A Strategy for Aquaculture

A Strategy for Aquaculture

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Executive consultation on a Strategy for Aquaculture. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with direct experience of aquacultural and environmental issues.

The farming of Atlantic salmon in Scotland started in the 1960s with a small number of experimental sites in sea lochs on the west coast. The industry developed slowly during the 1970s during which various husbandry difficulties concerning cage design, nutrition, breeding and disease were tackled and by the end of the 1970s, the industry had started to expand at an almost exponential rate. This expansion continued until the end of the century, however, as the industry developed the number of companies owning salmon farms contracted with more of the total production being controlled by large companies. During this period, the average salmon farm size increased from 85 tonnes in 1985 to 355 tonnes in 1995. By 2000 there were 90 companies, compared with 120 in 1995, operating 346 sites producing an estimated 128,959 tonnes of adult fish for consumption with 74% of this production accounted for by 15 companies. A central strategy for the industry, therefore, is now needed to properly control its future development in a sustainable way.

The specific issues identified for consideration are addressed below:

Scotland has an aquaculture industry

What are its costs/benefits and what is their objective measure?
In Scotland, aquaculture contributes 40% of all agricultural exports, worth £310M at farm gate and over £600M as processed product. As such it is larger than sheep or cattle production and dwarfs fishing per se. The scale and importance of aquaculture in comparison to the inevitable shrinkage of the fishing industry makes it a major economic engine in rural communities. There are, however, concerns over the growing environmental effects of this industry.

What purpose does the Scottish aquaculture industry serve?

How can it help to meet growing market demand at a time when catches of other species are declining (the so-called "fish gap")?
Global capture fisheries are finite and traditional capture food species (e.g. gadoid white fish and flatfish) are currently in decline. In particular, several important species of wild fish stocks in the North Sea, such as cod, are in danger of collapse. Landings of wild fish species in the UK have decreased and been replaced by imported fish and local aquaculture production (primarily of salmon and trout). There is also the potential in Scotland for the aquaculture production of species such as cod, haddock and a variety of flatfish.

How can it help the diet & health of the nation?
Fish is a healthy food containing beneficial amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), especially long chain omega-3 PUFAs. Farmed salmon and trout now deliver more long chain omega-3 PUFA in the EU diet than any other food species. The health promoting benefits of long chain omega-3 PUFA relate to their effects on the cardiovascular system, the immune system and in neural developmental. Global food production systems now generate a large excess of omega-6 PUFA over omega-3 PUFA compared to what is required in the human diet and fish have a critical role in redressing this imbalance. Fish are also an excellent source of high quality readily digestible protein and micronutrients, including minerals and vitamins.

How is each sector of the industry placed to compete internationally both now in the longer term (5-10 years)?

How can the industry diversify?
There is an opportunity for the fish farming industry to diversify away from salmon, with sole, halibut, cod, haddock, sea urchins offering good prospects. In addition, as assays are developed for algal toxins, there are also good prospects for expanding shellfish culture. In terms of the processing industry, it is well placed to provide the market with a range of added-value products from new aquaculture species and new products from them. For example, for small specialty markets (i.e. seaweed, roe and specialised shellfish) as well as larger, more general markets (i.e. cod and halibut). More value could also be extracted from aquaculture products through the isolation of useful by-products from the skin and offal.

How might it otherwise increase competitiveness?
The aquaculture industry is becoming increasingly globalised and, as noted above, the consolidation of the Scottish salmon farming industry has seen 74% of salmon production in Scotland being accounted for by 15 companies, often foreign owned. Food production and sale are part of a global market and Scotland should compete on quality rather than price, with a focus on bringing valued added products to market. The use of quality schemes is needed to ensure premium prices and the application of environmental quality standards needs to provide consumers with a guarantee of environmental sustainability.

Strong expertise in fish and fisheries biology research and world-class postgraduate training should underpin sustainable growth. Research is needed into the genetic basis of quality traits and factors influencing processing characteristics of the farmed product as well as food safety. There is also a need to develop more cost-effective feeds with decreased environmental impact, especially from vegetable sources. Molecular genetics could be applied to fish breeding programmes to develop disease-resistant and more efficient feed-converting fish strains.

If the industry is to be sustainable (both in its own economic terms and environmentally)

What factors (e.g. impact on fish stocks used for fishmeal) need to be taken into account?
There is a need to develop new fish feeds containing oils and proteins derived from vegetable and/or cultured algal and fungal sources rather than wild-caught industrial fish species. In this respect, an EU-funded research programme coordinated by the Institute of Aquaculture is currently investigating the genetic basis of the ability to produce long chain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids from shorter chain precursors in fish. This could lead to the selection of broodstock more capable of converting less beneficial plant oils to more desirable fish oils.

In the mean time, a key element of future policy should be the use of "discards" and"black fish" from traditional capture fisheries, following the lead set by the Icelandic authorities. Trawling is a very wasteful process that has little selectivity. A very substantial 'by-catch ' (of invertebrate animals and small fish) is obtained and much, if not all, will be thrown back and a considerable proportion will die. Much of this could be put to better use as a primary source of fish-meal.

It is also desirable to remove the current excessive, and nutritionally unsatisfactory, dependence of marine fish larval production on brine shrimp (Artemia) eggs by developing larval feeds based on marine primary and secondary production, for example by developing efficient algal and zooplankton culture.

What further growth would be compatible with our environmental aspirations?
Given improvements in fish feeds and disease control, further growth of the industry is possible. At present, trawling for wild fish stock is having a serious environmental impact on the marine environment, with large tracts of the seabed being churned by trawls, destroying the benthos. Exploiting aquaculture technology could assist the recovery of currently endangered stocks, molluscs and crustaceans as well as finfish. Sensitivity in marine farm site selection, with more offshore locations and the rotation of production could minimise the benthic impact and allow the seabed under fish farms to recover relatively quickly. The breeding of juveniles of species that can be released into the sea for the benefit of the wild fishery (e.g. lobsters and crabs), are also worthy of continued investigation.

What level of environmental pollution would be regarded as "acceptable"- can we devise a measure?
A measure for environmental pollution should be based less on chemical/nutrient analyses and more on the well being of "natural" populations, applied on a site by site basis to ensure sustainability.

What can Scottish coastal waters sustain?
Given proper control of terrestrial inputs, Scottish coastal waters could sustain fish populations as large as the wild fish populations off Scottish coasts in the 19th century. Inshore waters including sea lochs are (or were) spawning grounds for many species of mature fish and feeding grounds for their larvae/juveniles. This could be a factor in determining the future sustainable level of production for aquaculture.

How might environmental impacts be reduced?
Improvements in impact of existing sites can be achieved through the effective use of fallowing. In some cases, the provision of extra sites would allow existing production to be maintained, but at the same time reduce overall environmental impact.

Environmental impacts can also be reduced by improved control of diseases in crowded monoculture conditions through the increased application of the National Treatment Strategy for the control of Sea Lice and the increased use of vaccines. Inaddition, improvements could be made in feed digestibility and reducing waste production. Further research should also be undertaken on interactions between escaped fish farmed salmon and wild fish stocks.

What should be the criteria for locating fish farms:

Should farms be sited further off-shore?
Fish farms should be located in sites with good water exchange. However, there is a limit to the extent of "off-shore" locations as, although pen structures are increasingly robust, during severe storm conditions, fish are unable to maintain position within the pen and can be severely damaged by being driven against nets and descaled.

Should they be land-based?
Landbased sites are being used for elements of broodstock-holding and freshwater production, particularly with valuable stocks. However, cost effective technology for land based sites of the seawater phase of the salmon production cycle is unlikely to be available for the foreseeable future, if ever on anything like a significant scale. There is also an inherent risk of biomagnification of disease in sites using recirculating water technology.

Should they be otherwise re-located (and if so, when and under what conditions)?
It is important that fish farms are not located within or adjacent to areas which have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Importance. Other designations, such as local nature reserves, areas of outstanding natural importance and beauty, may well also be of primary consideration in a decision as to whether to site a farm in a particular location. Similarly, there is concern over the siting of farms at the mouths of important salmon rivers.

Aquaculture will be bound by the terms of the new Water Framework Directive:

What will be the Directive’s impact on the industry?
The Directive will allow an analysis of the effects of all users of the water resource, with an important role for central government in considering coastal zone management in its widest sense.

On what basis will aquaculture be expected to co-exist with other water users?
Aquaculture should continue to co-existence with other water users through the arrangements of the Tripartite Working Group (comprising representatives of the fish farming industry, the wild salmon interests and the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department) and the use of Area Management Agreements.

What should be the role of the public sector

The role of the Scottish Executive should be to set the regulatory framework and to support basic research to underpin the continued sustainable development of the industry. A particular recent success was the recent LINK Aquaculture programme jointly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food..

Scotland is the European Union’s largest producer of aquaculture products and the regulatory framework will need to be defined at a European level in association with associated member states, for example, such as Norway. Consideration shouldalso be given to imposing similar environmental standards on imported aquaculture products.

What should local government's role be in the regulatory process:

The role of local government should primarily be in the regulatory process, providing planning consents that take into account the views of other users of the coastal zone in considering aquaculture development proposals.

What aspects of the industry should be supported by government research :

What criteria should be applied in identifying research priorities?
Research priorities should pass the test of contributing to greater levels of sustainability, reduced environmental impact and improved product quality and safety. These should also include issues relating to the welfare of the farmed animal.

Should there be some external scrutiny of the research proposed/undertaken?
Conventional and open peer-review processes should be applied to all research funding to ensure quality, relevance and value for money.

What should be the FRS role in aquaculture-related research? Should there be joint-funded industry/Government research projects (e.g. new technology, new species)?
Access to Government research funding should be open to Government research institutes, universities and independent research organisations so that the current aquaculture research capability present in Scotland can be properly utilized through openly competitive and collaborative research efforts. A balance and interplay between industry, the universities and colleges, and Government laboratories is needed.

Additional Information

In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: The EU policy on Biodiversity (May 1999); Conservation of Salmon and Sea Trout (August 2000); Protecting and Promoting Scotland's Freshwater Fish and Fisheries (August 2000); Sixth Environmental Action Programme (May 2001); The Nature of Scotland (June 2001); The Future of the Common Fisheries Policy (June 2001) and Scotland’s freshwater fish and fisheries: Securing their future (November 2001). 


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