Catching up

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When it comes to using the ocean as a sustainable source of food, Europe is trailing well behind other parts of the world, the European Union says. Now, the EU has unveiled a vision to develop its fish farming industry.

Figures suggest that of all the fish consumed by EU citizens, barely 10% comes from aquaculture within the EU itself.

The 27-strong trading bloc lost an important contributor in Scotland (the world’s third largest Atlantic salmon farmer) following Brexit, while Norway has always been outside the EU – albeit still part of the European Economic Area.

Now Brussels wants things to change and it has a fresh strategy to achieve that goal, set out in a new report from the EU’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Blue farming: new strategic vision for sustainable aquaculture production and consumption in the European Union (February 2022).

The report says: “Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world supplying us with seafood and seaweed, which in addition to good protein sources also provides a number of other nutrients, including micronutrients such as vitamin D and B vitamins as well as selenium, iodine, zinc, iron and potassium.

“In addition, there are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids in fish, which unconditionally have important and very beneficial effects on human health and wellbeing as well as a property to remedy and prevent diseases.”

Despite its physical size, only 2% of global aquaculture production is centred on the EU, and most of that is in just four countries: Spain, France, Italy and Greece.

There are plans to enlarge that base such as the new RAS (recirculating aquaculture systems) salmon farm due to be built on the  Channel coast in Belgium by Columbi Salmon. But they remain modest when compared to what is happening  elsewhere.

The EU report says: “In terms of volume of aquaculture production per category of species, more than half is shellfish, while marine fish and freshwater fish each account for around 20% of the total volume.

“The vast majority of EU production is for mussels, trout, seabream, oysters, seabass, carp and clams. This means that there is still a lot of potential for further growth and diversification in terms of  [the number of] producing countries and species farmed.

“Aquaculture can also provide consumers in the EU with even more diverse healthy and sustainable food products, including those more widely consumed in other regions of the world, for example algae or invertebrates such as sea urchins.”

It is estimated that Europe has around 15,000 companies operating in the aquaculture sector. However, the majority are microenterprises employing fewer than 10 people.

The total number employed in aquaculture is close to 70,000 but those are 2018 figures which would have included Scotland.

According to the report, these microenterprises tend to be family owned and use less efficient production methods and systems. The EU remains highly dependent on imported aquatic food.

Despite having a large sea area around its coastlines, the EU imports over 70% of the fish and seafood consumed by its 440 million citizens.

The report says: “It is therefore important to support the further growth and diversification of aquaculture production in the EU in a way that preserves the environment and provides more jobs and economic development to coastal and rural areas.

“As early as 2013, the EU and its member states set the objective to develop aquaculture in the European Union in a way that ensures its economic, social and environmental sustainability.”

Brussels concedes aquaculture is a complex activity that involves many (usually necessary) regulations covering  the use of space and water, taking care of the health and welfare of animals farmed and ensuring the safety of products used in the farming process, such as feed or veterinary treatments, for the environment and for human health.

But it believes the burden can  and should be reduced.

Going forward, the EU has drawn up a growth agenda, which it describes as “a new vision for aquaculture”.

The objective is to stimulate the economy and create jobs while accelerating the transition to a greener Europe.

It says it is more important than ever to ensure that aquaculture in the EU grows in a way that also contributes to important objectives such as reducing of carbon emissions, transitioning to more sustainable food systems, reversing the loss of biodiversity, reducing pollution and creating jobs in coastal and rural communities.

The Commission says it is involving member states, fish farming companies and other interested groups in the preparation of the strategic guidelines.

The strategic guidelines “cover all issues that are relevant for the sustainable development of aquaculture in the EU and provide concrete recommendations to the Commission, Member States, aquaculture producers and other relevant actors, such as NGOs (non-governmental organisations).”

The report goes on: “Those recommendations include the development of guidance and good practices on different aspects of aquaculture activities. Achieving the objectives of the strategic guidelines depends on EU and Member State authorities, aquaculture producers, non-governmental organisations, investors, processors, retailers and consumer.”

Issues addressed by the new guidelines include:

  • Facilitating access to space and water, so EU aquaculture can keep growing.
  • Reducing the administrative burdens involved in authorising new
    aquaculture farms.
  • Further limiting the impact of aquaculture, as well as promoting the types of aquaculture that are most beneficial for the environment and the climate.
  • Improving measures regarding animal health and welfare.
  • Ensuring that aquaculture adapts to climate change and contributes to the mitigation of climate change impact.
  • Providing more and better information to consumers and citizens on EU aquaculture.
  • Promoting research and innovation and the development of relevant skills.
  • Promoting the diversification of production to increase the offer of aquaculture products, notably of new promising species in the EU such as algae or marine invertebrates, including molluscs or other invertebrates such as sea urchins or sea cucumbers.

The strategic guidelines, the Commission says: “Set out a path for the sector to grow into an even more competitive and resilient sector and to become a global reference for sustainability by 2030.”

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