Fishful Thinking

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 Aquaculture is helping to ease the burden on depleting fish levels and create more sustainable fishing. But consumer awareness and choice will go a long way to securing its development. Sam Bliss reports.

The English language is organically evolving, with all manner of collocations, idioms and sayings. A surprising number of these originate from fishing.

There are simply too many to list but here are some examples. Reel them in, end of the line, take the bait, off the hook, fish out of water, big fish small pond, something fishy.

Small fry they are not. But there is one saying in particular that is especially topical, a saying that for centuries has consoled the brokenhearted and provided solace to the forlorn.

There are plenty of fish in the sea.

Now though, with nearly half all seafood consumed being farmed, this has never been further from the truth. Today, there are also plenty of fish in the farms.

Like language itself, the fishing industry is evolving and the consequences have ramifications for us all. Underpinning the changes is aquaculture, the farming of fish.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited or over exploited. Therefore, increases in seafood consumption will be met by aquaculture.

In other words, as population increases faster than the supply of fish, aquaculture will compensate this shortfall.

Boris Musa is the managing director of Mainstream Aquaculture in Werribee, which boasts the largest barramundi hatchery in the world. Boris started out as an investment banker but believed so much in aquaculture, he switched career paths.

Mr. Musa is quick to extol the virtues of aquaculture. “We as a planet extract no more fish from our waters today than in 1990. That’s not due to reduced demand. It’s a result of there not being any left.”

“The only way we’re going to meet burgeoning demand for fish products globally is through aquaculture,” Mr. Musa continues. “What we’re doing could be considered quite a noble pursuit.”

Aquaculture is developing rapidly, both domestically and abroad, and is essential to the sustainability of the oceans. But as it develops, more questions are being asked.

Conservationists remain concerned with environmental impacts of aquaculture, such as the levels of fishmeal required to feed carnivorous farmed fish, damaging natural ecological systems and disease.

University of Melbourne researcher and sustainability advocate John Ford highlights fish feed as an area of focus.

He explains that farmed fish can be fed diets with two or three times more fish than the final product. This is done to ensure the fish is fatty and full of omega-3, but clearly the ratio is unsustainable.

“There’s a real economic driver there,” Mr. Ford says. “To give them high protein feed, to feed them as fast as possible.”

“You can feed them mostly vegetable matter, soy based protein and such, but they simply don’t grow as fast and it’s not as economic.”

However, he does concede that Australia’s aquaculture industry is generally performing well on environmental issues.

“We’ve come a long way in the last decade or so in Australia, to reducing these impacts.”

Mr. Ford also adds that plenty of sustainable fish are on offer. He considers farmed mussels and oysters a sustainable choice. “They’re sustainable and they’re actually helping the environment by taking harmful nutrients out of the water.”

Inside an aquaculture facility
Inside an aquaculture facility


Ultimately, Mr. Ford believes it’s up to where you as the consumer align on the sustainability spectrum. A hardline environmentalist will likely have differing definitions than a pragmatic shopper. Either way, Mr. Ford advocates increased knowledge.

“The more information being released about aquaculture the better.”

Mr. Musa agrees. “The typical consumer wouldn’t know that some aquaculture finfish are injected with 6 or 7 antibiotics, or the impact that a number of aquaculture organisations have on the environment. These are things we need to educate the consumer about.”

Mr. Musa and the sustainable aquaculture organisation he directs are worried that the public will focus on these concerns over the benefits.

“For us, it means our product is more expensive and we need to educate the consumer as to why. Whilst our type of aquaculture might be the most sustainable, it’s not going to be the most economically attractive.”

Luckily, this information exists and consumers are becoming more informed about sustainable fish species, methods and impacts.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society has a Sustainable Seafood smartphone app, which ranks over 100 fish species using a traffic light system. Green means the fish is sustainable, red the opposite.

For example, the app will explain that farmed scallops are better than the overfished wild scallops, which are dredge caught, whereby seabeds are raked, causing extensive damage.

But the app has been criticized for being too general and lacking scientific rigour. Despite this, Mr. Ford is supportive.

“These organisations that make sustainability guides and such are doing a great job of raising awareness and bringing this issue to the table.”

The Melbourne-based website GoodFishBadFish, which Mr. Ford contributes to regularly, is another consumer resource. It compiles together various guides and any information it deems useful.

“There’s really only so much information we can take in.” Mr. Ford admits. “But for those who want to be informed, it’s a good place to go.”

Aquaculture facts

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