Nik Sachlikidis, is a general manager of Caribbean Sustainable Fisheries, a Cadman Capital Group company based in the British Virgin Islands.
Consumers are becoming increasingly committed to ensuring the foods they eat are sustainably sourced. More and more people are keen to understand where exactly their food is coming from and what impact their choices are having on the environment.
This consumer-lead desire for total transparency, which encompasses every step from farm to fork, has led to a significant change in the food industry as smart producers shift their focus and implement aggressive sustainability and traceability agendas.
The seafood sector is one area that has been the focus of scrutiny over the sustainability of current and future supply. Scientists are telling us that globally all but the most well-managed fisheries are at maximum sustainable yield or are overfished, and that we can no longer increase production levels to meet growing demand even with ongoing improvements in boats and fishing technology. We are simply running out of fish, yet in many cases, the fish, crustaceans and shellfish we eat are able to reproduce incredibly quickly.
Seafood has historically been sourced from the wild. Comparatively, most land-based food has been farmed-sourced for so long that it would now be unusual to eat wild-sourced beef, lamb, chicken, grains or fruit. Most of what we now eat is the result of hundreds (if not thousands) of years of cultivation and refinement in farming methods to increase productivity and improve the reliability of supply. Farming is what both identifies and sustains us as a species.
Sustainable future increases in seafood production will, by necessity, have to come from farmed sources.
Aquaculture now accounts for the majority of seafood consumed globally. Currently, the majority of farmed seafood comes from the farming of shrimp, salmon, oysters, tilapia and scallops — all of which have only been farmed for decades, not centuries. This already demonstrates the immense potential of aquatic animals to be domesticated and farmed, keeping in mind the potential of thousands of commercially desirable seafood species for which farming has not yet been attempted.
Most aquatic species are highly fecund, meaning that they can produce a lot of viable eggs at any one reproductive event, and this is important to understanding the potential for the domestication of seafood species for farming. Compare a lobster to a chicken for example; a chicken might produce 200 - 300 eggs annually, whereas some species of lobster might produce up to 1.5 million eggs in the same time period. Even if only a very small percentage of the resultant lobster larvae survived under farming conditions we would have a lot of lobster Thermador on our hands!
Through the on-land cultivation of fish and shellfish, we are also able to restock the oceans and help ensure sustainability within the wild seafood sector. This will ensure that fish and seafood will be enjoyed for years to come, without the risk of stocks depleting to nothing.
Of course, there is still a long way to go in aquaculture and mistakes have been made, but continuous research and development breakthroughs are happening regularly. It is hoped that improvements in low energy and alternative energy Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) will allow more and more species to be grown on land, allowing for substantial future sector growth and a reduced environmental footprint.
The technology around feed alternatives is making major advancements towards sustainable sources. In many cases, it is common that the technology to improve sustainability exists, but that there are economic barriers to commercialization, and at the end of the day, it comes down to what the end consumer is willing to pay for a sustainably sourced product versus the current supply.
Although the progress is steady, sustainable fish farming still faces economic challenges. Up until recent times, seafood has been relatively inexpensive; developing the ability to domesticate and farm marine species sustainably and produce them at a competitive price point is difficult.
There’s a market premium for truly sustainably caught wild fish and seafood, but the margins are lower for farmed fish.This means there’s an added price pressure on farmed fish versus wild caught, but ultimately, I see parity between sustainably farmed seafood and ethically caught wild stock because of consumer knowledge and understanding. I use the example of the pricing and availability of organic fruit and vegetables from 20 years ago as compared to today, where organic produce has become more readily available, and much cheaper than it was previously.
Sustainability in seafood is being supported by many members of the food supply chain, including many large retailers who, as major seafood purchasers, see it as their responsibility to protect the oceans and seafood sources, and in turn their livelihoods. Some are even involved in efforts working to increase the availability of wild seafood stocks, develop aquaculture, and push for habitat enhancement and restocking programs. Many retailers are now requiring detailed sustainability and traceability practices from their suppliers. For example, companies like Red Lobster are great advocates of sustainability in seafood and their commitment to ethical sourcing is a testament to this.
Sustainably sourced seafood is coming online, and it is no longer acceptable to not know or care where our seafood comes from. The push for greater traceability and responsibility for where and how we get seafood is having a huge and positive effect on the seafood sector, and is driving producers to invest in sustainable farming technology and ensuring sustainable fisheries management.
There is much hard work ahead of us to create truly sustainable seafood to meet future demand, but with the determination of the entire seafood chain, from consumers, restaurants, suppliers and producers, the future is bright.