5 keys to making sustainable aquaculture mainstream

  • Monica Jain
  • April 17, 2019

Farmed fish is a viable solution to huge market demand for seafood, and recent innovations point the way to doing it better

Underwater robots roving about as ranch hands of the sea, their electronic eyes recording the health, size, and numbers of fish swimming in offshore corrals. Automatic feeders activated by the sound of hungry shrimp. UV light, ultrasound, and other drug-free treatments that keep salmon in the pink.

These are just a few of the innovations making aquaculture one of the most intriguing corners of the food world right now — for entrepreneurs, investors, food purveyors, and eaters alike. With demand for seafood around the world surging well beyond the capacity of wild fisheries, sustainable aquaculture growth is both a necessity and a compelling opportunity. Plenty of smart people see that, which is why fish farming innovations are moving rapidly from university labs to investor portfolios.

“But wait — isn’t farmed fish bad?” you may be thinking. That’s what literally everyone outside the seafood sector says when I bring up aquaculture’s potential. But that’s sooo 1990s, like thinking that coffee and dark chocolate can’t possibly be ethically produced and even good for us. All aquaculture can be sustainable, and some is actually regenerative (oyster farming, for one, cleans water and improves climate resilience in coastal areas). Raised right, farmed fish is good — good tasting, good for your health, and in line with good resource management. 

Charting a new course with fit fish, smart farms

Of course, farmed fish haven’t always been raised right and some still aren’t. But what most people don’t realize is that aquaculture is a speck of an industry compared with agriculture. Aquaculture is growing, at a rate of 5.8 percent annually, and produced 80 million metric tons of food in 2016. Yet in the U.S., agriculture uses 914 million acres versus marine aquaculture’s mere 213,000 acres. This is a ship that’s small enough for us to fully turn around and grow sustainably. We could increase production tenfold and still not use even close to 1 percent of the space U.S. agriculture requires.

A transformation in aquaculture’s productive capacity and sustainability is already happening. Meeting five big technical challenges is critical to realizing aquaculture’s potential as a clean protein — and creative solutions are bubbling up in every category.

1. Better fish feeds: If we want aquaculture to relieve pressure on wild fisheries, we can’t keep harvesting so many small wild fish to feed farmed fish. To kick the habit, we need to improve the nutritional qualities of alternative feeds. One promising path that’s attracting startups as well as agribusinesses: protein feed made from bacteria that chow down on industrial byproducts like methane (which we need to get rid of) and ethanol. Feeds based on algae, soybeans, oil seed, and insects are also in the mix.

2. Foolproof farms: To safeguard coastal environments, we need to move more fish farming to on-land recirculating systems or offshore ocean farms. New closed systems under development sit in the open ocean, yet tightly control water exchange. That reduces the risk of diseases and escapes, turning farms into “Aquatraz” — tight enclosures where fish can’t escape to mix with wild populations.

A significant move offshore also requires new technologies to cope with long distances, rough seas, and dangerous diving conditions. We’re already seeing robots that can report on fish health, fix frayed nets, and remove waste. Combine that with automatic feeding and applications for artificial intelligence, computer vision, sensors, and Internet of Things platforms, and we’re looking at a new age of precision aquaculture, with less waste and higher production levels.

3. Fitter fish. Whether it’s sea lice on salmon, white spot syndrome in shrimp, or oyster herpes, diseases are the bane of aquaculture. And as with humans, prevention is the best cure. Land-based and offshore farms will help. In coastal areas, multispecies farms that integrate filter feeders (oysters or mussels) with finfish and photosynthesizers (like seaweed) have heartier populations.

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