A sea change: farmed fish face environmental and health risks

A new report released on World Environment Day claims the aquaculture industry could be wiped out if changes aren’t made to its current model.

5 June 2019
image credit: Getty Images

The fish farming sector could be sunk by factors like climate change, an unstable feed supply and antibiotic resistance. That’s the warning from investor network Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR),which has investigated the $232bn global aquaculture sector.

Fish farming has been the main provider of seafood on plates around the world since 2014, according to research by FAIRR, but this is exposing the industry to a number of risks.

It’s something that could hit the UK – a nation of seafood lovers – hard. In 2017, 97% of households in Great Britain bought seafood, with their total purchases estimated to be worth around £6.61bn, a rise of 4.7% from the previous year, according to UK seafood industry body Seafish. But around 70-80% of the seafood consumed in the UK comes from overseas – with FAIRR’s report revealing that environmental changes and poor farming practices could leave the industry reeling.

Farmed marine fish production in Southeast Asia, one of the world’s biggest aquaculture regions, is expected to drop almost 30% by 2050 due to rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification, according to FAIRR.

This diminishing haul is being exacerbated by the situation in Norway, which is currently suffering from its worst algal bloom in 30 years. So far, an estimated 8m have died.

An algal bloom was also responsible for an estimated $800m dent in the salmon industry in 2016, when one off the coast of Chile killed nearly 27m fish – around 20% of the country’s salmon production that year.

Farming threats

A feeding frenzy is predicted in the coming years – and not just from humans. Farmed salmon and shrimp require fishmeal and fish oil in their diets, making the sector highly dependent on rapidly depleting wild fish stocks for future growth. Fishmeal and fish oil production uses nearly 20% of the global catch – and prices may rise by up to 90% by 2030. Feed is already the most cost-intensive part of fish production, accounting for 30-70% of production costs.

In a bit of positive news, feed producers and start-up companies are exploring alternative ingredients that can provide the protein and omega-3 profile required by these species, including probiotics, algae, yeast, fungi and insects like fly larvae. The Dutch agribank Rabobank sees insects as a major area of growth and estimates the share of feed alternatives to jump to 500,000 metric tonnes by 2022.

To maintain production, however, aquaculture companies in some countries rely on excessive use of antibiotics, despite warnings that all industries need to cut out this practice. Chilean salmon production, for example, is estimated to use antibiotic doses up to 10 times higher than typically used in chicken production.

In 2017, French retailer Carrefour and several Italian supermarkets banned the sale of farmed Asian pangasius catfish from all their stores due to concerns with dangerously high antibiotic residue levels. Antibiotic resistance is on the rise globally and is responsible for an estimated 33,000 annual deaths in Europe alone.

Other risks highlighted by the FAIRR report include the level of waste flowing from aquaculture production systems to the wider environment and the millions of fish escaping fish farms and mixing with native marine populations. (When farmed fish mix with native marine populations, they modify the gene pool and outcompete local species – an issue that threatens regulatory costs and reputational damage to the companies involved.)

In 77 out of 147 rivers sampled in Norway, almost 50% of wild fish contained the DNA of farmed salmon. There is also an intensifying battle against fish infections such as sea lice, with diseases alone costing the sector $6bn per annum, figures from the World Bank showed.

“From effluents to emissions, this sector must address significant environmental and public health challenges if it is to prosper over the long-term. There are clear steps which must be taken to manage these risks,” said Maria Lettini, director of FAIRR.

“For example, aquaculture operations should be certified against global standards that meet[United Nations] FAO guidelines. The market should also consider greater cultivation of species that remove marine pollution rather than contribute to it – such as mussels and oysters. In addition, farming these species brings minimal animal welfare concerns and does not require fishmeal-based feed.”

Faux fish

Seafood alternatives were also fished out in the report, including products from Quorn, Sophie’s Kitchen and Good Catch Foods, which could disrupt the industryalongside lab-grown versions.

Cell-cultured seafood may develop faster despite the current focus on the meat and poultry, said the report, as the process has lower energy requirements than animal protein and fish meat is structurally simpler, which makes it easier to replicate in cellular production methods.

Shiok Meats is a Singapore-based company developing a cell-based shrimp product. It has raised $4.6m in seed funding, led by investor Monde Nissin Corporation, owner of Quorn Foods, and aims to bring a product to market around in three to five years.


  • Aquaculture in top-producing countries may contribute 1.8% of global methane emissions.Shrimp production, for example, can be as emission-intensive as beef production.
  • Research in six European countries from 2007-2009 found nearly 9m fish escaped from farms, resulting in a direct product loss of $47.5m.
  • A poll of 9,000 Europeans found that 79% of respondents believed fish welfare should be protected at the same level of other food animals and indicated they would like to see welfare information on the label of all fish products

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