June 20, 2022

Skewed Perspectives on Aquaculture

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Perhaps its not surprising that skewed perspectives on aquaculture are the norm. Everyone carries the baggage of their personal experiences and learned knowledge that leads to biases from the truth about anything. People are seldom swayed by rational knowledge and objective reality but rather sieve out information that fits a pre-existing framework, so-called confirmation bias. Information that does not fit the frame is discarded.

Portrayals of aquaculture in mainstream media outlets, at least in the Western world, are fascinating and frustrating and often represent only a partial reflection of the sum total reality of aquaculture. Often, aquaculture is described in monolithic terms as “the aquaculture industry,” as if there is some singular entity that, by implication, is homogeneous. There is never a corresponding reference to “the agriculture industry” in any popular press. As we know, aquaculture is tremendously diverse, with the FAO estimating that over 600 species are farmed, with nearly 250 fed species. To say there is an aquaculture industry is disingenuous and lazy journalism.

Popular press in the West, when making reference to aquaculture, more often than not seem to be referring to farming of salmon or shrimp, two of the most traded aquaculture species. It’s as if carp farming, subsistence aquaculture of any kind or farming of low trophic level extractive species like seaweed and molluscan shellfish does not exist. Further, when referring to salmon or shrimp farming, aquaculture is often described derisively in almost exclusively negative terms, replete with stale critiques formerly raised by environmental NGOs.

Skewed perspectives on aquaculture have seeped from media coverage to official government policy. One example of this is the rationale used to justify the ban on open net-pen farming of salmon in British Columbia by 2025, mandated by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2019. Although it is beyond dispute that wild stocks of salmon in BC are struggling, there is considerable uncertainty about the numerous potential causes for their imperiled status. Anti-salmon farming advocates and some (but not all) First Nations have supported the ban, claiming that juvenile wild salmon migrating past netpens are subject to elevated levels of sea lice, leading to high juvenile mortality of wild salmon.

The proposed solution is to ban net-pen salmon farming and to transition to land-based farming or some other yet-to-be determined, “sustainable” approach that avoids direct contact between farmed and wild salmon. Needless to say, this has created considerable turmoil within the salmon farming sector in the country. The drive to ban open netpen farming of salmon is predicated on the skewed perspective that land-based aquaculture is somehow better for the environment, and particularly wild salmon stocks, than netpen aquaculture. This neglects the complexities of the issue, particularly the notion that there are trade-offs associated with every option. The focus of the policy seems to be to create some separation between farmed and wild stocks. While this may be all well and good, it neglects the tradeoff associated with the increased energy demand and associated greenhouse gas emissions that characterize land-based farming. It further assumes that land-based farming is an economically viable alternative to netpen farming, an assumption that has yet to be demonstrated consistently in practice. Thus, skewed perspectives of aquaculture at the policy level have created a tremendous disruption to an industry that has been operating continuously for several decades, providing economic opportunities in communities where options are limited.

I would be remiss in pointing out that my fellow aquaculturists are not immune to holding skewed perspectives on aquaculture. Some aquaculturists take their advocacy for a particular species, farming system or production technology to the point of evangelism. This only provides ammunition for aquaculture critics to hold up as an example of an unbalanced view that does not include other important environmental or social considerations. Recent articles by Barry Costa-Pierce and Thierry Chopin in this magazine have highlighted the “hype, fantasies and realities” of aquaculture development, questioned some of the orthodoxies and provided helpful reality checks.

In attending trade shows at WAS conferences, one would be forgiven for coming away with a skewed perspective of aquaculture that bears little resemblance to the reality on the ground. There are a lot of examples of high technology solutions to problems that are solved by most producers with either simple tools or none at all. While there is a lot of innovation using artificial intelligence, machine learning and decision support systems, the reality is that few farmers are using these advanced tools, despite their considerable potential.

So, what can be done to address and counter skewed perspectives in aquaculture? First, let’s avoid talking about a monolithic aquaculture “industry” and refer instead to specific aquaculture sectors, often connected to particular geographic locations, in recognition of the tremendous diversity of species and culture system combinations. Then, let’s be realistic about aquaculture’s potential and not oversell aquaculture as an aquatic animal protein panacea. Sure, it is fine to be optimistic and advocate for aquaculture development, but it helps no one to oversell what aquaculture can deliver.

We need to recognize that the level of understanding of aquaculture by the general public is superficial at best. Explanation of facts, objective reality and “truth” may or may not help the cause of developing a deeper understanding of aquaculture’s potential or an acceptance of locally sited projects. More often than not, it may be a matter of enlarging people’s frames of understanding so that the objective reality of aquaculture is accepted, a matter easier said than done.

Finally, we need to examine our own skewed perspectives and evaluate how they contribute to the problems of misinformation and bad policy choices. Professional aquaculturists have an important role to play in opening people’s minds to aquaculture without being heavy-handed or condescending. To realize the full potential of aquaculture, wherever it is conducted, balanced and realistic perspectives should be widely held by all.
— John A. Hargreaves, Editor-in-Chief


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About John A. Hargreaves

World Aquaculture - Editor in Chief. Aquaculture expert with 40 years of experience in research, teaching, and development. Freelance consultant on commercial aquaculture and international development projects.