Dispatches from the 10th Annual Oilseed and Grain Trade Summit, Minneapolis

Regulation, disease management mark areas for aquaculture improvement

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

Regulation, disease management mark areas for aquaculture improvement

Related tags: Aquaculture

Disease management and regulation mark two major challenges to growth in the aquaculture industry, industry officials say.

Regulation can be a major stumbling block for the farmed fish industry in the US, said Steven Hart, vice president of education and outreach at the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA). He spoke on the topic at last week’s annual Oilseed and Grain Trade Summit in Minneapolis.

“The federal and state laws are not conducive to growing and developing aquaculture,”​ he said. Although progress is being made on the Gulf of Mexico aquaculture plan, he added.

US growth and development

Regulation challenges include that until the Gulf of Mexico aquaculture plan is finished, producers don’t have access to use of federal waters said Hart. The work marks the first regulation covering development in that area.

For inland producers, laws change from state-to-state and in some areas there can be a bias against aquaculture, he said. Alaska has banned the practice, while other states rarely allow new permits.

Additionally, it can be challenging for producers to transport fish because of the need to meet differing state laws even when moving through a state, he said. And, the failure to meet a state law may bring federal penalties.  

Efforts have been proceeding to develop the Gulf of Mexico aquaculture plan, said Hart. That work is currently in a review stage at the Whitehouse Office of Management and Budget before it returns to the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

The plan would create a permitting process to regulate the establishment and growth of aquaculture that is “environmentally sound and economically sustainable”​ in federal waters, said officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Up to 20 offshore facilities would be allowed for a 10-year period and offer an estimated production of 64m pounds. 

It would make aquaculture viable in federal waters, officials said. The current process only allows for short-term exempted fishing permits, which were not designed to accommodate commercial fish production.

The plan would limit the species raised to those native to the area, non-genetically modified and non-transgenic, they added.

“The Gulf of Mexico aquaculture plan, once that’s implemented, we’re going to need investments in off shore marine aquaculture technology,” ​Hart added. “It’s still relatively young technology that hasn’t been well established.”

The US catfish industry is another area starting to see more growth, he said. It faced challenges in the early 2000s with high feed prices and competition from other products like tilapia and pangasius – considered a type of Vietnamese catfish.

“The catfish industry needs investment in technology,” ​he said. “It is changing, but [producers] need to invest in technology that will allow them to have better inventory control and better feed management.”

Feed tends to be one of the highest costs, he said, and catfish producers don’t see the same feed efficiency that other species do.

Additionally, their production system tends to use large ponds with multiple sizes of fish, which could allow for multiple, partial harvests, but does not improve mortality rates, he said. Improvements like the use of pond raceways – long, horizontal containment units that can be used to keep fish of similar sizes together – could help.

However, the US shellfish industry has been growing, he said. The producers raise species like oysters and mussels along the coastlines.

“Those are seen as an easy sell for the most part, because they don’t have the negative perceptions that other aquaculture has,”​ he said. “Science has debunked those negatives, but the shellfish tend to not have those.”

Disease and sharing best practices

Meanwhile, leaders from across the global aquaculture industry also point to preventing or treating disease as a major hurdle, said Hart. Sectors of the industry from shrimp farming to salmon producers have had disease challenges.

One of the aspects that make addressing disease in aquaculture challenging is a lack of education, said Hart. Smaller farmers don’t always have access to training to improve their biosecurity or management practices.

“The solution is not necessarily vaccines, though those efforts help,” ​he said. “One of the big hurdles is proper farm management.”

Many of the disease problems are being seen in developing countries or areas with developing agriculture systems, including countries in Southeast Asia, Central and South America and China, he said. Disease also can be a problem for more developed areas, but it’s likely not to be as destructive.

To address the lack of training, the GAA is in the process of developing an on-line educational system, he said.

“You can go to a farm in China or Vietnam and there’s not a lot of technology, but every farmer has a cell phone,” ​he said. “So we’re developing an education [program] that can be accessed through their cell phone in their local language.”

The first program is set to address management of shrimp and preventing shrimp disease, he said. It is expected to be available by the end of the year, with the next program, one on food safety, being produced in early 2016.

Replacing fish oil

Research moving toward a way to create fish oil synthetically, or producing a substitute from plant protein is one area where more investment is needed, said Hart.

Other alternative feed ingredients like insect meal or algae meal, hold interest, he said. But most products have yet to display the ability to be produced in the amounts necessary, and may have other challenges like adding steps to production or additional expense.

“The problem with algae is drying it,”​ he said. “It has such a high water content you’ve got to dry it down and that adds a lot of cost to production.”


Another ongoing trend in the industry is work to promote sustainability in aquaculture, said Hart. The industry has been penalized for some practices in the past, and developed third-party certification processes to address them.

The GAA certifies more than a million metric tons of farmed seafood a year, he said. But their work and that of other agencies only accounts for about 20% of the industry.

“The vast majority is not using any kind of certification process,” ​he added. But, he added, social responsibility is a critical aspect of aquaculture.

Overall growth trends

To meet food demands in 2050, the industry as a whole needs to double production every decade and have an annual growth rate of about 8%, said Hart. But, it stopped meeting that goal several years ago as disease complications and other challenges increased.

Some individual species, like tilapia and catfish, however, have managed to meet or exceed the set growth rate, he added.

“Tilapia is a very forgiving fish – you can grow it and increase the market because it’s a forgiving fish,” ​he added. “People have been able to grow that all over the world.​”

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