Summary of Open-Pen Sea Cage Aquaculture

Over the first three instalments of the GoodFishBadFish series on Open-Pen Sea Cage Aquaculture, we have looked at the topic from a few different angles. In the Series Introduction, we covered the basics of Open-Pen Sea Cage Aquaculture and discussed the necessity of aquaculture. The next segment covered The Environmental Impacts of Sea Cage Aquaculture, highlighting the issue of feed and other concerns. Most recently, we have covered the vast area of Regulation, including government, not-for-profit organisations and the role of certification schemes. It is a complex topic with many stakeholders, opinions and levels of detail.

This final instalment highlights the most important aspects of the Sea Cage debate and offers guidance for consumers.  Let’s get started by recapping on the pros and cons of this type of aquaculture.

There are big differences between species and producers

When it comes to Sea Cage Aquaculture, generalisations are hard to make.  There are enormous differences between producers and species.  According to Melbourne University marine scientist John Ford “Done well, open pen sea cage aquaculture can be done efficiently and with minimal environmental impact. Movement toward these operations should be encouraged. Open pen sea cage species should be assessed individually on their merits. For example, the differences between farmed salmon and tuna are huge”.

Currently, the majority of farmed species in Australia are carnivorous, with varying Food Conversion Ratios (FCRs) from less than 2kg (wild feed needed to make 1kg of farmed fish) to over 10kg. Consumers should be aware of these differences and focus on herbivorous species or those with a lesser reliance on fishmeal and fish oil in their diets, such as Barramundi.

Transparency is the key to success

Transparency is of huge importance for producers, government and not-for-profits if consumers are to be able to make confident decisions. Seafood Industry Expert John Susman comments that “Regrettably, the Seafood Industry in Australia doesn’t have an umbrella body such as the Meat and Livestock, Horticulture, Dairy and Grain industries do and without a unified voice on this topic the outgoing messages are mixed”.

If consumers are to make informed choices that send a clear message to producers about the need to operate in a responsible and sustainable manner, they need to have reliable information on which to form their opinions. Healthy Oceans Campaigner Chris Smyth comments that “the consumer makes the ultimate choice, if well educated. The ability of the consumer to differentiate between unsustainable and more sustainable aquaculture fish through independent, third-party assessment programs has and will continue to make a difference to how fish farms operate”. Though certification schemes are not perfect, their existence and the standards they set should be encouraged.  By supporting these fisheries and schemes, consumers send a message. Hopefully, the ideals of these schemes will become normal industry practice one day.

Australian producers are more aware then ever of their responsibilities and the demands of consumers

Slowly by surely, producers are becoming aware of the financial viability of environmentally sustainable practices. Consumer support will give sustainable producers a competitive edge and the industry will rise to this level. Healthy Oceans Campaigner Chris Smyth suggests “We should judge each operation on its merits and pressure companies for continual improvement in their environmental outcomes”. Tooni Mahto from AMCS adds “in terms of global farmed fish production, much comes from non-marine aquaculture of herbivorous fish (e.g. in China). If sea-cage carnivorous finfish aquaculture is to be a viable part of the future production of seafood, it will require advances in sustainable practices”.

Regulators need to aim for a holistic approach

Regulators need to work with producers and suppliers in the planning of Australia’s Sea Cage Aquaculture industry. Currently, there are many concerns about the conflicting roles of industry bodies and regulators. The large number of different government bodies that may be involved in the environmental regulation and monitoring of a single aquaculture operation can result in confusion. Likewise, the significant differences in the way that the states and territories administer regulations relevant to the aquaculture industry have implications for both the management of aquaculture and the efficiency of resource allocation.

Chris Smyth sums it up well stating “Regulatory agencies should administer the industry - and producers seek to establish ecologically best-practice operations – and this should be part of an ecosystem-based spatial oceans planning framework that integrates oceans planning, protection and management to ensure that all ocean uses are ecologically sustainable. Proposals for aquaculture should be considered within that framework. Such a framework does not yet exist and will require substantive legislative reform such as an Oceans Act. In the meantime, proposals for open-pen sea cage aquaculture and other aquaculture should be assessed for their sustainability through a scientifically rigorous process, contribute a reasonable economic rent for access to our oceans, have effective planning, management and monitoring systems in place, and meet any other relevant social and cultural goals that may be in place.”

The final word: All parties need to make a start

At the end of the day, all parties involved in the Sea Cage discussions have the same end goal: To be producing, selling and eating fish into the future. To achieve this goal, sustainable practices are integral.  The role of consumers is difficult to define, as there is so much education needed to understand the complex practice of Open-Pen Sea Cage Aquaculture.  Some basic guidelines for consumers are:

1. Buy Australian aquaculture products over exports – along with supporting local industry, Australian standards are Sea Cage production are among the highest in the world.

2. Look for certified products, including Australian Conservation Foundation certified Cone Bay Barramundi and Friend of the Seas certified Cleanseas ‘Hiramasa’ Yellowtail Kingfish.

3. Make an effort to understand seafood guides such as the AMCS Sustainable Seafood Guide. Understanding how and why they assess species and products will assist with forming your own opinions and making seafood purchases.

This concludes our discussion on Open-Pen Sea Cage Aquaculture.  To provide any feedback or ask any questions, please Contact Us.

Read the whole series here: Exploring Open-Pen Sea Cage Aquaculture