The Food and Agriculture Organisation outlines the agreed definition of the ecosystem approach to fisheries (EAF).


Building an ecosystem approach to aquaculture

The purpose of EAA should be to plan, develop and manage the sector in a manner that addresses the multiple needs and desires of societies, without jeopardizing the options for future generations to benefit from the full range of goods and services provided by aquatic ecosystems. This implies the use of proper instruments, processes and structures to deal effectively with issues of environmental, social, technical, economic and political nature. Following the EAF and pursuing sustainable development, the EAA should have three main objectives within a hierarchical tree framework: i) insuring human well-being; ii) insuring ecological well-being; and iii) facilitating the achievement of both, i.e. effective governance.

Clearly, although building an ecosystem approach to aquaculture is not new, there is a need to develop a more coherent and practical framework mostly focusing on producing guidelines for policy-making which should reach beyond just the farm.

Proposed scales

FAO (2006), discussing the EAA as an emerging issue, proposed the following scales/ levels as relevant for its implementation/application: 1) at the farm level; 2) at the waterbody and its watershed/aquaculture zone; and 3) at the global, market-trade scale. The EAA framework should also apply to all productive scales (from small-scale to intensive, large scale farming) and should also consider temporal scales.

Proposed principles

The EAA should respond to sustainable development principles. There have been multiple initiatives and publications related to sustainable development and the use of natural resources; according to Muir (1996), this is a reaction against considering living resources as free goods, external to the development process. Jacobs et al. (1987) set five relevant requirements: integration of conservation and development, the satisfaction of basic human needs, the achievement of equity and social justice, the provision for social self-determination and cultural diversity and the maintenance of ecological integrity. An EAA should improve the acceptance of aquaculture by avoiding impairing ecosystem resilience and by offering new societal opportunities with equity. Therefore, it would be possible, for example, to apply/certify a comprehensive sustainable-label (S-Label) to aquaculture products which have followed EAA guidelines.

Indeed, current governance situation of aquaculture (and other sectors) in most countries and regions seems to be quite far from integrated management or having an ecosystem perspective (considering other users of aquatic systems) and there are very few examples of such approach (e.g. a strategy for ecologically sustainable development (ESD) in Australia3), therefore primary targets (but not only) for these efforts and for developing EAA guidelines are policy-makers.

In response to the explicit request of the Third Session of the Committee of Fisheries (COFI) Sub-Committee on Aquaculture to improve the management and enhance the socio-economic impacts of aquaculture, FAO-FIMA initiated an effort to look into the development and application of the ecosystem approach to aquaculture.

Several activities have been planned towards this objective including the workshop coorganized with the Universitat de les Illes Balears which took place from 7–11 May 2007 in Palma de Mallorca, Spain.

Workshop development and findings

The workshop consisted of plenary presentations and brainstorming discussions on a wide a variety of topics, including aquaculture production systems, ecosystem based management, economic and social implications, law and policy.

The FAO Secretariat introduced the workshop by presenting an overview of sustainability approaches in aquaculture and a proposition for an initial EAA framework. This information has been included here in the Background section. Several presentations were made thereafter. They covered a review of coastal, marine and freshwater aquaculture considering present situation regarding EAA implementation. Other papers covered the potential legal and policy implications of an EAA by addressing national and international issues and also the economic and social dimensions were discussed. Other presentations highlighted some of the practices and tools for implementing EAA. These included reviews on integrated mariculture in world temperate zones, in one enclosed ecosystem (the Mediterranean Sea) and in tropical regions of the world. Additional presentations discussed some tools which can be used to support the implementation of an EAA such as the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and the role and practicality of sustainability indicators. Thereafter, three working groups were formed to discuss concepts, principles and scales of EAA, as well as some management measures.

Major findings and agreements

The experts agreed on the following definition for EAA: “An ecosystem approach to aquaculture is a strategy for the integration of the activity within the wider ecosystem in such a way that it promotes sustainable development, equity, and resilience of interlinked social and ecological systems”. This definition essentially recaps that of the ecosystem-based management as proposed by the Convention on Biological Diversity and also takes into account the article 9 of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries (CCRF), referring to aquaculture.

The EAA should respond to three principles: i) Aquaculture should be developed in the context of ecosystem functions and services (including biodiversity) with no degradation of these beyond their resilience capacity, ii) Aquaculture should improve human well-being and equity for all relevant stakeholders; and iii) Aquaculture should be developed in the context of (and integrated to) other relevant sectors. Experts agreed on three scales/levels of EAA application: the farm; the relevant waterbody and its watershed and the global, market-trade scale while the policy level scale previously proposed in the workshop prospectus was felt to be cross cutting.

Additionally, experts identified some aquaculture practices which policy-makers could use when promoting EAA. These include: integrated aquaculture in general and integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA) in particular; ecosystem-based approaches for mitigating negative impacts of aquaculture; inter-sectoral integration when appropriate; broadening stakeholders participation; use of appropriate incentives; use of local and other relevant knowledge; and promotion of EAA-specific research (e.g. estimate carrying capacity at farm level, at the level of the aquaculture zone, the region, etc.).

Current status of the Aquaculture sector and possibilities for the EAA implementation: contributed papers

The contributed papers offer a broad spectrum of issues and facts which can be extremely useful in the developing of EAA guidelines. Definitions, principles, scales and management measures achieved by the experts are presented by Soto et al. (pp. 15–35). Social implications of EAA are analyzed by Bailey (pp. 37–46), economic implications are dealt with by Knowler (pp. 47–65) and the legal implications of an EAA are discussed by Bermúdez (pp. 67–79). Two review papers offer a global perspective on the current situation and perspectives for implementation of EAA. Marine and coastal systems are reviewed by Costa-Pierce (pp. 81–115) while freshwater systems are reviewed by Hambrey, Edwards and Belton (pp. 117–173).

Bailey (2008) analyses the social implications of EAA and argued that social and biophysical dimensions of ecosystems are inextricably related such that a change in one dimension is highly likely to generate a change in the other, he also indicates that an ecosystem approach to aquaculture cannot follow a precise blueprint, which is why the concept of adaptive management is important. He identifies seven issues that are directly related to resilience of social systems including i) entrepreneurial opportunity and employment generation; ii) gender relations; iii) economic diversification; iv) infrastructural development; v) food supply; vi) user conflicts; and vii) balances in wealth, income, and power. There are examples worldwide of aquaculture activities where some of these issues are considered properly but in general, greater efforts must be done particularly at the level of policy-making.

EAA also implies looking at the economics of aquaculture production from a broader social and environmental perspective. Knowler (2008) proposes the use of an agroecosystem framework. He introduces the concept of marginal opportunity cost, which measures what society must give up to obtain a little more of some particular good or service (e.g. farmed shrimp) recognizing the full set of costs incurred from production, regardless of where they occur or on whom they fall. Hence this captures the idea of an EAA from an economic perspective. The paper also recognizes that it is difficult to “internalize externalities” without a better idea of the extent of the externalities at issue. The author concludes with a plea for more and better valuation estimates but also recognizes a need for evaluations of the effectiveness of such exercises.

Bermúdez (2008) calls for a sound reflection about the implementation of EAA from a legal perspective, indicating the need for an integration of scientific, practical, economic and social aspects. EAA legislation will have to consider some specific “principles” such as: i) a holistic, multidisciplinary approach; ii) avoiding unnecessary complexity of measures which might paralyze aquaculture activity; iii) the consideration of “two-speed aquaculture”, that is, the fast developing industrial aquaculture, and the slower, smaller, rural and family-type aquaculture. The diversity of aquaculture practices worldwide, with different production scales, represents a challenge in devising appropriate legal solutions. Effective law enforcement and the need to adapt to specific conditions may be another challenge to be faced by governments as well as by local management.

The global reviews provide an in depth view of current practices both in marine areas and in freshwater. Costa-Pierce (2008) analyses the global status of mariculture and finds that overall, there is a great deal of global, multidisciplinary research and development information and good progress towards an ecosystem approach at the farm level which can inform managers. At the commercial level, there has been a notable transition globally towards an EAA in the industrial/commercial sector for two, major commodities – molluscs and shrimp – over the past ten years. At the commercial scale for marine finfish, there is some progress but not enough towards an ecosystem approach globally. There are few technological or scientific issues remaining to implement an EAA. His review finds that scarce participatory processes, poor understanding of social sustainability requirements, and poor governance hinders the widespread adoption of an ecosystem approach to aquaculture, which will require a much tighter coupling of science, policy, and management.

Through literature review and eighteen case studies Hambrey, Edwards and Belton (2008), address the relevance of the ecosystem approach to freshwater aquaculture (mainly in Asia). Case studies include some examples where aquaculture has threatened sustained delivery of ecosystem services including biodiversity. Extensive and semiintensive systems typically have a lesser effect over a greater area; while intensive systems usually have a more severe but more localised effect. As the authors point out, their case studies suggest that inland aquaculture generally improves human well-being and equity. Aquaculture generates employment for the poor, economic activity from the sale of low as well as high-value species in national and in some cases international markets, and low-cost fish for domestic consumption.

Benefits generated through employment of the poor in the supply, processing and distribution chain can be substantial and significantly greater than those directly associated with small-scale farming. The authors recognize that to implement the ecosystem approach will require the development of institutions and associated integrated management systems which can deliver such an approach at realistic and practical scales, taking full account of the needs and impacts of other sectors, and this is a huge challenge. The key is to develop institutions capable of integration, especially in terms of shared agreed objectives and standards.

Further Reading

- You can view the Building an ecosystem approach to aquaculture report by clicking here.

March 2009

the Fish Site Editor

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