Aquaculture Versus Capture Fishing

In September 2019, something like 2.6-million fish died in aquaculture farming operations on Newfoundland’s south coast.

The event caused quite a stink — both literally and figuratively. And the media was full of stories, most of which were based more on emotional rants than they were on facts and reality. Because of that, I thought it would be worth putting some things in perspective, to reduce the heat and shed some light on a very significant issue.

As a starting point, it may be worth discussing why we are involved in aquaculture.

For most of human history, people were hunter-gatherers — i.e. most or all of their food was obtained by foraging (hunting wild animals and collecting wild plants). About 12,000 years ago, however, they began domesticating animals and plants. Over time, they came to rely less on foraging and more on raising animals and growing plants — commonly known as agriculture.

That change led to many other changes in where people lived and how they organized themselves in groups. Agriculture intensified the use of land. Instead of having to roam over large areas in search of food, people used relatively small plots of land to grow large amounts of food. They clustered in areas where land was suited to the crops they wanted to grow. And that land became more valuable, often leading to conflicts of one kind or another, as different people and groups sought to gain control of it.

Capture fishing is the last major food production system based on hunting and gathering from what nature provides.

Until recently, it provided nearly all the fish and seafood needed for human consumption. Aquaculture has been practiced, in one way or another, for thousands of years, but it was done only on a small scale and provided only a very small proportion of fish used as food.

All other food production is now based on growing animals and plants in controlled environments. For a long time, it has also been based on finding ways to improve the productivity and characteristics of those animals and plants and the way they are grown.

The so-called green revolution that started in the 1950s involved development and adoption of new technologies, including high-yielding crops, chemical fertilizers, chemicals that controlled weeds, pests, and diseases, irrigation systems that controlled water supply and a high degree of mechanization in planting, growing and harvesting.

These technologies led to a big increase in the supply of food and enabled global population to triple from 2.5 billion in 1950 to over 7.5 billion today — an increase of over five billion people during a period of just 70 years.

As population increased, so did the market demand for food, including seafood. That led to adoption of new technologies in capture fishing, as well as agriculture. Larger, more powerful fishing vessels, new navigation and fish finding technologies and new fishing gear and gear handling equipment were developed to increase fish catches.

Lonnie Snow photo

The larger vessels also enabled an expansion of areas that could be fished. During the 1950s and 1960s, these developments were able to increase the supply of fish to meet the growing demand.

By the 1970s, however, it was clear that resources were being overfished and catches then being achieved would be unsustainable in the future. That led to major changes in the way fisheries were managed, including widespread adoption of 200-mile limits by coastal countries, to control fishing effort.

Nevertheless, capture fishing has not been able to increase overall catches since the 1980s. Increased catches in one area have been offset by decreased catches in other areas. Essentially, capture fishing has reached the limit of what it can supply and there is no indication that will change in the foreseeable future.

But market demand creates a very strong incentive to supply. The inability of capture fishing to meet the demand provided an opportunity for development of aquaculture.

As was the case previously with agriculture, aquaculture represented more intensive use of the ocean.

Instead of roaming over vast areas in search of fish, it allowed harvesting large quantities of fish from a relatively small area on an ongoing basis. Culture sites were selected based on their suitability for particular species. And small patches of the ocean became much more valuable than before, because of the value of the crops they could produce.

But that has led to conflicts over ocean usage, just as agriculture led to conflicts over land.

Since the 1980s, aquaculture has been the fastest-expanding food production system in the world, now accounting for more than half the fish and seafood used for human consumption. This new production system has been necessary to meet the market demand for fish and seafood, filling a gap that could not be supplied by capture fishing. And it has relieved at least some of the pressure on wild fish resources, helping to avoid further overfishing and reduction of wild resources.

On the other hand, it has also led to dramatic changes in how fish are supplied to world markets. Unlike capture fishing, which is driven by harvesting from fluctuating wild resources and is often seasonal in nature, aquaculture is able to supply markets year-round.

Captured fish are very diverse in species, size and quality characteristics.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization gathers data related to 1,680 marine species harvested globally. In Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans issues annual reports of catches of 36 major species, including 12 groundfish, 11 pelagic and 13 shellfish species, as well as groups of miscellaneous species within each category labelled as “other.”

David Greening photo

In contrast, not all species lend themselves well to being grown in controlled environments.

When people began domesticating animals, they were very selective about which animals they chose to domesticate. Because of that, animal agriculture led to a much narrower range of meats being consumed than when animals were hunted. Similarly, Canadian aquaculture is dominated by production of Atlantic salmon, even on the Pacific coast, with only a few other species being produced in small quantities.

Fish species selected for culture are typically ones for which there is strong market demand, but very limited supply from capture fishing. Shrimp is the most-consumed species in the world and it is the only species where there is a large supply from both capture fishing and aquaculture.

Cultured fish are not only readily available year-round, but they are also much more consistent in size and quality than captured fish. These characteristics are valuable to customers who want to offer consistent portion sizes and quality to their customers.

Labour productivity is much higher in aquaculture, because it takes much less labour to produce a tonne of cultured fish than it does in capture fishing. Production of greenhouse gases that cause global warming is also less, because less petroleum is used. And the cost of production is more consistent and predictable, allowing companies supplying cultured fish to enter into long-term sales contracts with customers at stable prices, instead of selling them at variable spot-market prices, as often happens in the capture fishery.

Most aquaculture is geared to sale of fresh products. They typically sell for much higher prices than products that are frozen, canned or preserved in some other way, which are more typical of captured fish.

Because cultured fish are sold fresh, there is very little time to work with between harvesting and consumption. Consequently, companies involved in aquaculture have more direct connections to their customers — the supermarkets and restaurants that sell their products to consumers — and have worked out the logistics of getting their products from harvest to the point of consumption quickly and reliably.

All of that means aquaculture is, in effect, a superior business model for supplying world markets with fish and seafood.

As in any business, there are challenges and risks but they are more manageable in culturing fish than they are in capturing fish. The result has been that aquaculture has become a very profitable business and it is attracting more and more investment. It has also attracted a lot of people to leave capture fishing and move into aquaculture.

Their superior business model has led to aquaculture companies seeing that they can obtain more value from captured fish than companies focused only on capture fishing. We are now seeing aquaculture companies buy capture fishing companies and integrate them into their distribution and marketing systems. For example, Cooke Aquaculture Inc. is a company based in Atlantic Canada with roots in aquaculture that has purchased companies involved in capture fishing throughout North and South America. But it has been acquiring companies that control fishing quotas, not ones based on inshore fisheries.

As the foregoing indicates, we need aquaculture to meet the demand in global markets for fish and seafood. And aquaculture is both competitive against other protein foods and economically viable. It will continue to expand, because of that. Without it, we might not even have a capture fishery today, because the pressure to overfish wild fish stocks would have decimated them.

We also need aquaculture to reduce the environmental impacts of food production. It is well documented that the environmental impacts of culturing fish are much, much less than the impacts of raising animals for beef, pork or poultry products.

Our choice is whether or not we want to take advantage of the opportunity aquaculture presents.

In 2000, 895,808 metric tonnes of Atlantic salmon were produced globally and Canada produced 94,308 tonnes, or 10.5 per cent. In 2016, world production was 2,247,759 tonnes, of which Canada produced 158,817 tonnes, or 7.1 per cent.

Our industry did not keep up with the opportunities available.

In 2017, the annual market demand in North America for farmed salmon was approximately 500,000 tonnes, but production in North America was 161,700 tonnes — about a third. Canadian consumption alone was more than Canadian production. Additional supply was imported from South America and Europe.

Canada has not capitalized on its advantage of proximity to the market. Why is that?

Well, it is largely because of heavy lobbying of governmental decision makers against salmon farming by environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), who blame salmon farming for a broad range of misdemeanors. For that reason, it has been extremely difficult to get new farm sites approved and allow production to increase.

The question we have to ask is “Is the criticism justified?” In some cases, the answer is yes and in others, it is no.

Everything we human beings do seems to have unintended consequences.

The Industrial Revolution that began in the 1700s increased the productivity of human effort and led directly to the more affluent lifestyles we have today. But it also led to global warming and the changes in climate we are also seeing today.

Very few people would suggest we should go back to living the way people did prior to the Industrial Revolution. Instead, we want to keep the benefits it provides, while finding ways to reduce global warming and the impacts of climate change.

The capture fishery has had its problems, as well.

Utilizing modern, advanced technologies to find and capture fish led to widespread overfishing and decimation of many fish stocks, both globally and here in Atlantic Canada, as the continuing moratorium on harvesting Northern cod and other groundfish stocks illustrates. But there is no suggestion that we should stop capture fishing altogether. Instead, we are continually working on new ways of doing things that will allow us to keep the benefits and reduce the consequences.

We can apply the same thinking to aquaculture.

One of the criticisms of aquaculture, for example, is that it changes ecosystems and reduces biodiversity. But what do you think happens in agriculture? To raise animals and plants, the first thing we do is clear land of trees, other native vegetation and rocks, effectively destroying the habitat for whatever lived there before. And we replace the original, diverse ecosystem with one that is suited to a very narrow range of animals and plants.

Human beings have been doing that for thousands of years. And as population has grown, we have been doing it over an ever larger area. But because we have been doing it for thousands of years, we don’t really notice it. We take agriculture and its practices for granted.

In contrast, aquaculture is still a very young industry.

It has increased dramatically in scale only since the 1980s, unlike capture fishing, which has been around for millennia and has not been able to increase production since the 1980s. Because it is new and expanding rapidly, aquaculture has attracted a lot of attention and it has had some noticeable impacts.

Aquaculture has expanded through heavy investment in research and development — essentially a polite term for trial and error. To enable the industry to grow, we needed to learn a lot about different fish species, their lifecycles, their nutritional needs, how we could grow them in controlled environments, and the controls we needed over those environments.

A fact of life is that human beings make mistakes.

An acquaintance of mine used to say, “That is why they put erasers on pencils.” The key thing is mistakes enable us to learn and do better. After we erase the initial mistake, we usually fill in the gap with a better answer.

As we were learning to culture fish, mistakes were made, similar to what happens in any research and development effort. But those mistakes prompted us to try new things that ultimately led to better results. Much of the current criticism of aquaculture is based on the old mistakes, rather than where we are today.

Salmon anglers criticize salmon aquaculture for destroying stocks of wild salmon. But that doesn’t hold up to any serious scrutiny.

The decline in wild salmon stocks began before we became involved in salmon aquaculture on any scale. Wild salmon stocks have decreased in areas where there is no salmon aquaculture. And the anglers themselves have contributed in significant ways to the decline. Anglers choose to ignore those facts, adopt a holier-than-thou attitude, and pursue a misguided agenda.

They and others suggest aquaculture could be moved out of the ocean onto land. That would mean creating a completely artificial habitat for culturing fish, rather than growing them in conditions closer to what they would experience in the wild.

But creating and operating that artificial habitat would replace services now provided free by nature with new ones that must be paid for, changing the economics of aquaculture production completely.

Furthermore, if fish culture were moved out of the ocean and onto land, there would be no need to do it in locations where conditions are conducive to the species being cultured. That means there would be no need to do it near the ocean. More than likely, it would be done close to the markets where the fish would be consumed — not in Atlantic Canada — so we would lose the opportunity and the year-round jobs that go with it.

Everything we do as human beings involves a trade-off of some kind — we give up something to get something else.

The question is “Are we better off after making that choice than we were before?” In the case of aquaculture, I think the evidence is clearly in favour. We need it and we will need more of it in the future.

The recent massive salmon die-off on the south coast of Newfoundland was unfortunate and indicates that something needs to change. But it is also an opportunity to learn and adjust.

That is not the first lesson learned the hard way in aquaculture and it won’t be the last. And aquaculture is not the only industry where such lessons are learned. The capture fishery and other industries have had their share of hard lessons, as well.

There will always be room for improvement, but we have come a long way in dealing with aquaculture’s growing pains. I doubt that we would be prepared to give up the benefits we are now enjoying and go back to total dependence on capture fishing.


Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation — Newfoundland

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