By Neil Anthony Sims*
One might have hoped for more, given the plight of our Oceans. An International New York Times cartoonist depicted our collective efforts as an eyedropper into an ocean of excuses.
Most deeply alarming was Professor Hough-Goldburg’s plenary presentation, which detailed the massive momentum of global climate change and ocean acidification, and the inevitability of these both to impact all life within the oceans. Hough-Goldburg was one of the lead authors on the recent International Panel on Climate Change report, which should have slapped awake anyone who has been dozing off during recent climate change discussions. The synopsis: it is going to get real ugly out there, folks.
The concept of “Blue Growth” -- innovative, sustainable ocean-related industries -- has been much bandied about of late, as a banner around which aquaculture, fisheries and marine conservation interests might jointly rally. At the Summit, however, the lion’s share of the focus was on restructuring fisheries for greater equitability, ensuring ownership rights and access for small-scale fisherfolk, empowering women in fisheries, and fully valuing the natural capital of our oceans. To be sure, these are all valid and valuable discussions. But are they avenues for Blue Growth?
The few fish farmers in attendance (one could count them on three fingers) felt a bit like red-headed step-children. A panel on Blue Bonds – i.e. financing mechanisms such as impact investing that could drive Blue Growth, and might be used to finance aquaculture – made not a single mention of aquaculture over the course of an hour and a half discussion (until your columnist asked the awkward question).
FAO – one of the sponsors of the Summit – repeatedly informs us of the disturbing proportion of wild fish stocks that are already being exploited at or above their Maximum Sustainable Yield. There would seem to be much that can be done in reallocation of fisheries resources, or improving efficiencies … but these actions would not lead to growth, per se. Any reader of this magazine – along with FAO and the World Bank (the other major Summit sponsor) -- already knows where future growth will come from, and where it must come from: aquaculture.
For many years, the conservation community was united in their anti-aquaculture stance. Gradually, the true NGO thought-leaders have come to see the potential for aquaculture to be better, and to do good, and they have “come out” to varying degrees. The World Wildlife Fund, under the visionary leadership of Jason Clay, recognized the need to be encouraging the right types of aquaculture, rather than besmirching the whole ball of wax, and hoping that fish farming just went away. From the resulting Dialogue process sprang the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which is now being recognized as the most rigorous metric of responsible aquaculture, and one that should be embraceable by all. The Nature Conservancy is also now moving towards a more collaborative model for working with the industry.
Most pivotal was Conservation International’s “Blue Frontiers” report (from 2012; compiled in conjunction with WorldFish Center). A copy of this should have been in every Summit participant’s hands, and we all should cite it often. This study consisted of an objective Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the ecological efficiencies of a whole range of animal proteins (beef, pork, chicken, fish). LCA is an analysis of water, land, energy and green-house gas emission impacts, and this study concluded that hands-down, far-and-away, aquaculture was the least impactful of all animal protein production systems (due largely to the methane and nitrous-oxide emissions from land animals).
This has broad and deep implications, given the growth in animal protein consumption that is projected with 3 billion global citizens rising into the middle class over the next few decades. As Professor Hough-Goldburg pointed out in the Summit Plenary, if these 3 billion start eating beef, the planet will be (to use the French) screwed. We therefore need to be creating desirable seafood products that are priced affordably, and that people choose to eat, rather than methane-pumping, nitrous-oxide emitting bovines and other beasts.
The large remainder of NGOs are now mostly silent on the need for aquaculture expansion, after the last few decades of denial. They still cling to the belief that only land-based culture systems are truly sustainable. The much-ballyhooed Fish 2.0 business competition for innovation in seafood – sponsored by many of the leading foundations in the field – explicitly excluded the culture of fish in net pens. (Huh? If you say a system is bad, then isn’t that where you would want to support innovation?!) And the economics of marine RAS systems are not yet fully proven at any meaningful scale. And freshwater fish – while a great source of protein to meet the needs of the planet’s poorer population – will not slake the growing desire for great-tasting marine fish fillets, and sushi. No-one would ever suggest we force the burgeoning middle class to settle for carp carpaccio, or catfish sushi, any more than we could or should mandate veganism, or bicycling to work.
This is why open ocean aquaculture needs to be a significant part of that future growth in aquaculture. Not just because we can. Though to be sure, expansion of commercial operations will be easier wherever there is opportunity to expand, less competition for ocean space, less need for land, water or energy, and where there is less potential for environmental impacts (i.e. further offshore). But more so, because the open ocean is where we can start to achieve efficiencies of scale with the tunas, groupers, snappers and yellowtails that people will want to eat instead of burgers. Abundant, scalable, increasingly affordable marine fish fillets could and should drive the shift in protein consumption patterns that we need, and might therefore offer some better hope to literally save the planet.
At some point in the future, growth in open ocean aquaculture will need to expand into Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ, or what used to be called High Seas). The Offshore Mariculture Conference in Izmir, Turkey, in 2012, had called for FAO to start examining the need for a regulatory structure for aquaculture in ABNJ, to help provide some certainty for future investors (in the face of increasing restrictions on other activities in the High Seas, such as “iron-seeding” experiments), and to prevent a repeat of the unbridled expansion in intensive cultivation, such as occurred in the 10th Region in Chile until ISA came calling. FAO was told by its member countries (who dictate FAO’s work plan) that High Seas aquaculture was not important; that it was 20 or 30 years away, if ever. Yet the Mediterranean has the idiosyncrasy of having only Territorial Seas, and no declared EEZs, so national jurisdiction ends, for many countries, a mere 6 Nm offshore.
Six miles?! Brian O’Hanlon’s Open Blue commercial cobia operation in Panama is already 8 Nm offshore, and he produced almost 1,000 tons last year. We at Kampachi Farms, in Kona, have an unmanned Aquapod pen on a single-point mooring 6 Nm offshore in 2,000 m of water, with feeding controlled from shore by an iPad. We know of at least one project which has plans within the next year to launch an offshore fish pen into the High Seas in the Mediterranean. The future is coming, and the world needs to be ready for it.
The subsequent Offshore Mariculture Conference in Naples, just prior to the Hague Summit, reiterated the plea from Izmir, for someone to start paying attention. The Global Ocean Action Summit in The Hague took note of this, and mentioned the need in the final Report. All we need now is some action.
Neil Anthony Sims is co-Founder and CEO of Kampachi Farms, LLC, based in Kona, Hawaii, and in La Paz, Mexico. He’s also the founding President of the Ocean Stewards Institute, and sits on the Steering Committee for the Seriola-Cobia Aquaculture Dialogue and the Technical Advisory Group for the WWF-sponsored Aquaculture Stewardship Council.