SEAFOOD FOR THOUGHT: Sustainable Aquaculture – it’s a thing

Aquaculture (or aquatic farming) is set to be the primary form of seafood production in less than a decade, surpassing all wild-based fisheries with the same rapid growth (FAO 2016). By that time, about 60% is expected to be freshwater (inland) and the other 40% ocean based (marine and brackish).

In the aquaculture arena, there are generally two factors to consider when thinking about aquaculture. First is the environment in which a species is cultivated: freshwater, marine, or brackish. Second is the species being cultivated: finfish (carnivorous, omnivorous, or herbivorous), crustacean, mollusc, or seaweed. Depending on what you quantify as an ‘impact’ will determine the relative ‘goodness’ of the system (my quotes are warning you that it is relative and there are trade-offs…sorry). So, for instance, closed-freshwater fish aquaculture (e.g., tanks) can filter/treat pollution and keep species isolated from the wild, but requires significantly more freshwater, energy, and space as a result. Perhaps this is a suitable trade-off for some species. However, we will most likely never see a tuna farm on land anytime soon. And this is the trade off – of the animals we like to consume, finfish rule (e.g., salmon, tuna) and capture fisheries cannot meet the demand alone. Moreover, many of the fishes with the greatest human health benefits (higher omega-3s) are from the marine environment.

Until recently, marine-based production has been given the proverbial ‘thumbs-down’ by general certification programs (e.g., Seafood Watch – which is currently being updated as we speak) and numerous environmental groups. Much of the opposition appears to centralize around the ‘usual suspects’ of bad practices – pollution, disease, parasites, use conflicts, and impacts on wildlife (Fig. 1). While these can happen, they are not a certainty, nor do they necessarily co-occur. What I mean is, if aquaculture is sited and managed well these issues can be mitigated and/or greatly reduced; which is true for every food system, including fishing and agriculture. For example, fellow colleagues and I conducted a review of the offshore aquaculture literature (70 papers) and uncovered there is still a lot of research that needs to be done, but that by in large, offshore practices appear to promote higher levels of production and significant reductions in pollution, disease, and parasites by simply placing farms in slightly farther, deeper, and higher flow conditions (Froehlich et al. 2017). Yet, the distinction between practices and potential for minimizing impacts in a larger food context are rarely considered or discussed.


Figure 1. The most frequently (word per submission) used negative (A) and positive (B) word associations from government elicited public comments. Depicted frequencies from 2011 USA Marine Aquaculture Policy (dark gray), 2008 USA Offshore Aquaculture Gulf of Mexico (GOM) regulatory plan (black), 2011 NZ Policy Legislation Bill (No. 3) for marine farming (light gray), and the 2009 NZ expansion plan for salmon farming (white) in Marlborough marine waters. Figure from Froehlich et al. 2017. Public Perceptions of Aquaculture: Evaluating Spatiotemporal Patterns of Sentiment around the World. PLOS ONE 12, 1: e0169281. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0169281.

New research (including my own) is coming to light about the benefits aquaculture production can have compared to other forms of protein systems, like livestock and fishing. This includes reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (Tilman and Clark 2014), reduction in feed and space requirements (Gentry et al. in review; Froehlich et al. in prep), and potential for ecosystem services. The latter is particularly interesting in that raising species like oysters and seaweed (primarily marine species) can clean our waters, sequester carbon, and may even provide suitable habitat for wild species. However, research on aquaculture benefits outside of production is limited, but deserves our attention – both from a scientific and consumer perspective (but of course funding is needed to do that…which is easier said than done these days).

Aquaculture is and will continue to be part of the growing food market. So what can we do as everyday fish-lovers? What is ‘sustainable’? Well, there are two prominent certification programs tackling some of that: Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) – look for these labels and ask for these standards in grocery stores and restaurants:

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Both organizations provide information on their certification criterion and a list of all their certified farms and associated species. Even easier, they list the retailers and foodservices that carry certified farmed seafood (BAP, ASC). In addition, some seafood companies are specifically sourcing from only certified farms (e.g., Love The Wild) and are being very transparent about where and what species are being sold for consumption. In the end, aquaculture, just like other food practices, can have greater impacts if improperly managed. However, if science, policy, and the public study and demand sustainable practices in the sector we can mitigate and minimize how we produce not just seafood, but protein as a whole.


1. FAO. “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016 (SOFIA).” Contributing to Food Security and Nutrition for All. Rome, Italy, 2016.
2. Tilman, David, and Michael Clark. “Global Diets Link Environmental Sustainability and Human Health.” Nature 515, no. 7528 (November 27, 2014): 518–22. doi:10.1038/nature13959.
3. Froehlich, H.E., A. Smith, R.R. Gentry, B.S. Halpern. in review. Offshore aquaculture: I know it when I see it. Frontiers in Mar. Sci.
4. Gentry et al. in review. Mapping the Global Potential for Marine Aquaculture. Nature Eco. Evo.

SEAFOOD FOR THOUGHT: You can’t have ‘Farm to Table’ without the farm

Is this organic? Free-range? Grass fed? These questions about our food are relatively common place, especially in the United States. In fact, an entire movement of ‘Farm to Table’ has gained enough traction to warrant inclusion in food business models and marketing campaigns. However, the main focus typically falls squarely on land-based foods, like chickens and cows, while seafood has garnered less attention.

Where and how seafood ends up on your plate is convoluted (see my last post for more details), but the socially recognized food categorizations don’t really reflect the intricacies. One common, general distinction is ‘farmed vs. wild.’ Farmed (aka aquaculture) seafood refers to organisms raised in aquatic environments (ocean, lakes, tanks), while wild seafood is capture based (aka fishing/hunting). Notably, public consensus appears to favor wild over farmed because of perceived health and naturalness (that’s a word right?). Whether this is a founded concern depends on the farm and the animal (just like land-based farming!), and will be the focus of my next blog topic (SPOILER: aquaculture can be done responsibly).

The public may perceive aquaculture less favorably, yet their increased consumption of farmed raised seafood speaks volumes. Aquaculture now contributes to a little over 50% of all seafood worldwide. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that by 2025 the majority of seafood we consume will come from aquaculture (Fig. 1); appearing to be mostly motivated by price and general unawareness of aquatic farming. Yet, our continual increase in seafood consumption from aquaculture should motivate the consumer to ask “where it came from.” We need a little Portlandia in our seafood traceability conversation.


Figure 1. Relative contribution of capture fisheries and aquaculture towards what we consume now and in 10 years. Figure from FAO (2016) Global Fish report.

Traceability is a huge issue. In the United States, most of the seafood we consume is not from here; the majority comes from China (Figure 2). In fact, about 90% of US seafood is imported. As a result, importing most of our seafood makes it exceedingly difficult to know how a species was farmed (or caught), returning us to ‘Farm to Table’ (or lack thereof) for aquaculture.


Figure 2. Seafood trade flows of North & Central America (share of total 2014 imports). Figure from FAO (2016) Global Fish report.

Aquaculture plays a major role in meeting global seafood demands. Love it or hate it, without it you most likely would not be enjoying that reasonably priced salmon or that non-seasonal shrimp cocktail. Yet, the motivations that drive us to consider our land-based food sources are not being applied as strongly to our seas. The United States has made great strides to improve our capture fisheries, but we rank 17th in aquaculture production; just behind the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (FAO 2016). As a result, the ‘Farm to Table’ construct, at least in the USA, is currently near impossible to achieve.

Societal trade-offs are at the heart of this discussion. Aquaculture, like all other food production industries, had a rough start that had a severe impact on the environment and public opinion (rightfully so). However, much like fisheries and other farming approaches, aquaculture production has greatly improved in many areas and has bright prospects if science and policy can support sustainable growth. In the United States we devote comparatively little support to aquaculture research and regulation improvements, yet we continue to source and consume farmed seafood without knowing where it is from or the impacts it is having on the environment. In the end, we can’t have ‘Farm to Table’ without the farm.

SEAFOOD FOR THOUGHT: What fish should I eat?

MR_picFish market display in San Sebastian, Spain Photo Credit: Michael Rust

The filet is the perfect salmon color, with strategically placed grill marks and chutney to die for. The smell and taste are even more transcendent. The restaurant had prepared one of the best salmon dishes I had ever eaten. However, before my fork even touched my mouth I had done something I think few people do: I Googled the type of fish I was eating. It was a sustainably farmed Atlantic salmon from Skuna Bay, Canada (Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Aquaculture Practices certified).

As a marine and fisheries ecologist I have an invested interest in my seafood, and sustainability is the name of the game. Now, I literally got a degree in the matter, so when people ask me – and it happens at least once a month – “What fish should I eat?” it pains me that I don’t have a simple answer. Of course, I can dive into the numerous eco-labels that tout ‘sustainability,’ which can come to mean many different things depending on the certification criteria. Or, I can pontificate about not really knowing which stock (i.e., genetically distinct and/or managed population) or farm the fish is from; especially since most (~90%) of our seafood we consume is not from the United States. Fundamentally, these details are important, but I think it ends up causing bewilderment and/or apathy in choosing seafood, which results in stymied change in the market for sustainable products.

Focusing on the restaurant environment, I think support for sustainable seafood needs to be, initially, abridged by consumers simply asking for some evidence of sustainability and restaurants being transparent about their practices. I came to this conclusion based on my current research efforts, my personal appetite for fish and love of restaurants, and my own curiosity around the sustainable seafood in my area, Santa Barbara, California.

After eating at one of the most openly sustainable (and delicious) seafood restaurants in Santa Barbara (Kanaloa Seafood), I wondered how many other restaurants provided the same transparency. So, being the nerd that I am, I spent the weekend researching and compiling data on the top ‘Google’ and ‘Yelp’ seafood restaurants and whether they provided any indication of sustainable seafood practices. After a few hours of digging, I had evaluated 20 different establishments. Although not an exhaustive list – I do have a scientific-fish day job – I was disappointed to find little to no mention of efforts to serve sustainably caught or raised seafood (Fig. 1). In fact, only 4 of the 20 restaurants mentioned ‘sustainability’ anywhere on their website, and only 3 of those 4, Kanaloa being one of them, provided any details about their standards. Some of these restaurants might very well buy and serve sustainable fish. In fact, on previous dining occasions at two of the restaurants I was verbally told they bought sustainable, but I had to make a concerted effort to find out and few details were offered. How can a patron make informed decisions if they don’t even know the options are out there?


Figure 1. Results of twenty Santa Barbara, CA restaurants providing evidence on their websites of sustainable seafood.

The current seafood standards in Santa Barbara may seem somewhat bleak, but there is optimism to be had. Groups and organizations like Local and Seasonal Seafood Program and Salty Girl Seafood, Inc. are setting the stage and creating the market for sustainable options from our oceans. Moreover, grocery stores around the area do sell sustainable options. My beef (or seafood?) is with the amazing restaurants in the area that could be a mechanism for more information and change.

In the bigger context, caring about sustainability most certainly varies at the city, state, and country level. I moved from Seattle, Washington where people and the restaurants take their fish very seriously. In my new town that I’m starting to love, I simply want to see some of the lessons from my field of research align more prominently in the public. Our oceans may be our best option to feed the projected population of 10 billion people, and how the fish were caught or farmed has huge implications for the environment. So, the next time you look to dig into that delicious seafood dish, ask your waiter, “Is this sustainable?” It’s a really good place to start.

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Further Readings:

  1. What seafood is OK to eat, anyway? Ask an expert
  2. Expanding the concept of sustainable seafood using Life Cycle Assessment
  3. Can Consumers Understand Sustainability through Seafood Eco-Labels? A U.S. and UK Case Study