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As world population and incomes increase, so has the demand for fish and seafood. As of 2009, the world's total fish production from fish caught in the wild and aquaculture reached an all time high of 145.1 million tons, a number that is only growing.
But aquaculture can be a way of procuring seafood that not only protects wild fish species and the environment, but also helps alleviate global poverty and food insecurity.
Aquaculture, in contrast with commercial fishing of wild fish, is the cultivation of fish and other aquatic life under controlled marine or freshwater environments.
According to the FAO, aquaculture is the world's fastest-growing source of animal protein, providing around half of the world's fish supplies. From the years 2000 to 2008 alone, fish production from aquaculture has grown more than 60 percent, from 32.4 million tons to 52.5 million tons annually.
Small-scale fish farms in Asia-Pacific currently produce the most fish and seafood from aquaculture in the world, accounting for nearly ninety percent of the global aquaculture production. China, the world's leading producer of farmed fish, specializes in carp production, while Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia and India cultivate most of the world's stock of shrimp and prawns. Although the 2010 FAO report on aquaculture concedes that precise data are lacking, the report nonetheless suggests that the recent growth and value of farmed fish and seafood is widely recognized as an economic boon for small-scale aquaculture farmers in these regions.
Unfortunately, as the demand for fish intensifies, producers are adopting more intensive, industrial-style methods of farming fish. These "factory farms of the sea," share many of the same environmental and ethical problems as those on land. The detrimental environmental impact of fish farming as it is currently practiced in North America, Europe, and parts of Latin America, is undeniably cause for concern. Salmon farming in particular has contributed to water pollution along with a host of other environmentally harmful outcomes in these regions. Properly managed aquaculture systems, however, have the potential to be sustainable and even restorative to the surrounding environment, particularly when integrated with plant agriculture.
Aquaponics, which is the combination of aquaculture and soilless plant agriculture known as hydroponics, can be a sustainable and effective means of food production. Farmers using aquaponic techniques grow their crops hydroponically either outside in an open body of water that contains fish, or in a laboratory in a tank with aquatic life. The fish waste then fertilizes the plants while simultaneously cleansing the water of dangerous toxins for the fish, much in the same way as trees convert carbon into oxygen. The sustainable and productive nature of this symbiotic relationship between fish and plants make aquaponics an ideal method of food production.
Aquaponic farming is not a new innovation. The ancient Aztec Indians used floating gardens known as chinampas to cultivate the majority of their food. The Aztecs grew corn, beans, squash and tomatoes among other crops on the chinampas, which were fertilized by the waste from fish and aquatic life in the water. Similarly, countries in the Far East like China have long used aquaponic techniques in cultivating rice. Small-scale aquaculture farmers throughout the world still use aquaponic techniques to grow food for their communities today.
Although intensive industrialized aquaculture systems are prevalent in North America, Latin America, and Europe, small-scale aquaculture farmers are the primary commercial producers of farmed fish in Asia-Pacific and Africa. These small-scale aquaculture farmers have the capability to contribute to their communities' economic and nutritional welfare. While, regulations against intensive and environmentally damaging aquaculture practices ought to be created and reinforced, aquaculture can potentially be an effective and sustainable means of encouraging economic development and feeding our growing planet.
Caitlin Aylward is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.