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Is aquaculture the solution?

People are eating more and more fish. In order to meet the increasing demand, fish are also raised in underwater farms. A relief for your free-living fellows? Unfortunately not - the growing demand for feed poses an additional threat to overfished stocks.

With an average growth rate of nine percent since 1970, aquaculture is the fastest growing branch in the global food industry. Around 50 million tons of fish and seafood are now produced in freshwater and marine farms. That corresponds to almost half of the edible fish consumed worldwide.

In order to breed fish from aquaculture, wild fish is also caught and fed. These fisheries are often unsustainable. In addition, aquaculture usually causes major environmental damage when chemicals, leftover food, fish droppings and antibiotics from the open net cages end up in rivers and seas. Since the rapidly growing aquaculture takes up a lot of space in the coastal regions of tropical and subtropical countries, valuable habitats such as mangrove forests are lost through the construction of breeding facilities.

There are several ways to grow fish in aquaculture. Not all methods have harmful effects and are ecologically questionable: There are also environmentally friendly fish farms. Consumers can help by looking at organic labels such as “Naturland” and “Bioland”, which are now also available for farmed fish.

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) was developed in 2009 on the initiative of the WWF. The ASC is a broad-based, independent organization that sets the standards. It is intended to provide a reliable recommendation for consumers and traders through an objective assessment of sustainability aspects in aquaculture and help to meet the increasing demand for sustainable products.

Effects of aquaculture: factory farming under water

Fish farms can have negative effects on the environment in different places and in different ways. This begins with the construction of the plant, continues with operation and does not end when it is shut down.

Even the establishment of aquaculture facilities brings with it conflicts - between environmental protection and fish farming, between traditional land use and the new fish farm. This is particularly drastic with shrimp farms - they are located in tropical areas in Africa, South America and Asia. For their establishment, the ecologically valuable and unfortunately threatened mangrove forests have to give way in many places. In the Philippines alone, two thirds of the mangrove forests have been cleared for the establishment of shrimp farms. The World Food Organization (FAO) estimates that 3.6 million hectares of mangrove forests have been lost worldwide since 1980. Shrimp farms are a major reason for this.

A multitude of species live in the mangroves and they are the nursery of many species of fish. Their destruction has massive consequences for the ecosystems connected to them, for coastal protection and fisheries.

Once the farms are established, they have a massive impact on their surroundings. Most of the world's aquacultures take place in so-called open systems, which means that the systems are in direct contact with the natural environment. Such open systems are, for example, net cages that are hung in the sea and in which, among other things, salmon or tuna are bred.

Sinking food and feces pollute the seabed beneath the enclosures. Because many animals are kept in a confined space, diseases can spread quickly among them. That is why antibiotics and pesticides are used. The soil under the cages is often heavily polluted with the residues from the breeding.

Also in the pond systems typical for shrimp farms, faeces, chemicals and medication collect at the bottom of the system. If the facility, as is often the case with shrimp farms, is abandoned after a few years and dries out, these residues spread around the area, pollute the soil and can end up in the groundwater.

Load on wild populations

Farmed fish usually have a different genetic material compared to their wild counterparts. Because these animals are adapted to the conditions of the breeding and selected for their rapid growth. Again and again, however, specimens break out of the breeding facilities, mix with their wild relatives and introduce altered genetic material. Farmed diseases can also be transmitted to wild populations.

Many aquacultures are also established where the species is not at all native. Escaped animals can then disturb the natural balance, for example by competing with native species. The increasingly popular species Pangasius and Tilapia, for example, have significantly expanded their range in this way.

The situation with bluefin tuna is paradoxical: it has not yet been possible to breed enough tuna for the farms. For this reason, young tuna are caught from the wild for “breeding” in the farms and then quickly fattened up.

The same applies to the eel: For their breeding, the small glass eels have to be caught off the coast. The juvenile population has shrunk to nine percent of its original size since the 1980s. A major reason for this is the glass eel fishery - for direct consumption and export to Asia, but also for aquaculture.

Energy and feed consumption

Some aquaculture species require regulated temperatures or water supplies. This leads to a high demand for energy and water. In addition, the animals have to be fed. Fish meal or fish oil, which in turn comes from fishing for wild stocks, is often used for this purpose. Therefore, when it comes to farmed fish, you should opt for non-coarse fish such as carp or for species with a low proportion of fish in the feed such as catfish or tilapia.

Ecolabel aims to make it easier for consumers to buy farmed fish

Aquaculture is often an ecological disaster. Therefore, at the initiative of the WWF, a seal of quality for farmed fish based on the model of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was introduced for wild fish: the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Together, 2,000 fish farmers, environmentalists, government officials and other stakeholders developed common standards for sustainable aquaculture. This includes specific requirements for sustainable breeding of the twelve most common aquaculture species.

The effects of aquaculture on wild fish populations, coastal and marine habitats, water quality and society are minimal. National laws and local regulations must be followed and the breeding must not affect regional biodiversity. Water and other resources are protected and used responsibly and the farmed fish are kept in a species-appropriate and environmentally friendly manner. In addition, breeding must be carried out using social standards - such as safety at work, non-discrimination and fair working conditions.

Environmentally conscious consumers can therefore orientate themselves on the ASC label or consult the WWF purchasing guide.

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