March 21, 2024

The future of aquaculture. The challenge of human resources.

After Aquaculture America 2024, held successfully in San Antonio, Texas, last month, I was reflecting on the needs to develop a sustainable industry that can increase production by 50% in the next 25 years. We all know that Asia is the main supplier of aquaculture products (around 90%). At the World Aquaculture Society, we are convinced that this represents an excellent opportunity to develop other regions and species and we must focus on strategies to achieve these goals.

My last column broached this subject, so we already discussed public policy, governance, investment needs, technology development and innovation. One major issue is that to increase production by more than 40 million tons we also need to incorporate qualified personnel in the value chain. Simple math would put the number of new human resources incorporating into the sector in the next 25 years at around 7 million. Are these people available already to work on demand? The simple answer is no. We can poach a little bit here and there (in finance, logistics, data analysis, transportation, marketing, etc.), but aquaculture is a special beast that requires specific profiles for successful commercial production. Where are these people going to come from? Obviously, you can transfer some managers from successful operations to new ones, but there is a limit.

So, most of the new human resources will come from the different regions where aquaculture develops next. This means Latin America, Africa, some regions in Asia and some development is also going to come from developed countries in Europe and America. What is the challenge? It takes time to train personnel, develop new scientists (new species and new regions represents different challenges, requiring specific knowledge to be developed) and managers to structure and grow new businesses. In other words, if, for example, Mexico were to act on its Master Plan for Aquaculture Development (a proposal I coordinated several years ago) and had the 6 billion dollars required to grow from 250,000 tons today to 1 million tons, you would not be able to do it immediately. The main challenge would be to (develop and) implement technologies at the commercial level, but also, who would be the industry recipient of those technologies?

A scientist requires 2-3 years for a master’s degree and 4 for a PhD, then 5 years to consolidate a specialty lab at a university or Science Institute (provided there are resources available), before being able to establish a research program focused on specific needs for a new aquaculture species and/or region. A basic group for an aquaculture program needs specialists in reproduction, nutrition, physiology, pathology, system design, production and later, genetics, genomics, immunology, bioeconomics, etc. The investment is significant in money and time, so public policy needs to be defined as soon as possible in countries willing to develop aquaculture (all?). Then, integration of this knowledge into a technology for a particular species is like a fish spine. You need talented people that can accommodate this knowledge puzzle to develop a specific technology. But once you have a technology, the challenge is still significant. While extension programs in some countries (i.e. USA), have been very successful for the Academic-Industry relationship, as sustainable production technologies become more complex (intensification, automation, use of data management for risk analysis) it requires better trained farm personnel. This establishes the need for more complete aquaculture training programs at community colleges and technical schools. Once again, time and resources are needed. Seven million trained people looks more and more like a significant challenge.

At the World Aquaculture Society, the Board of Directors is very focused on developing strategies to divulge knowledge from our members more effectively. Of course, the Annual World Meeting and the Regional Conferences are very important. Our open access Scientific Journal (JWAS) and the World Aquaculture Magazine are aimed at delivering up-to-date, state-of-the-art information for the industry. We recently began offering a free WAS Membership for all students wishing to belong to the Society. Presently, we have a very strong web page and interaction strategy dedicated 100% for students from all over the world to exchange information. At the meeting in San Antonio, we also decided that we need to improve our communication through social media and develop webinars showcasing our most influential members, so expect more news soon.

Early in the year, I had the opportunity to attend the Women in Ocean Food Studio event in La Paz, BCS, Mexico. Organized by HATCH Blue and Conservation International, it showcases projects in aquaculture led by women in Latin America. The first iteration was very strong, with more than 140 projects submitted for consideration. A very thoughtful presentation from Ms. Christina Walton set the stage for aquaculture development with purpose. The finalists showcased their businesses in several areas with very impressive presentations 

from Brazil, Columbia, Chile and Mexico, among other countries. The winners, the Guardians of the La Paz Bay, a group of strong women dedicated to oyster faming, showed why and how aquaculture has a great future and why we should support diversification. Presently the number of women involved in aquaculture is still limited, particularly in developing countries, facing substantive challenges including unfair gender norms (frequently cultural), limited access to assets, unpaid work, and barriers to sustaining entrepreneurship. The result is women having fewer opportunities.

Writing this I also realized how fortunate I am as President of WAS to lead a very diverse Board of Directors as their ideas are always very rich, incorporating all their experience. Another thing I realized is how strong our female Board Members and collaborators are. For example, when you talk to Yahira Piedrahita from Ecuador, you are receiving the pulse of the largest shrimp producing country in the world. If you listen to Angela Caporelli, the day-to-day needs of the American industry permeate. Shivan and Foluke bring so much knowledge about rural aquaculture development, the plight of the African producer, and the labor challenges of the Asian region. Nicole Rhody has been tirelessly working to provide a better information platform for our students. I hope we can soon get contributions from them for WAM, showing insights and perspective of the role of women in aquaculture development. I also invite our members to send your contributions in this and other topics and, as always, I encourage you as Members of our Society to identify areas where you can contribute to improve research, technology development and production innovation, and share your ideas and projects at our conferences and in our publications. Please contact me, or our Board, Chapter representatives and the World Aquaculture Magazine Editor, Prof. Greg Lutz, with your thoughts. I´m looking forward to meeting you at one of our next World Aquaculture or regional conferences. Cheers.

Humberto Villareal, President, World Aquaculture Society

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About Humberto Villarreal

Humberto is the Current President of the World Aquaculture Society. Biochemical Engineer from ITESM, Mexico with a PhD in Zoology from U. of Queensland, Australia, he has been a Senior Researcher and Postgraduate Lecturer at CIBNOR in La Paz, BCS, Mexico for over 35 years, leading national and international projects related to aquaculture, including the development of the Master Plan for Aquaculture Development in Mexico for the Federal Government. His main interests relate to bioenergetics models and the optimization of intensive systems to innovate commercial production of shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) and freshwater redclaw crayfish (Cherax quadricarinatus). He has been Director of Marine Biology, the Aquaculture Program (for 10 years) and BioHelis, the Innovation and Technology Park (10 years) at CIBNOR and is founder and/or consultant to several enterprises related to immunology, nutrition, intensive production and artificial intelligence data management for aquatic species.

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