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Diversification in aquaculture: lessons to be learnt

Rob Fletcher
Rob Fletcher
03 November 2017, at 8:23am

Dr Andrew Davie argues that, despite the struggles of Europe's cod and tuna aquaculture industries, there is still scope for the region’s fish farmers to diversify from the production of salmonid species.

A glance at FAO statistics might suggest that northern Europe’s aquaculture sector is quite diverse – circa 25 species of finfish were being farmed in the UK and Norway alone between 2010 and 2015.

Cleanerfish, such as these lumpfish fry, have proved one of the great diversification successes in European aquaculture.
Cleanerfish, such as these lumpfish fry, have proved one of the great diversification successes in European aquaculture.

© Rob Fletcher

However, over 98 percent of production volume and value is accounted for by salmonids, with Atlantic salmon representing about 95 percent of this. It is fair to assume that salmonid farming will remain the principal production focus in the region, but there is both an opportunity and an appetite for the niche production of alternative species. Moreover, diversification of fish production can improve the sustainability of protein supplies.

The Carbon Trust report “The Case for Protein Diversity”, published in 2015 and widely backed by a range of NGOs, not only provides a compelling argument in favour of diversification but also highlights the important roles that a range of stakeholders can play in helping diversification succeed. It is not the sole responsibility of an enterprising farmer to create a new market – there are roles for food manufacturers and retailers to promote diversity; governments have the ability to influence or mandate change; investors can provide the required financial support for innovation; influencers (including academics, NGOs and other opinion-formers) can promote diversity; but ultimately success will lie with the consumers accepting and, ideally, actively demanding diversity.

Cod and tuna: costly failures?

Sustainability is a key concern for consumers and is often used as an argument to support diversification in aquaculture. This is usually in association with securing an established market, as was the case for both bluefin tuna and Atlantic cod. In the case of the former, overexploitation of wild stocks in both hemispheres was widely recognised and thus it was relatively easy to justify significant funding for bluefin farming R&D. In the EU alone, over €5 million in grant support was spent over the past 16 years. This was very high-profile work, which received global recognition and reflected consumers’ appetite for the product. In 2009 tank-bred tuna was named as one of the year’s 50 best inventions by Time magazine.

The cod farming industry peaked in 2010, when 22,000 tonnes were produced
The cod farming industry peaked in 2010, when 22,000 tonnes were produced

However, the species proved very challenging to rear in captivity and, despite many advances, the closed-lifecycle farming of bluefin in Europe has collapsed, with only a few thousand juveniles being produced in 2016. Australian production has paused. Only in Japan does farming (of the Pacific bluefin species) seem to be flourishing. One of the main reasons for the success in Japan has been the concerted support for the development of the industry from a range of stakeholders, including government intervention through sustained grant aid to support farm development, in combination with significant reductions in juvenile bluefin quotas, directing the production focus towards closed-lifecycle farming (Van Beingnen 2017).

Atlantic cod farming was also built on a sustainability argument. At the turn of the millennium an opportunity was recognised in the UK, Norway and – to a degree – in North America as well, following falling wild catches, rising market prices and an established global market demand for the product. Thus, again with significant grant support, the industry expanded rapidly and, certainly within the UK context, it was the first real demonstration of the impact of concerted promotion by producers, retailers, investors and influencers. UK-farmed cod was clearly promoted as being the sustainable alternative to wild cod, right down to the principal producer’s name: No Catch. In the UK, the industry aspired to produce 30,000 tonnes per year, which equated to 10 percent of the national demand. However, at the industry’s peak, in 2010, global production reached just over 22,000 tonnes – a mere 2.5 percent of that year’s wild landings. While there remained a number of biological and technical challenges to overcome, one of the main drivers for the sector’s ultimate collapse was the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, which not only resulted in the collapse of investor support for the industry but also caused consumers to favour cheaper, wild-caught alternatives.

Although cod farming collapsed, it hasn’t completely disappeared. In 2016, 200,000 juveniles were stocked out in farms in Norway, with modest aspirations of harvesting 400-500 tonnes in 2017. This has only been possible through the sustained investment in the Norwegian National Cod Breeding Centre. While cod broodstock programmes were harvested out in all other countries, the Norwegian national breeding programme, hosted by Nofima, has been maintained since its inception in 2003. So, when a producer recognised a niche business case, it was possible to source juveniles and start production.

Lessons to be learned

The stories surrounding the culture of both tuna and cod contain a number of very valuable lessons that should be heeded for future diversification projects. Firstly, grant support at a national – and ideally international – level is essential for success. The risk associated with trying to domesticate a new species, along with significant capital and operational expenditures incurred in the early years, cannot be shouldered solely by private enterprises.

Juvenile supply is central to all “new species” projects. Without juveniles there is no industry, which is why so many grant-supported R&D diversification programmes aim to close the lifecycle and secure juvenile supply for the chosen species – the EU programmes like Prospawn, Diversify and the tuna-focused “DOTT” initiative to name just a few. The time, effort and investment at this stage is hard to recover, thus grant aid and collaborative research helps offset that loss, but productive broodstocks need to be maintained to keep the industry alive.

An important but much overlooked lesson relates to the choice of species. If consumers are the key to success then species choice should be directed towards those fish which are in the most limited supply. There were already high-volume supplies from established cod and tuna fisheries, so it was easy for consumers to ignore the farmed versions. Greater success lies in farming species with a truly restricted supply – after all, salmon and trout are products that once had a very limited and seasonal availability.

Success stories

In a similar vein, Atlantic halibut have been cultured in the UK and Norway for the past 20 years and, while a tiny sector compared to salmon farming, farmed halibut still represents almost a quarter of the global wild catch. In the UK, farmed harvest volume exceeds wild capture and so consumer demand remains loyal to the sector. In fact, growing demand has led to scope for expansion.

In the UK the volume of farmed halibut exceeds the volume caught in the wild.
In the UK the volume of farmed halibut exceeds the volume caught in the wild.

© Hugh Coulson

Gigha Halibut, in Argyll, has been a pioneer of energy-efficient land-based farming by pairing pump-ashore aquaculture facilities with renewable energy production. By moving onshore it is possible to expand within a production niche that minimises conflict with cage farming of salmon, which is the dominant industry in the region. Such a production model has a very real scope to expand and, with the right investor support, there is a goal to increase production over multiple land-based facilities.

Cleanerfish have provided the latest diversification story within the North Atlantic aquaculture sector. While they are obviously not farmed for protein diversification, the driver for expansion is again one of sustainability, due to the salmon-farming industry’s goal to be independent of wild-captured cleanerfish for parasite control.

Ballan wrasse and lumpfish farming really is an exercise in fast-track domestication; there is a concerted movement from all stakeholders to assure success. In terms of the research and development, risk is being offset with significant grant support both in the UK and in Norway and development has been further helped by a legacy of infrastructure from the cod-farming sector to soften the capital investment requirements. These are the first species to be developed where so many aspects are tackled in parallel rather than series – developing confidence and with it a significant level of expansion.

Future possibilities

So, the question remains: what new opportunities exist for diversification in the region? It goes without saying that the molluscan and algal sectors have considerable potential to expand, without conflicting with the salmonid industry. However, if I was to retain a focus on finfish I would suggest we need to concentrate on species that consumers want but cannot easily get. The logical extension of that argument would be that marine species are an easier sell, at least within the context of the UK consumer. However, that would risk conflict over production space, so perhaps we should consider our freshwater resource? The slow but steady increase in sturgeon farms to supply sustainable caviar is just one example in the UK of producers recognising opportunities in both markets and production locations.

Ultimately it must be recognised that – in countries like the UK, Norway and Ireland – Atlantic salmon farming is and will continue to be the dominant aquaculture industry. However, there is appetite for alternative farmed products, albeit on a smaller scale. Such niche production is the domain of micro- and small-scale enterprises, but while diversification is about reducing risk, making the decision to farm a new species is a significant gamble, especially for businesses of such scale. Past success and failures teach us that the value of collaborative development alongside long-term strategic support cannot be understated. 

This article was originally published in the Aqua Nor issue of Sustainable Aquaculture Magazine.  

About the author 

Dr Andrew Davie is a Senior lecturer in Zoology within the Breeding and Genetics group at the Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling. He has over 17 years of research experience working on environmental entrainment of fish physiology, broodstock management and the domestication of “new” marine fish species. He has worked with a wide range of species in the UK and overseas including cod, halibut, turbot, snook, seabass and most recently ballan wrasse and lumpsuckers. Email: andrew.davie@stir.ac.uk Twitter: @adavie_aqua