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In May this year Australia's abalone farmers took an international lead role in developing environmental sustainability practices among the rapidly expanding global aquaculture industries, writes Dr Ann Fleming, Chair, Australian Abalone Growers Association.

During a two day dialogue with the global conservation group, the World Wildlife Fund, the key environmental impacts of abalone aquaculture were identified. Further dialogues are planned for South Africa early 2009 and Chile after that. The meeting in Melbourne was the first step towards the development of globally accepted standards that aim to reduce or eliminate the major impacts on the environment, ensuring biosecure and environmentally sustainable operations in every aspect of aquaculture production.

The Australian abalone aquaculture industry actively sought this strategic partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and the national peak industry body, the National Aquaculture Council to drive self regulation across the entire Australian industry. The Dialogue saw a coming together of producers, buyers, NGOs and other key industry stakeholders, each of whom had a role in developing industry -wide 'best practice' processes that ultimately will be adopted globally.

The Dialogue is an important step in the WWF objectives of developing standards that will minimize or eliminate the environmental and social issues that currently impact the aquaculture industry, which are relatively minimal for this industry, according to the WWF. The standards will be used as the basis for an aquaculture eco-label to be given to an existing or new certification entity to manage.

The Australian Abalone Growers Association is fully committed to sustainability as it sees the growth and viability of the industry intrinsically linked to the need to protect the environment; protect the wild stocks of abalone in surrounding waters to ensure their health and sustainability; and to protect the sustainability of abalone aquaculture businesses from devastating environmental events.

Aquaculture is the fastest growing animal food producing sector globally with most recent reports showing current production at a record 157.5 million tonnes. The aquaculture sector now accounts for 40 per cent of total fisheries production worldwide, with growth averaging 8.8 per cent a year since 1970. The FAO estimates that by 2030 an additional 37 million tonnes of fish a year will be needed to maintain current per person levels of fish food consumption. Given the limited room for expansion in wildcatch fisheries, the majority of this additional supply will mainly be sourced from aquaculture. But the FAO cautions that sound environmental management will be necessary to sustain and enhance aquaculture's growth.

Alongside the rapid global growth in aquaculture is an increasing demand from seafood consumers to develop sustainable production methods, including demands for labelling of products to show producer's environmental credentials.

In 2008 abalone aquaculture has emerged as one of the fastest growing agribusiness sectors in Australia. With 850 tonne production in 2006/7, worth $42.5 million to the Australian economy, this is estimated to grow to 1500 tonne over the next five to ten years, worth $75 million. While the sector is still a small percentage of total aquaculture production, sustainability is seen as key to future growth through gaining acceptance from the general community and consumers, both locally and internationally.

The Australian abalone aquaculture industry's focus on biosecurity and environmental sustainability has ramped up since the 2006 outbreak of the viral disease Ganglioneuritis which has seriously impacted farms across parts of southern Australia. The outbreak has also had an environmental impact on the abalone stocks in the surrounding waters, severely affecting the financial viability of the local wild fisheries.

Since then industry members, in close partnership and with the financial backing of the Victorian government's Department of Primary Industries, has driven the implementation of a biosecurity protocol, disease surveillance program, and translocation protocol for its industry. Many farmers have taken this further and pursued environmental certification for their individual businesses through ISO 14001 or the Australian standard the Environmental Sustainable Development framework. The farming sector anticipates that the wild fishery and processing sectors are also focused on managing their environmental risks to ensure no weak links remain that may impact on the environment in the future.

Disease is an ever present risk for intensive farming industries and for aquaculture may well become more so over the next decade as seawater temperatures rise due to climate change. Prevention of disease through early detection is the best defence and that is why the Australian industry is rolling out disease surveillance programs and biosecurity measures across the country.

In addition the Australian federal government has engaged the abalone farming and wild industries to assist in the development of a national emergency disease response plan for aquatic animals that will oversee the implementation of national standards for surveillance and biosecurity and a coordinated planned response to disease events bringing in trained personnel and resources to adequately combat and contain the disease. The farming industry sees this as an important additional layer of risk management to their preventative measures as a planned and well resourced response will limiting the spread and severity of a disease event and thus the environmental and economic impacts.

As the national representative body of the abalone farming industry, the AAGA sees its role as driving this strong commitment to sustainability to encompass the whole of industry. Through initiatives such as the Dialogue, the association's objective is for the entire Australian industry to gain globally recognised certification and community recognition of its dedication to the aim of protecting the environment, and thus the resources of the wild fishery and its own businesses.

The WWF's work with aquaculture industries to pursue sustainability recognises that, globally, aquaculture properly managed holds great promise as a means of reducing the impacts of how humans produce seafood; is a way to address global fisheries problems; can provide far more product for international trade than fisheries; and can take pressure off wild fisheries. This practical attitude from such a globally respected conservation group differs greatly to many Australian conservation groups who are strongly against aquaculture.

Since work commenced in 1999, the WWF Dialogue groups have identified 12 species for review with selections based on their degree of impact on the environment and society, their market value, and the extent to which they are traded internationally. To date, discussions have focused on tilapia, salmon, molluscs, shrimp, pangasius and catfish. A dialogue on mussels was held in NZ just prior to the abalone dialogue in Australia.

The abalone farming industry has a clear view of what outcomes it wants from its newly formed alliance with the WWF. It wants to work in partnership with the WWF to build on its existing environmental credentials to gain recognition both locally and internationally that its product comes from a sustainable industry that is constantly pursuing world's best practise. It wants to be seen as the leader in this field, as it sees both aquaculture and sustainability to be a large part of Australian agribusiness's future.

December 2008

the Fish Site Editor

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