The survival of European aquaculture, or fish farming, is under threat. Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food production sector in the world and the EU is the largest single market for seafood. Yet dwindling fish stocks and increased demand due to population growth mean that the sustainability of the EU’s industry is in dire need of revitalisation. Whereas globally, growth in aquaculture is between 8 % and 9 % per annum, in the EU, it lingers at around 1 %-2 %.
So what’s at stake if this stagnation isn’t halted? Food security, environmental degradation and economic damage, warn the team behind the EU-funded IDREEM project.
IDREEM – which stands for ‘increasing industrial resource efficiency in European mariculture – is a four-year project that began in 2012 to improve environmental and economic efficiency in EU aquaculture. Working with seven commercial aquaculture businesses from across Europe, IDREEM helps fish farmers diversify by creating a system in which they can grow multiple crops.
Using waste streams from finfish production that are at present lost to the environment as pollution, and converting them into secondary raw materials for the production of high value organisms such as seaweed and shellfish, the system facilitates a circular economy of reduced environmental impact and increased productivity. This process is known as ‘Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture’, or IMTA.
Although IMTA is not a new innovation, its adoption and commercialisation in Europe has never taken off. Until now. “IMTA has been around in Asia for thousands of years, and it's been around in Western literature for a good 40 or 50 years, but there's been no real commercial uptake in Europe,” says Adam Hughes, research coordinator. “The idea behind the project was to try and understand why, and what the bottlenecks were.”
These bottlenecks range from the regulatory to economic. “We found that IMTA can work, but it's not easy to implement,” Hughes says. “There's a lot of policy that says that you ought to be producing more sustainable seafood, but when you come down to Member States, the regulatory framework may not allow IMTA to occur because of various regulations, or because there’s no provision for licensing a site for more than one species.”
Other impediments to IMTA take-up are found within the businesses themselves. “Fish farmers are really good at farming fish, and shellfish farmers are really good at farming shellfish, but they're two different skill sets, and there's got to be a reason for a finfish company to invest the considerable amount of money, effort and expertise that's required to add a whole new element to their production system.” Because the benefits aren’t immediately financial: “the cost of production of IMTA is not really different from any other production system,” admits Hughes. So the motivation to move to IMTA isn’t necessarily there.
The IDREEM team is quantifying IMTA’s economic and environmental dividends to provide an evidence-based decision-making framework for aquaculture producers, regulators and policy makers.
The results of the project, which is still ongoing, are promising. All of the firms involved have expressed an interest in developing IMTA after the project and a number already have commercial IMTA operations running. The team also hope their findings will influence policy.
The impact of this will directly affect consumers, who will one day be able to buy IMTA-certified products knowing that they are environmentally friendly and sustainably produced. Long-term, food security will be strengthened, the impact on the environment will be lessened and the EU will increase its domestic share of the seafood market, resulting in lasting economic benefits for all.
Project acronym: IDREEM
Participants: UK (Coordinator), Israel, Norway, Ireland, Cyprus, Italy, Netherlands