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What is Sustainable Aquaculture?

Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger

Sustainable aquaculture is the cultivation of fish species for commercial purposes by means that have a benign, if not positive, net impact on the environment, contribute to local community development, and generate an economic profit. As a concept, sustainable aquaculture has evolved and grown along with growing evidence that wild fisheries are being overexploited and alarming numbers of fish species are becoming extinct. The negative environmental impact of conventional aquaculture has also motivated those concerned with the oceans, fisheries, and food production to develop a comprehensive definition and set of practitioner's guidelines for sustainable aquaculture. As yet no rigorously defined, universally accepted definition has been agreed upon, nor does an international certification exist.

Aquaculture has been the fastest growing sector of food production worldwide during the past decade. Its growing economic, social, and environmental impacts have led governments, supranational organizations, environmental groups, and industry participants to find more sustainable means of aquaculture development. Consisting of principles and provisions that support this goal, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has produced the "FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries." Article 9 of the Code addresses development of aquaculture. The essence of the Code emphasizes that fishery resources need to be made use of in a manner that ensures their sustainability over the long term, is in harmony with the natural environment, and does not engage in capture and aquaculture practices that are harmful to ecosystems and communities.

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The environmental activism organization Greenpeace, for example, has worked with scientists, researchers, and practitioners to come up with a comprehensive definition of sustainable aquaculture, and one that it is promoting to governments, within the seafood industry, and at international fisheries and environmental conferences. Sustainable aquaculture, according to this definition, strives towards using plant-based feeds farmed using sustainable methods. It avoids fishmeal feeds or feeds based on fish oils from overfished fisheries that result in a net loss in fish protein; nor does it use juveniles caught in the wild.

Sustainable aquaculture also only cultivates open-water species that occur naturally in the location where the aquaculture takes place and then only in bag nets, closed sea pens, or the equivalent; nor does it result in negative impacts to the environment. In addition, sustainable aquaculture has no negative effects on local wildlife or pose threats to local wild populations and does not make use of genetically engineered fish or feed.

There are various other attributes of sustainable aquaculture. It doesn't stock species at densities high enough to risk outbreaks and disease transmission. Nor does it deplete local sources of drinking water, mangrove forests and other natural resources, or threaten human health. It supports local communities economically and socially.

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