By Javier Ojeda*
Growth stopped and for some species, a steady decline started, even though at the time European aquaculture offered high quality products and operated under strict environmental, animal health and consumer protection standards. That this change in trajectory happened as the year 2000 arrived hopefully had no cabalistic reason.
Aquaculture producers were quickly able to point out reasons for this downturn, but it has taken almost 15 years for public administrations and politicians to accept the obvious: red tape and unreasonable licensing time have put the brakes on European aquaculture, while it continues to grow in other parts of the world.
The value of EU aquaculture production is presently over €3.8 billion (USD$4.8 billion) with 1.26 million tons of production, mainly mussels (Mytilus spp.), rainbow trout (Onchorynchus mykiss), Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), oysters (Crassostrea gigas), gilthead Sea Bream (Sparus aurata) and European Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus labrax).
Last year, the European Commission published its Strategic Guidelines for the Sustainable Development of EU aquaculture. This bold document mentions several priority areas that should be addressed in order to unlock the potential of EU aquaculture. First, the simplification of administrative procedures in an industry in which administrative costs and lead-time play an important role in determining overall competitiveness and development. In several EU Member States authorization procedures take more than 2-3 years to be completed. Secondly, the sustainable development of aquaculture can only be secured through coordinated spatial planning, which is not properly conducted at present, in order to reduce uncertainty and facilitate investment. And third, although the very high environmental, animal health and consumer protection standards that are implemented in EU aquaculture operations should be a positive competitive asset when marketing to European consumers, these standards are a heavy burden for producers, given that 60% of all seafood consumed in Europe is imported and not produced to those same standards.
Based on this situation, the EU has placed the development of aquaculture high in its revised Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) agenda for the 2014-2020 period. However, it has been fishery issues, like discards and maximum sustainable yields, which have captured the headlines. Nevertheless, aquaculture is expected to contribute to the preservation of the food production potential on a sustainable basis throughout the Union to guarantee long-term food security, growth and employment for Union citizens, and to contribute to meeting the growing world demand for aquatic food.
As for Governance, the Common Fisheries Policy establishes the creation of a European Aquaculture Advisory Council (AAC) for stakeholder consultation on elements of Union policies which could affect aquaculture. This body will provide advice to the European Commission, to the European Parliament and to Member States. The AAC will take over the role of the prior Advisory Committee for Aquaculture (ACFA) and will broaden the participation of stakeholders for better governance.
In order to strengthen the competitiveness of the European aquaculture sector, and for simplification in support of better management of its production and marketing activities, a new Common Market Organization (CMO) for fishery and aquaculture products will try to ensure a level playing field for all aquatic products marketed in the Union - regardless of their origin. This CMO should enable consumers to make better informed choices and support responsible production and consumption, and should improve the economic knowledge and understanding of Union markets along the supply chain.
Finally, the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) will be established to promote a competitive, environmentally sustainable, economically viable and socially responsible fisheries and aquaculture sector. This fund will have at its disposal a €7.4 billion (USD$9.3 billion) budget in current prices for the 2014-2020 period. Investment in aquaculture, for both private development and collective actions, is perceived as one of the main priorities of the new fund. This financial support will find complementary initiatives in “Horizon 2020,” the biggest EU Research and Innovation program ever undertaken, with nearly €80 billion (USD$100 billion) of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020), some of which will be directed towards research in aquaculture.
The re-launching of European aquaculture is not assured in the new political scenario, but the signs are positive. Improvements in governance at local and regional levels are still required, but a new era could be starting for aquaculture in the European Union.
Javier Ojeda has been involved in aquaculture production since 1989. He has worked in several fish farms in Spain and Ireland, mainly with gilthead sea bream, European sea bass and Atlantic salmon. He has also worked as an aquaculture consultant and is the general secretary of APROMAR, Spain’s marine aquaculture farmer’s association.