Sutchi catfish, darling of the sea, shark catfish, the next big thing - these are just some of the names the media has attributed to pangasius, a type of catfish farmed in South East Asia. It has been said that it tastes like priced salmon but is more profitable than tilapia, and recent statistics say that it might just be living up to its big reputation.
The pangasius is an enormous fish, reaching up to 130cm in length and weighing up to 44 kilogrammes. The farming of this fish is one of the fastest growing types of aquaculture in the world. In the last decade is has become endemic on the Vietnamese side of the Mekong Delta - 90 per cent of global pangasius farming occurs here and 1.1 million tonnes of the fish were produced in 2008 alone. The rapid boom of this industry emerges in sharp contrast to the poultry 10,000 tonness produced in 1995.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, the growth in pangasius aquaculture is driven, in large part, by the dramatic increased demand for tra and basa in the marketplace. Whilst originally consumed only by the local Vietnamese, it is now sold to more than 130 countries worldwide. It is the economically fruitful European countries which now dominate the export market taking a share of 35 per cent. It seems the future success of pangasius is already set.
However, as with any rapidly growing activity, concerns about negative social and environmental repercussions have been raised. Other aquaculture industries have waded into trouble with short-sighted and greedy expansion practices. Bogged down by their own pollution, the spread of diseases and unfair labour practices, many are beginning to realise what they should have done from the onset: prevention is easier than the cure. It is hoped that pangasius will avoid this fate, serve as a role-model for farmers of future fish species to come and last as a sustainable source of seafood where others in the market may fail.
In order to achieve this goal a multi-stakeholder process called the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD) is looking to create a measurable, performance-based set of standards for the industry. Recently they released the first draft standards which revolve around three core areas: standard setting; accreditation; and Certification.
The purpose of the standards, as agreed by the stakeholders involved, is to "provide a means to measurably improve the environmental and social performance of pangasius aquaculture development and operations." They will involve the participation of supply chain inputs and production systems, whilst also covering the processing sector and the chain of custody. However, the most serious impacts of pangasius farming take place on the farm itself. The ponds, the pens and the cages will succumb to the most stringent control measures.
A Quick Breakdown of the Standards
Issue 1: Legal compliance
According to the draft standards, pangasius aquaculture operations must, at a minimum, respect and adhere to national and local laws. The PAD may develop sustainability standards beyond those required by law, but the basis for aquaculture must be compliance with the legal requirements of the producing country.
Issue 2: Land and water use
The responsible use of land and water resources is fundamental to sustainable pangasius aquaculture, says the standards. The siting, design and construction of pangasius farms often have a negative impact on other users and the environment.
Practices should not result in the loss of wetland habitat. It is also important that pangasius aquaculture does not adversely affect the hydrological regime in the area by restricting water movement in such a way that aquatic animal movements and other users are adversely affected. The level of water use is also a major concern and must be managed to remain within reasonable limits.
Issue 3: Water pollution and waste management
Pangasius aquaculture can have a negative effect on water quality, particularly when the farming leads to excess effluents and nutrients in pond sediments. The standards claim it is important to control ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorous and Biological Oxygen Demand by developing specific water quality standards and monitoring practices.
Sludge and dead fish from ponds should be removed and disposed of properly. It is necessary to ensure that this waste does not impact the environment.
Issue 4: Genetics
Pangasius aquaculture raises a number of important issues in relation to genetics, such as: impacts to indigenous species; the importance of preventing escapes; the need to maintain genetic diversity; and the problems of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and hybridization.
The use of GMOs and hybrid seed creates additional issues regarding genetic pollution and impacts on farm stocks and wild populations. These impacts can be prevented by avoiding the use of GMOs and hybrid seed.
Issue 5: Feed management
The use of fish feed in all forms of aquaculture, is a key issue of concern. Concerns center around the sustainability of fishmeal and fish oil sources as well as ensuring that the amount of fish used in feed does not exceed the amount of pangasius produced. In addition, the practice of using locally sourced fish to feed directly to pangasius can have impacts on the environment and biodiversity.
The direct use of fish and fish products to feed pangasius is an unacceptable practice. If fish products are to be used in the manufacturing of feed, they should be from a sustainable source, should not be from a fishery where unacceptable levels of by-catch are caught and should not pose a threat to endangered species. On-farm feeding management and feeding efficiency are important to achieving the efficient use of available feed resources.
Issue 6: Health management, veterinary medicines and chemicals
Managing the health of farmed pangasius stocks depends on the overall management of the farm, including the reasonable, responsible use of veterinary medicines and chemicals. Regular monitoring of fish for stress or disease and the proper removal and disposal of mortalities are important components of implementing a plan to ensure optimal fish health and reducing the impact of diseases on other farms and the environment, says the draft standards.
Veterinary medicines and chemicals may play an important role in maintaining fish health and survival, but their use should be restricted to those approved for aquaculture applications by the country of production and those which are not banned for use in food fish by the importing country. Fish stocking density may be an important element of maintaining fish health and welfare.
Issue 7: Social responsibility and user conflict
Pangasius aquaculture can be undertaken in a socially responsible manner that ensures the operations benefit farm workers and local communities, says the standards. The labour rights of pangasius workers are important and farm work conditions should ensure that employees are treated and paid fairly.
Regular communication and consultation can build trusting relationships with local communities and prevent or minimise conflicts. The farms should contribute to poverty alleviation and food security so that there are net benefits to the local community.
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