Debunking aquaculture myths
Buying local, minimizing waste, avoiding intensive production brands, … these are all practices that more and more people adopt in our daily lives. Responsible consumption is one of the key elements for sustainable development. However, is responsible consumption translating well into seafood products?
The products obtained from the marine environment can come from fishing (fish capture) or aquaculture (obtaining through farming). Production is divided more or less equally between both sources; however, there are great differences in their social perception. According to various studies, in our collective imagination we understand fishing as a sustainable activity, and aquaculture as the intensive version of fishing. A perception that extends from the food intermediaries themselves to the consumers. What is the reality behind these imaginaries?
From CREDA, Lourdes Reig, doctor in marine sciences and current vice-rector of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, helps us unseat the main myths about aquaculture that are holding back the development of a production system with a lot of potential.
The best for our diet (and our pocket)
The consumption of fish and other marine products is the basis of numerous diets, providing key nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, minerals, omega 3,… In general, it is a recommended food for the entire population and considered essential. It is said that the products obtained from fishing have better nutritional properties than those from aquaculture. Is this true? The most honest answer is: sometimes.
“Organisms in the natural environment eat what they can, and sometimes they don’t find the best conditions to grow well,” Reig tells us. There is a high variability in the quality of the fishery product: the highest qualities of fish can be found in these products, but also the lowest. And this variability affects the availability and therefore the price of food.
The aquaculture product is not affected by these variables and offers constant quality, price and availability. Sometimes this quality will be lower than that of the food obtained by fishing, and in others, higher. The main benefit of aquaculture is to give us the security that the product we buy meets our expectations. And furthermore, as it is of controlled production, it is more economically accessible.
Synonyms of sustainability
The widely held idea that aquaculture is an intensive version of fishing is based solely on myth. Actually, neither fishing nor aquaculture are sustainable per se. Each one can present both sides of the coin.
When we talk about fishing, we are not only referring to the small traditional boats that leave the port every day and return with their production for sale. “Fishing also includes the activity of large vessels that spend months making massive catches, sometimes with scarcely sustainable fishing gear, on the high seas, with support boats that transport merchandise and personnel to maintain high production,” Reig tells us. “This type of practice, [in terms of sustainability and animal welfare], is not far from the intensive production of birds in cages.” Therefore, even if it is occurring in the natural environment, fishing can be unsustainable.
Likewise, in the case of aquaculture, our imaginary leads us to high-yield fish farms, with little attention to animal welfare. However, there is another reality, based on numerous studies of ethical and sustainable production, which support responsible aquaculture. New knowledge and technologies allow aquaculture to adapt to current environmental and production needs.
In the words of Reig “Technology has improved a lot in many aspects, in one very important aspect it has been understanding the behaviour of the species, adapting the cultivation spaces, the quality of the environment, etc. […] I have seen it with my own eyes in the years that I have been dedicating myself to the sector, including research in the factories themselves.”
The belief that antibiotics and hormones are used as growth promoters in aquaculture comes from the great controversies that occurred in livestock farming around the 1960s. The abuse of these drugs in production gave rise to intense mandatory regulatory measures for the industry.
However, aquaculture is a practice that really developed in Spain around the 70-80s with freshwater trout, and the 90s in the case of marine species. It is a very recent system, which at the time of its creation was already within the regulatory framework generated after the excesses of livestock.
The only use of antibiotics in aquaculture has the same purpose as in livestock and humans: to treat diseases and always under strict veterinary control. And as in other industries, they are governed by strict health and safety legislation, both for the animal and for the consumer.
For Reig, as for many other professionals in the sector, aquaculture, when carried out under the correct parameters of sustainability, is a system with numerous food and social benefits, which is being blocked by a bad perception and by the belief in false myths that do not hold up in current practice. The real dilemma is not in preferring the product from aquaculture or fishing, but in having access to the information that allows us to choose the sustainable product. And for this we must take into account both the potential benefits of aquaculture and intensive fishing practices.
Lourdes Reig holds a PhD in marine science and her main activities are focused around aquaculture. She has developed her activities in this field in the private sector, in production, and in teaching and research in universities. Her main interest has been the design of aquaculture facilities, taking into consideration both environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Recently, her interests have expanded to cover consumer perceptions about fish consumption and aquaculture, and the design of strategies for effective communication about this sector.