The Value of Sector-Wide Diversity

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

As Marian Swain argues in her recent essay on the future of fish farming, open-ocean aquaculture and recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are certainly two of the most exciting and powerful emerging systems with the potential to expand the sector into new frontiers. But aquaculture is also a diverse industry, one that grows a wide range of species (over 580 as of 2014, from algae to shellfish to finfish species), occurs across a range of ecosystems (from alpine ponds to the open ocean), and can utilize a multitude of inputs (from naturally provided ecosystem services to artificially produced compounds).

The capacity of society to utilize the full potential of aquaculture—to leverage its ability to provide large amounts of healthy food with minimal environmental impact—will likely increase with an equally diverse approach to development. Because aquaculture takes place across such a broad spectrum of locations with different levels of ecosystem services and resources, a one-size-fits-all solution will likely fall flat.

As a result, research and development should continue on with a multitude of different technologies and production systems. Specifically, technology development should focus on harnessing the comparative advantages of distinct locations and methodologies to produce the greatest amount of seafood given the resources available and the state of surrounding ecosystems.

The list of technologies and approaches that can be further developed to help optimize production in site-specific ways is long and varied. Formulated feeds, selective breeding, genetic modification, and integrated multi-trophic systems will all play an important role in improving the performance of aquaculture systems, as will disease management tools and technologies (like biosecurity protocols, vaccines, and therapeutants), certification schemes, and the adoption of best management practices. Larger-scale interventions and innovations, like marine spatial planning and zonal management, extension programs and technology transfer, and supply-chain enhancements, should also be priorities for the sector as a whole.

Concurrent development of these wide-ranging approaches will allow aquaculture to adapt and thrive across a range of locations and environments. Further, adoption of a broad portfolio of approaches will add to the overall resiliency of the sector, much as biodiversity increases the ability of ecosystems to survive in the face of multiple, stochastic stressors. While an individual aquaculture enterprise may have an incentive to maximize short-term profit by consolidating production and adopting a one-size-fits-all technology, a decrease in sector-wide diversity can bear long-term social costs in the form of decreased resiliency to disease epidemics and other shocks to production. We would be wise to consider this trade-off when developing national and regional policies and regulations that will shape the future of the sector, and its ability to sustainably feed the world of tomorrow.