Tuesday, August 14, 2012

New Technology Helps Predict Harmful Algal Blooms

Algal blooms are explosions of algae populations that occur naturally when the optimal conditions for that species is reached. While some algae blooms are harmless, others are toxic to fish and humans; these are known as Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).  According to NOAA, " every year, harmful algal blooms cause approximately $82 million in damages to commercial fisheries and aquaculture, public health, and the recreation and tourism industries around the country, yet we don't have reliable ways to forecast and predict when they will occur" (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/aquaculture/homepage_stories/08_08_12aquaculture_esp.html)

However, a new piece of equipment developed by NOAA scientists may help predict harmful algal blooms before they occur.  The Environmental Sample Processor – or ESP for short – collects daily water samples and uses DNA probe technology to identify the presence of species that cause harmful algal blooms.  By receiving a warning that harmful populations of algae are increasing, fishermen and farmers are given more lead-time to prepare their sites or even change their harvest plans to avoid the bloom entirely.

By establishing a network of these ESPs, NOAA will be able to monitor large areas of water in real-time, communicating this information to the industry players whose livelihoods depend on the ocean. When combined with weather forecasts of optimal bloom conditions, this technology has the potential to save the US seafood industry millions of dollars annually.

The NOAA press release is available here: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/aquaculture/homepage_stories/08_08_12aquaculture_esp.html        

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sustainable Snails- Abalone Aquaculture in California

Abalone are large marine snails that are prized for their sweet, rich meat and striking mother-of-pearl shells.  Older residents of California will remember a time when abalone in the coastal waters were plentiful; overfishing coupled with extremely slow natural growth caused a collapse in the population, resulting in an end to the commercial harvest in the 1990's.  There is still a limited and tightly-regulated recreational harvest of abalone in California, but for the most part abalone has transformed from a common coastal dish into a rare, high-priced delicacy.

Demand for abalone is largest in Asia, where it is regarded culturally as a dish of significance, often served at weddings and special events.  Given that it takes up to 5 years for an abalone to reach the traditional market size (~100 grams), supply from wild stocks have not been able to keep up with demand.  Therefore, as with many overfished marine species before it, efforts began shifting from wild harvest to farming operations.

There are currently a handful of abalone farms in California producing a number of native species: these farms use cages, barrels, and/or tanks to spawn and rear abalone for eventual human consumption.  Abalone at these facilities are fed kelp that is harvested from the ocean by special kelp-cutting boats; this kelp is the natural food of abalone in the wild and due to its quick growth and tightly-regulated harvest, no negative impacts on kelp have been seen in 100 years of harvest.

Because the abalone grow so slowly and are fed a natural diet, the water leaving the abalone farms does not accumulate the same levels of nutrients and wastes as other aquaculture operations, making abalone farming a sustainable endeavor.  In fact, U.S. farmed abalone has received a green ranking (the highest possible) from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.

While abalone is certainly not a food for the masses, those who are lucky enough to enjoy it will testify to its incredible flavor and texture, its amazing health properties, and the stunning beauty of its shell.  Wild populations of these amazing creatures are not expected to recover in California and as such we must remain committed to the development and propagation of this sustainable sector of aquaculture.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Want Salmon? How About a More Sustainable Choice Instead…

In BC, the environmental lobbyist’s push is towards on-land, closed loop, recirculation systems.  

Certain fish such as Arctic char, a member of the salmonid family, are produced in these recirc systems, often times domestically.  THIS is a fish you should be eating!  It is healthy (contains the same omega-3 compounds as salmon) with a mild flavor.  By purchasing char instead of salmon, you have the opportunity to directly support recirculation systems rather than environmentally-questionable farming practices OR unsustainable wild fishing quotas. 

Another example is trout, ANOTHER member of the salmonid family.  Trout are farmed in the US using flow-through systems: these systems dilute the wastes and minimize the environmental impact of the farm.  Like all fish, trout is low fat and high protein, and the taste of the meat is distinct (some people think it is too fishy).  By purchasing trout instead of salmon, you again directly support a more eco-friendly farming practice rather than industrial monoculture or unrealistic wild harvests.

Both char and trout have comparable nutritional values to salmon. 

I say put your money where your mouth is: if you want sustainable seafood, rather than farmed Atlantic salmon OR wild Pacific salmon, go out and buy char (my personal favorite) or trout.  Expand your diet for the good of the planet!  You never know…you might just like it!  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Commodity vs. Niche Markets and the Debate over Salmon in Recirc

In my opinion, there are two major markets for any food product: a commodity market and a niche market.  The overwhelming majority of food is sold on a commodity basis where consumers purchase products based on only one criterion: price.  These consumers do not care how the food was produced or where it came from: their only concern is the buying power of their dollar.  In contrast, niche markets comprise a much smaller portion of the total marketplace; consumers searching for niche products will concern themselves with factors other than price when selecting a product.  These consumers will ask how the food was produced and where it came from, and the decision to purchase will only occur once the consumers’ sense of ethics and quality are satisfied.  The important point here is that niche consumers are less concerned with price and would be willing to pay premium prices for what they value as premium products.

Like any other food, we can apply this model to farmed Atlantic salmon, which is very much a commodity product: it is comparable in price to terrestrial meats such as beef and poultry, and many consumers around the world are not concerned as to where the salmon came from or how it was produced.  When purchasing farmed Atlantic salmon, most consumers select based on price and move on…

Growing salmon in on-land recirculation systems has been hotly debated recently, and several projects are currently underway to test the business viability of such a practice.  However, by its very nature, recirculation systems are expensive to build and maintain, indicating that the species produced will need to be sold for a higher price. Higher prices can only be achieved in niche markets, and when coupled with the lowered environmental impact of recirculation systems, it would make sense for products grown in recirc systems to be destined for niche markets.

Now we have arrived at the challenge: if salmon is a commodity product, how can it be grown in recirculation systems and still be a commodity that is accessible to consumers who only want low prices?  Once the salmon is grown in recirc systems, it must transform from a commodity product into a niche product to allow the farmer to recover his capital and operating costs.  Therefore, salmon grown in recirc systems is going to be inherently more expensive than salmon grown in net pens: this is fine if the farmer is actively looking to target these niche markets.  For example, Irish salmon has done a fantastic job at differentiating on the basis of ‘organic’, and consumers are paying a premium price for this niche product.

Many people mistakenly believe that if we take net-pens out of the ocean and begin farming salmon on-land, the price and availability of farmed salmon will not change.  However, this is far from the expected outcome: by moving salmon farms on-land, the dynamics that currently dictate salmon markets will shift and a significant portion of the commodity market will be lost. 

Until such time as the capital and operating costs of recirculation systems become more manageable, farmed Atlantic salmon will continue to be a commodity product produced in net pens.  Rather than campaigning to remove net pens, we should be working together to tackle the challenges head-on and reform the industry for the benefit of future generations.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

‘Salmon’ Farming vs. ‘Fish’ Farming

Sometimes it is frustrating to work in the aquaculture industry.  There is so much misinformation and public scare-mongering emanating from environmental lobby groups that when I tell people that I work in aquaculture, most people turn up their noses and politely inform me that I shouldn’t spend my time destroying the planet.  I want to clear the air on one simple, vet vital, distinction that must be considered when discussing the activity’s environmental effects.

I live in British Columbia, and in BC when people say ‘fish farming’, in most instances they really mean to say ‘open-net salmon farming’.  Many “informed consumers” often confuse the two, saying one thing and intending another.  I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Farmed Fish’.  I’ve got news for you: over half the seafood consumed globally is farmed, much of it in a more sustainable manner than current commercial salmon production.  In fact, salmon represents only 2% of global aquaculture production- in contrast, the majority of global aquaculture focuses on vegetarian finfish such as carps (which have feed-conversion ratios of less than 1) as well as shellfish which require no feed inputs.  By using the shortcomings of the salmon industry to vilify aquaculture as a global practice, environmental lobbyists are doing nothing more than openly displaying their ignorance.     

I have done the research and I will be the first one to stand up and point out the challenges associated with the sustainability (or rather lack thereof) of commercial salmon production.  Yet I stand flabbergasted every time someone on the street attempts to tell me that ‘fish farming is bad’ and that I should sign a petition to ‘make Canada a fish farm-free country’.  Aquaculture as a global practice has grown and developed to the point at which a huge variety of species are cultured in a range of production systems in almost every country around the world: to generalize the industry into one lump activity is not only plain wrong, it is dangerous.

Going forward I will continue to focus on awareness, open dialogue, and transparency as this industry continues to mature.  I hope that in time, consumers may yet better understand the issues associated with where their seafood comes from and make informed decisions about which aquaculture practices to support.