Discarded salmon farming structures in the Golfo de Corcovado in Chile. With a 25 meter diameter, this circle of plastic houses up to 70,000 salmon every 9 months when functional.

Working Group:
Sustainable Aquaculture

Aquaculture now represents 50 percent of all fisheries products directly consumed by people, and demand is only expected to increase. But today, aquaculture faces a crossroads: can the industry provide quality fish products for a growing global population without exacerbating degradation of marine ecosystems?

Photo: © Tom Crowley | More Info
Photo: © Tom Crowley

Working Group Summary

Supporting Sustainable Open-Ocean Aquaculture

For aquaculture as an industry, it’s not a question of if or when it will take off, but more about how and where it will expand, and what people can do to help steer it towards more sustainable practices. One of the biggest potentials for growth and new opportunity in the business is open-ocean (also called offshore) aquaculture. The Sustainable Open-Ocean Aquaculture Working Group will examine current best practices across the industry, as well as analyze the economic and ecological impacts of potential aquaculture development scenarios – with a special emphasis on ways to further sustainability within the emerging sector of open-ocean aquaculture.

Learn about the Challenge

Photo: © Tim Calver for The Nature Conservancy

The Challenge

What are the Challenges of Open-Ocean Aquaculture?

As an industry, aquaculture faces a suite of challenges. To be successful over the long term, it must mitigate a host of issues including habitat destruction (especially estuaries and mangrove forests), disease outbreaks, accidental releases, nutrient pollution, and heavy metal contamination of food products. As a result, the key questions confronting the industry are:

  • how are marine farming operations (e.g., salmon) made sustainable, and
  • what are the opportunities for aquaculture of the future with respect to sustainable practices?

Aquatic farming can have huge conservation and environmental impacts, but how this scales with growth of the industry is unclear. Currently, at least 30 aquaculture certification programs exist globally, but the diversity of criteria results in a diversity of what is considered ‘sustainable’. Moreover, there appears to be misunderstanding by consumers regarding farmed species and can thus influence the adoption of sustainable practices.

One of the biggest areas of interest and new opportunity in the industry is open-ocean aquaculture. However, the challenges facing more near-shore practices do not necessarily translate offshore. The uncertainty surrounding the expansion of marine aquaculture thus requires comparisons and quantification of the issues and benefits from multiple perspectives (i.e., ecological, social, economic) and scales.


Read About the Inquiry

Komodo Fish Culture Project staff member inspecting a mouse grouper fingerling in Komodo National Park of Indonesia. The project was started by the Conservancy in the late 90's to create hatchery facilities to provide a profitable and environmentally-sound business, bringing income to local communities.

The Inquiry

Preparing for Sustainable Offshore Aquaculture

The Sustainable Open-Ocean Aquaculture Working Group will examine specific dimensions of aquaculture — focusing our efforts on offshore farming and providing insight into an expanding industry by developing recommendations for further scientific investigation, management, and communication based on::

1. A review of the real and perceived risks of open-ocean aquaculture relative to the near-shore approaches. The Working Group will review both grey literature and peer-reviewed articles, as well as interview industry representatives, and ecologists who have expertise in geographies where aquaculture operations are either already well-established and/or are rapidly expanding. Drawing upon the array of concerns and impacts that have already been measured in a near-shore context, the Working Group will disentangle actual offshore impacts, concerns, and possible improvements that will help clarify the potential of open-ocean aquaculture.

2. An analysis of the marine aquaculture opportunities for expanding open-ocean aquaculture with an emphasis on approaches that target the most favorable options for jointly meeting economic and ecological needs. The Working Group — which includes conservation scientists with expertise in ocean health, aquaculture economist, and NOAA experts who contributed to the National Strategic Plan for Federal Aquaculture — will identify and map areas with greatest opportunity (‘hot spots’) for “smart aquaculture” with high potential aquaculture productivity, and minimal conflict with biodiversity and critical ecosystem services.

3. Equally important is avoiding areas most at risk and/or least viable for open-ocean farming expansion. As such, the Working Group will also analyze areas that should be avoided given a series of important ecological, social and economic considerations (‘cold spots’).

4. Looking towards an expansion of sustainable open-ocean aquaculture requires an assessment of the needs and conflicts of ocean farming now and into the future. The people best suited for such an evaluation are the operators invested in the aquaculture industry – a perspective almost completely missing from the scientific literature. Using surveys and coordinating an in-person panel, the Working Group intends to investigate and work with industry leaders to uncover the largest barriers, issues, and benefits of aquaculture.

Meet the Team

Photo: © Djuna Ivereigh | More Info

The Team

The Sustainable Open-Ocean Aquaculture Team

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