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Guest Column, May 2006

Craig Bohm is the National Fisheries Campaigner of the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS). Read more about the work of the AMCS on www.amcs@amcs.org.au Contact the AMCS by email at amcs@amcs.org.au

Promoting Sustainable Aquaculture Solutions

Our oceans are in trouble. Three quarters of global fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted[1]. More than half of the world’s deep sea coral reefs have been destroyed by deep sea trawlers[2]. In 2003, the Australian Bureau of Rural Sciences (BRS) declared that almost half of Australia’s 70 principle fish species were fully fished or overfished[3].

Unfortunately, aquaculture is vigorously promoted by most Australian governments as a way of reducing pressure on wild fisheries; however, aquaculture is no panacea to the environmental issues confronting wild fisheries.

Over 60 aquatic species are grown or farmed in Australia[4]. Seacage aquaculture development is on the increase, particularly in remote areas or in economically impoverished regions in both northern and southern Australia. Principle seacage species include Atlantic salmon, yellowtail kingfish, snapper, barramundi and ocean trout.

Seacage aquaculture companies increase their profits by not containing their pollution in closed-systems and by leasing publicly-owned waterways from governments at a cost much cheaper than building closed system, land-based farms. The industry’s use of fish meal and fish oil sourced from wild fisheries both domestically and abroad is particularly concerning as is the regular escapes of farmed fish into the wild and interactions of farms with marine wildlife such as seals and seabirds.

Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide

The Australian Marine Conservation Society has just released its second or ‘expanded’ edition of Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide. AMCS produces this national guide in direct response to growing public concern about the sustainability of Australian fisheries and aquaculture. The purpose of the Guide is to empower seafood consumers to make more responsible seafood choices.

The Guide offers seafood consumers a special insight to the sustainability of over 60 Australian seafood species. The potential environmental impacts of 15 types of commercial fishing methods are outlined, and in this edition, there is a strong focus on the potential impacts of aquaculture, in particular sea cage aquaculture.

Species grown in sea cage aquaculture (i.e. marine fish) are included in our ‘Say No’ list, marine species such as prawns and barramundi grown in land-based ponds or tanks are included in our ‘Think twice’ list and species such as oysters and mussels grown in ocean farms (where no feed is added) are included in our ‘Better choice’ list.

Public awareness in Australia about the potential impacts of seacage aquaculture is growing and Australia’s Sustainable Seafood Guide contributes significantly to this education process. Some local communities have successfully resisted seacage aquaculture development e.g. in south-east Queensland and parts of South Australia. However, resistance has been futile in regions where marginal seats and pro-industry governments have ignored local opposition to seacage aquaculture development e.g. in Tasmania, remote South Australia, the Northern Territory, North Queensland and central New South Wales.

Sustainable aquaculture solutions

With growing demand for seafood products, aquaculture can help to offset the demand from wild fisheries, most of which area at or behind their limit of sustainable production. Australian aquaculture will not feed the ‘starving masses’ because aquaculture production in Australia is expensive. Its success relies on investment in technical expertise, well paid staff, access to water and land, complex production facilities, long range transport infrastructure, some environmental standards and intense marketing strategies. However, aquaculture can be an important economic earner for Australia from affluent international and local communities willing to pay a premium for aquaculture products.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society strongly believes that pond, tank and extensive aquaculture systems (such as mussels or oysters) offer more sustainable aquaculture solutions than seacage and prawn aquaculture.

Pond and tank aquaculture

Yabbies, abalone, silver perch and some barramundi are grown in fully-enclosed tanks and ponds. All outputs such as waste materials from these forms of aquaculture can be controlled. Carnivorous fish species such as barramundi are fed diets that use wild fish like sardines and mackerel to produce fishmeal. This is of great concern to conservationists as it adds pressure to wild fisheries. Farming omnivorous or herbivorous species that can be fed more appropriate plant-based feeds would remove the extra demand on wild fisheries.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society believes that when farm systems remain relatively small in scale, pond and tank reared species represent better seafood choices.

Extensive open system aquaculture

Blue mussels and oysters are grown on sticks, racks and lines which are suspended in the water column in bays and inlets. Some oyster species are also gathered from wild seeding. These forms of aquaculture do not require the addition of feed but rely on the animals taking in nutrients from the surrounding water column.

Extensive aquaculture systems occupy publicly-owned waterways, sometimes over extensive areas in the case of oyster leases. The lack of clean up of abandoned leases is a major issue in many areas. However, as long as such leases do not become too large and strip nutrients from local waterways (also needed by wild sea life in the area) or entangle sea life such as seals, dolphins and whales (in the case of mussel lines), then these forms of aquaculture still represent better sources of aquaculture seafood than seacage or prawn farms.

[1] Source: 10th April, UN News Page: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=17937&Cr=fish&Cr1=
[2] First International Symposium on Deep Sea Corals in Halifax, Nova Scotia 2000. Source: http://www.cnn.com/2000/NATURE 10 August 2000
[3] Bureau of Rural Sciences 2002-03 Fisheries Status Report Source: www.affa.gov.au
[4] . Yearsley, G.K., Last, P.R., Ward, R.D. (edit) 1999. Australian Seafood Handbook – Domestic Species. CSIRO Marine Research, Australia