Aquascapes: a sustainable landscape approach for the sea

Over the past decades the aquaculture sector has been growing enormously, and continues to grow faster than other major food production sectors. Nowadays, 53% of all fish consumed comes from aquaculture, making farmed fish an important source of protein for people worldwide. At the same time the sector still faces multiple sustainability challenges which jeopardize the potential of the aquaculture sector to develop further. These issues are related to diseases as well as to aquaculture feed.

Currently aquaculture is predominantly organized through certification schemes, which is effective at the farm level, however, it faces limitations in covering what happens outside of the farms. This, while the surrounding environment has a huge impact on the farms. As certification does not address surrounding environments, diseases keep spreading between farms, lowering productivity. Also, the feed that is used at farms, consisting partly of marine ingredients such as fish oil and fish meal, often falls out of the scope of certification and due to limited traceability may be caught through illegal practices such as overfishing or illegal labour practices on vessels. To address these issues, an overarching approach, covering whole areas, is fundamental to and benefits the whole industry.

The Aquascape approach

Orchestrating this change towards responsible aquaculture at the area level requires a new way of thinking, not focused on farms specifically, but engaging all partners in an area. The way IDH sees the aquaculture sector is as a landscape, or more accurately, an aquascape.

We started working in geographies to establish public-private partnerships, engaging partners at the local level, province, and national level, while at the same time connecting the value chain players that buy from or supply to that particular area. But next to collaboration you need information to make decisions and assess risks. Thus, technology and data are brought in. The way this is done is through assessing data that is collected (for example in farmer field books) but is not analyzed, including water temperature, dissolved oxygen level, the water source, and the amount and source of feed used. By connecting these variables to farm productivity and disease outbreaks, it can be analyzed why some farms have high productivity and others deal with diseases. Conditions that foster high productivity and low disease occurrence can then be replicated to move everyone in the sector to a higher level. This approach, combining collaboration with data, lowers the risks in the sector as a whole, making it more secure and thus attractive for financial institutions to invest in.

We are currently implementing the aquascape approach in the very well-developed producing areas, including China, Ecuador, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, that produce high volumes of fish, mainly for export markets. IDH’s goal in these countries is to make the industry more efficient by using less valuable resources such as feed, which is currently the biggest cost in aquaculture production. Increasing efficiency makes both economic and environmental sense, as it lowers costs for feed but also lowers the need for (marine) feed, putting less stress on caught fish. Finally, by monitoring optimal feed conditions disease outbreaks are minimized with as a result that no fish need to be wasted. The projects only started this year, but first results from China indicate that farmers improved their feed efficiency since the beginning of the project.

The Mekong Delta project in Vietnam

An example of an aquascape is the project on shrimp and pangasius that was launched last month in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. There, we collaborate with many actors, including the Vietnam Directorate of Fisheries, the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, the Vietnam Fisheries Society, the Department of Animal Health, Provincial Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development in Soc Trang and Dong Thap, several pangasius producers in Dong Thap, several shrimp producers in Soc Trang, WWF Vietnam and GIZ , on developing a surveillance and monitoring system for disease outbreaks that keeps track of what is happening where. The project aims to address the issues of environmental pollution, disease control and antibiotics management through collaboration, professionalization of data use, and finally by involving financial institutions. This way competition can move beyond focusing on lowest production price and move towards competition based on quality, as it is beneficial for all players when the area is known for high quality and stable production.

Developing markets

However, not all aquaculture sectors are as established as in China, Ecuador, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. For Mozambique and Haiti, the work of IDH is designed mainly around establishing a strong aquaculture sector and a domestic and regional market for farmed products. These markets for farmed fish, in contrast to the developed markets, rarely export their products. Rather, in these countries aquaculture can play a fundamental role in food security and in nutrition security as fish contains important minerals and vitamins to address widespread nutritional deficiencies. The work in these countries is in the first place around setting up a stable production and then making this more efficient, as well as creating distribution channels to domestic and regional markets.

The goal of the IDH aquaculture program is hence to develop and mainstream responsible aquaculture that can feed the world and has a low environmental and social footprint because it uses its resources efficiently. By 2020 we expects to have experiences in different places and concrete data on what works and what does not work. At the sectoral level, IDH aims to establish an assessment mechanism for areas that is housed at the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI). This aligns organizations on what the sustainability issues are for a particular area and it aligns funding to tackle those issues in the specific geographies. For local governments and producers this is a motivation to focus attention on problems in the area as they can score higher and compete better. An area-based or aquascape approach thereby creates a more responsible and sustainable aquaculture industry that can produce high-quality protein efficiently for a growing world population.