developing better management practices, the aquaculture sector needs to develop more innovative, responsible, sustainable, and profitable practices that optimize its efficiency, create diversification, and ensure the mitigation of the consequences of its activities to maintain the health of coastal waters. Maintaining sustainability, not only from an environmental, but also from economic, social, and technical perspectives, has become a key issue, increased by the enhanced awareness of more and more demanding consumers regarding quality, traceability, and production conditions. What, then, are the options for the aquaculture sector to face these challenges, grow, and meet the environmental, economic, and social concerns?
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