The Ghosts of Aquaculture’s Past Haunt Its Future

A Response to Breakthrough’s Essay on Next-Generation Aquaculture

There are a number of reasons to support aquaculture’s future, many of which are touched on in Marian Swain’s essay. Strong scientific evidence suggests that seafood can be produced with fewer environmental impacts than land-based animal protein. The same holds true regarding seafood’s role in improving heart and brain health, as the only source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Because wild-capture fisheries have not been able to keep pace with demand for the last 30 years, aquaculture has stepped in to fill this gap. Looking forward, marine aquaculture offers a particularly promising tool for feeding an expected 2.5 billion more people in coming years, while reducing our reliance on limited resources like freshwater and land, combating climate change, and alleviating hunger and poverty.

And yet, public discourse around aquaculture tends to focus on poor practices and mistakes of the past rather than on improvements and potential for the present and future. Like land-based agriculture, aquaculture comes in various forms, with different associated benefits and impacts. From the smallest subsistence farm to the largest commercial farm, from farms producing filter-feeding shellfish to carnivorous finfish, the science and technologies exist to produce healthy, environmentally responsible seafood. No matter what system is used or species produced, there are proven, science-based strategies that can be adapted for specific farm types to support environmentally responsible aquaculture production. These include:

  • Appropriate siting to ensure maximum production efficiency with minimal environmental impact and conflict with other uses
  • Science-based best management practices designed to keep fish, surrounding ecosystems, and people healthy
  • Collaborative, zone-based management that can reduce cumulative impacts resulting from the shared use of watersheds with neighboring farms
  • Science-based monitoring and adaptive management

Successful implementation of these approaches requires access to appropriate technologies and expertise as well as effective management and enforcement. These may be implemented by governments, communities, industry, or some combination of stakeholders, depending on the infrastructure and resources available. Many negative examples of aquaculture today, as with any form of agriculture or wild-capture fishing, are the result of poor execution or lack of access to any or all of these elements.

Offshore marine aquaculture should be an area of particular interest going forward, as it will form an increasingly important part of the protein portfolio for a growing human population. We know it can be done responsibly and that it can supplement well-managed wild-capture fisheries to provide a year-round, affordable source of healthy protein. What is lacking, on the other hand, is political will and public support. Public perceptions toward marine aquaculture, particularly offshore aquaculture, tend to be more negative in developed countries like the United States. Reluctance to embrace and support the growth and expansion of marine aquaculture has resulted in a great loss of opportunity for domestic food security, conservation, and economic support for communities and working waterfronts.

Feeding the future will require a diverse portfolio of innovative solutions from land and marine sources. Marine aquaculture is an important conservation tool that we have the science, expertise, and technologies to implement responsibly. It is important to acknowledge and take lessons from mistakes of the past for aquaculture if we are going to be successful in leveraging the technology to produce food without unacceptable impacts, but we cannot move forward if that is the only foundation from which we continue the discussion. It is imperative that we discuss marine aquaculture in the context of the global food supply and focus on the innovation and advancements available to move this industry forward, rather than dwelling on the past and missing out on this opportunity to ensure a healthy and sustainable food future.