How Technology Can Improve Sustainable Aquaculture

Bryton Shang, Chief Executive Officer, water bite.

Currently, Congress has passed legislation adding basic standards, regulations, and safeguards to U.S. offshore aquaculture, known as the AQUAA Act. (Aquaculture means farming fish and aquatic life, not hunting them.) By “basic,” I mean: The U.S. lags far behind other countries that already have central agencies and strong policies to regulate the health and growth of farmed seafood.

There are enough crises in the world that sustainably farmed fish doesn’t seem to matter. As long as the fish can reach your stores and restaurants, does it really matter where it comes from or how it gets there? This is very important.

The U.S. imports about 80 percent of its seafood and has a seafood trade deficit of $17 billion as of 2020. This is not sustainable. Health, jobs, standards, the climate are at stake, as well as the economic balance and food supply.

Not long ago, farmed fish also earned a dubious reputation: unhealthy fish in unhealthy waters, of dubious quality, with a risk of parasites that could endanger wild fish populations. At the same time, careless mass netting is bringing up endangered stocks along with their intended catch, damaging fragile underwater ecosystems and eliminating fish breeding grounds, leaving wild populations unable to replenish.

The wild fishing industry has seized the marketing moment and has done an excellent job educating the public that line fishing is the best choice for consumers and the environment. This is mostly correct, except for one huge problem: It is impossible for wild fish to maintain their importance in our planet’s ecosystems while feeding the world’s rapidly growing population.

In fact, the United Nations released the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report in 2021, which said: “More than 800 million people are now suffering from hunger and 2.4 billion people have severely limited access to adequate food. … .feeding a growing population without depleting our natural resources continues to increase.”

Eating more food than we replenish is simple math, and the results aren’t good — and that doesn’t take into account the damage climate change is doing to native species and our interconnected food chains. Storms, heat waves, fires, and interrupted growing seasons don’t vote, but they do change what food you get, how you get it, and how much it costs.

How Technology Impacts Sustainable Aquaculture

Sustainable aquaculture needs to fill the gap when we think about global food solutions. It is the most potent source of protein, and the United Nations says it is essential to help meet its sustainable development goals.

What I mean by “sustainable aquaculture” is fish raised in large enclosures (~98% water to 2% fish), monitored and trying to raise the healthiest fish possible, while being mindful of the environment and climate, trying to Reduce handling, waste and pollution or wild fish stocks. Healthier fish sells for more, so fish farmers are highly incentivized to grow higher quality farmed fish due to higher incomes.

What has changed to make this oldest industry better and more sustainable? technology.

The same ideas that got us tractors instead of farming, or weather satellites instead of looking at the sky, could make aquaculture more efficient and healthier. Today’s best fish farms live by the adage, “no monitoring, no management,” and technology can help fish farmers by allowing them to:

• Monitor and manage everything that happens beneath the surface

• Removal of microplastics that pollute oceans and damage ecosystems that fish and humans depend on

• Monitor and improve all fish farming methods for health and sustainability using AI, drones and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs)

Farmed Fish: Social Responsibility

Much of the world relies on fish as a major food source. If we depend on the dwindling supply of wild caught seafood (and not grow better farmed fish), the fish will be reserved for export only to those who can afford it. This means global food shortages and rising prices, forcing many to eat lower quality proteins that are not made for health and have the least impact on the environment.

Plus, large-scale fishing is the last form of industrialized hunting; we’ve long since stopped mass-hunting other species to prevent extinction or disruption of the food chain.

The limit to farmed fish is the biocapacity of local waters—and whether people can get to farms to farm them. If we could farm fish on the high seas or on land (with safeguards), we would increase the area where fish are farmed and thus feed the world.

The farmed fish industry and the technology industry need to work together to demonstrate the progress made over the past few years, with proper supply chains and economies of scale orders of magnitude larger than we are today. (A few excellent examples of sustainable seafood collaborations worth checking out: MOWI’s Blue Revolution initiative, and The Nature Conservancy’s work with global and US marine communities)

At the same time, the United States must rethink how it farms fish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Department recently released its first-ever five-year strategic plan for aquaculture, detailing a very comprehensive roadmap for making aquaculture reflect safety, sustainability, policy , best practices in technology and diversity.

In short, we can protect our food systems while protecting our ocean ecosystems and the communities (and economies) that depend on them. This is not the farmed fish of 20 or even 5 years ago. We can do this. When we do this, the whole world is a better place – eating better.

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