- In order to better assess the adverse effects of aquaculture, experts now call for a comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA). This is a methodology for evaluating the environmental performance of a product over its full life cycle – LCAs have in the meantime become established in industry in general. They analyse all the environmental effects of a product – from raw material extraction, to production, transportation, utilization and, finally, recycling.
Among other aspects of aquaculture operation, eutrophication (over-fertilization) needs to be taken into account, along with nutrient inputs, such as faeces-enriched effluent discharged untreated into the water from the breeding ponds. The LCA also reflects the environmental pollution created by energy generation for an aquaculture operation: the cleaner the energy production, the better the result. The amount of wild fish used for feeding is also recorded, while land consumption is another important aspect. This includes the amount of land for the facility itself, and the amount used to grow the feedstuffs to meet operation needs. Critics of such life cycle assessments for aquaculture point out that it is difficult to compare the methods of production – carp pond and high-tech plant are two very different types of settings. Initial studies show, however, that such LCAs do indeed make sense for individual production methods.
A comprehensive analysis must also take into account the intensity of farm operations. Production can be broadly divided into three types:
- Extensive: natural bodies of water, such as ponds, are used for breeding, with little or no additional feedstuffs. Finfish, mussels, algae and some types of shrimps and prawns are produced by this method.
- Semi-intensive: natural bodies of water are used. Locally-sourced feedstuffs are fed to the fish. Typical species are finfish in Asia.
- Intensive: mainly operated in efficient, artificial pond systems or cages. The fish – e.g. eels from China – are fed with pellets.
- 4.12 > The example of Norway shows that the intensification and professionalization of production can lead to improvements. Despite increasing numbers of salmon, the use of antibiotics in the Norwegian salmon farming industry has declined.
- According to a recent life cycle assessment of the different aquaculture systems (pond, breeding cages in coastal areas, mussels on the sea floor or suspended on a frame) and aquatic animal species throughout the world, intensive carp breeding in China is the most unsustainable. The ponds are heavily fertilized to speed up growth of the aquatic plants eaten by the carp. The effluent is often discharged without treatment, leading to eutrophication of the rivers in many places. Conversely, in Europe carp farming is considered very environmentally-friendly, as the aquatic animals are bred under extensive production methods. This is mainly due to the fact that, unlike in China, the demand for carp is comparatively low. The results for eel and shrimp farming in ponds are poor. As far as cage production along coastal areas is concerned, finfish are problematic. They involve a very high level of energy use, partially because of the frequent supply trips in boats. They also perform badly in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and acidification of the seas.
Sustainability certificates Sustainability certificates are usually agreed between deal-ers, suppliers and producers. Environmental foundations are often involved. Such seals of approval verify that all parties concerned undertake to uphold binding social, environmental or sustainability standards. How far the specifications go depends on individual agreements. The aims are, among other things, to protect species, the environment and the water in the cultivated areas, as well as to improve social security for the employees. This in-cludes a ban on child labour, the right to freedom of assembly as well as the right to health insurance and social insurance.
Improvement in sightEurope imports large numbers of shrimp and fish from Asia in response to customer demand in countries such as Germany and France for affordable products. Cheap, however, can be synonymous with intensive, industrial, and often environmentally-damaging factory farms, which European consumers would prefer to be situated in someone else’s back yard. Scientists claim that this is just outsourcing the problems from Europe to Asia, and the situation will not improve until attitudes change. The signs are promising, with many consumers now mindful of food safety and sustainability certificates. The certification of wild capture fisheries is already well established. Aware that such eco-labelling on product packaging can impact on purchasing decisions, the trade is now putting pressure on suppliers in the aquaculture industry, demanding fish from sustainable production. In the coming months farmed fish will appear on European shelves bearing the new “Aquaculture Stewardship Council” (ASC) label co-founded by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), various food trading initiatives and fisheries. The “Marine Stewardship Council” (MSC) standard, the equivalent for ocean fish, has been around for many years. There is no question that fish farming sustainability is gaining momentum or that the topic is being debated at the highest levels. Two years ago the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published guidelines setting out clear standards for the certification of aquaculture operations. It is expected that traders will in future measure their producers against these guidelines. Certificates and voluntary commitments by the trade are already in existence, but consumers are un-aware of them as they are only relevant for direct contacts between traders and suppliers. The same objectives, however, apply. For instance, trade cooperation agreements have been adopted for the distribution of pangasius from certified aquaculture operations along the Mekong Delta. Some major and international supermarket chains have also concluded individual agreements with producers. For about 10 years now development aid agencies and non-governmental organizations in Asia have been trying to set up sustainable aquaculture operations. Converting a vast number of small operations is proving a challenge. For this reason efforts are being made to include as many farmers as possible in cooperation projects with the aim of improving production within an entire region. In some cases the solutions are extremely pragmatic. For example, extra ponds act as a buffer to protect rivers from the inflow of nutrients from farming ponds. The nutrients and suspended matter then settle as sludge for later use as fertilizer. In some regions of Vietnam there is now a brisk trade in sludge. Experts also see a growing awareness in China for products from sustainable aquaculture, especially among the burgeoning middle class. National seals of sustainability are thus being promoted aggressively. Although this trend is promising, it will nonetheless take years for environmentally-sound aquaculture to finally become established.