Farming more, farming better

Posted on abril, 28 2015

Aquaculture is providing more and more of the fish the world eats. Learn about a new hybrid ‘benchmarking’ approach, being applied to Aquaculture Improvement Projects (AIPs) in the Philippines and Malaysia, that will help map out a path for improvement.
Fish is an essential part of the human diet, and a primary protein source in many poor or coastal communities around the world. With the overexploitation of wild ocean stocks alongside the growing demand for fish protein  however, the role of aquaculture or fish farming in meeting this nutritional need is coming to the fore.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI) paper on “Improving Productivity and Environmental Performance of Aquaculture,” almost 50% of all fish that people consume come from aquaculture, one of the world’s fastest-growing animal food-producing sectors; in 2012, that amounted to some 67 million tonnes.

To meet the demands of ever-growing populations, WRI estimates, aquaculture production will need to grow from its 2012 level to about 140 million tonnes in 2050, an increase of almost 100%. Considering the industry’s environmental and social impacts, however—specifically, its requirements for fresh water, land, energy, and fish feed—there is the need for what WRI calls “sustainable intensification,” an increase in production without compromising the environment.

In line with its goals of reduced environmental impact and better conservation outcomes for fisheries, particularly in the ecoregion known as the Coral Triangle, WWF is currently working on aquaculture improvement projects (AIPs) with major aquaculture companies.

In the Philippines, the project involves milkfish production on the land-based farms of Alsons Aquaculture Corporation (AAC) in Alabel, Sarangani Province. AAC is a fully integrated farm-to-market fish-processing operation in the Philippines established in 1988, which manages its own multi-species fish hatchery, grow-out operations, processing plant, and feed production on the same farm site.  AAC's main product is milkfish, which is processed and exported to North America, Europe, and the Middle East.
“Milkfish has become one of most frequently bought fish in the country today,” says RJ de la Calzada, Project Manager for WWF-Philippines. “AAC's milkfish hatchery has been providing 30% of the annual national requirement of milkfish fry. Compared to many other commercially important fishes, milkfish can be reproduced through a full cycle of aquaculture.” This means that no wild-caught milkfish are part of the process, with even the hatchlings grown on the farm.
In Malaysia, grouper and barramundi are grown in the sea cages and ponds of GST, a Malaysian company founded in 1985 to supply fresh seafood to restaurants and hotels around the state of Penang. It now owns around 10,000 marine culture cages.

"Grouper, barramundi, and red snapper are the major species cultured in sea cages in Peninsular Malaysia,” says Ernest Chiam, Senior Aquaculture Officer of the WWF-Malaysia Marine Programme. “This is because of their commercial value, as they are sought after in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and European countries.”
Here is where some necessary adaptation has come in. An Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification remains the “gold standard” for aquaculture products, but because no standards exist as yet for these in-demand species, despite their environmental impacts, a benchmarking process had to be created and applied to the farms. ASC standards for similar species—such as those of tilapia for milkfish, for instance—and other non-ASC certification standards were “combined” for a hybrid approach to solving the problem.

Further, in the absence of a baseline against which improvements in farming practices can be measured over time, a new approach introduced by WWF-US was employed. The Foundations for Aquaculture Performance Advancement (FAPA) gauge specific indicators of impact, called Foundational Measures, that can guide in the gathering and assessment of data, regardless of species or the scale of the farming system used. Such impacts include feed utilization and efficiency, water pollution, land and habitat conversion, and use of water, chemicals, and energy, among others.

Dr Aaron McNevin, Director of Aquaculture at WWF-US, outlines the “four unique strengths” of the FAPA approach: “It is universal; it is quantitative and derived from ASC standards, such that WWF can benchmark performance over time, removing subjectivity and value judgments; it spells out the trade-offs of intensive versus extensive production; and last, there is a business case for producers to perform well against the Foundational Measures—a producer does not only help make aquaculture more sustainable, but also becomes more economically viable.”

The fact that such a tool can be used anywhere will make it possible to eventually determine a global baseline for aquaculture, Dr McNevin says. “We can then see the range of performance against the Foundational Measures, and we can identify producers, regions, scales, and even species that are not as good as others. Thus, based on Foundational Measures data collected, we can assist them to improve, knowing full well that others have already proven that they can do better.”

Such developments in AIPs, which are supported by the WWF Coral Triangle Programme, are welcome in the light of the growing importance of aquaculture in feeding people worldwide. “Our emphasis in the CTP is foremost on seafood and livelihood security, but ensuring that increasing aquaculture production is conducted in an environmentally responsible way,” says Dr Geoffrey Muldoon, Business and Industry Strategy Leader of the Coral Triangle Programme. “Expanding aquaculture production must be accompanied by new and widely adopted technologies and stronger policies that see increased productivity within environmentally acceptable limits.”
Muldoon also notes the increasing emphasis in the WWF Coral Triangle Programme on the concept of Low-Footprint Aquaculture, defined as “aquaculture and fisheries products that have a low requirement for aquatic primary productivity.” Thus, it’s also about farming species with lower and more sustainable feed requirements.
Constant innovation and refinement will help ensure that AIPs like those instigated here can help transform farming for species still outside the ASC purview, while benefiting the widest possible range of stakeholders.

“With support from the WWF Coral Triangle Programme, WWF-Malaysia is using our project to show the broader community that implementing an AIP to deliver better aquaculture practices at farm level can help in the more responsible production of farmed fish,” says Chiam. “And when farmers can see improved productivity from AIP farms, in terms of environment and profits, they will begin to notice the importance of adopting better practices in aquaculture.”
“In a nutshell, WWF is promoting the certification of a local aquaculture company in the Philippines, with the eventual goal of ASC certification,” says de la Calzada. “By working with an aquaculture industry leader, it will be a big boost for the business to have internationally recognized certification. It will also build the confidence of the customers that the product comes from a socially and environmentally responsible company.”
Harvesting groupers from GST's farm.
© @WWF-Malaysia/Ernest Chiam
Fish are fed with pellets at GST's hatchery in Penang.
© @WWF-Malaysia/Ernest Chiam
Floating cages carrying precious coral trout, Taytay, Philippines
© Jürgen Freund / WWF