Does sustainable aquaculture have a future?

Photo RALF GÜNTHER

In Germany, a societal and political discussion is needed on how and whether aquaculture can develop further.

04.09.2020 · Environmental Research · Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries · HP-Topnews · Research result

Aquaculture – the controlled production of aquatic organisms such as fish, mussels, shrimps or algae – is considered the fastest growing branch of food production worldwide. In contrast, aquaculture in Germany ekes out a niche existence. Currently, less than 3 percent of German fish consumption is covered by domestic aquaculture. The production targets set by the National Strategy Plan for Aquaculture* (NASTAQ) for 2020 are clearly missed, and Germany remains heavily dependent on imports. The potential for greater self-sufficiency and for the export of fish using sustainable processes could be developed instead of shifting the pressure of use on aquatic ecosystems and possible environmental impacts abroad. This is the assessment of researchers from IGB in the IGB Policy Brief "Sustainable Aquaculture in Germany - Opportunities and Challenges" published today. However, whether sustainable aquaculture in Germany has a future at all is not a purely technical or scientific question. Rather, a societal and political discussion is needed on how and whether aquaculture in Germany can – and should – develop further.

"Compared to other countries, food is readily available in Germany in both quantity and quality. It is therefore initially a free and individual decision as to whether consumers will basically opt for the consumption of fish as an animal product", emphasizes Professor Werner Kloas, head of the Department of Ecophysiology and Aquaculture at IGB and co-author of the Policy Brief. However, the market analyses show that there is a continuous demand for fish. At the same time, it is clear that the wild catch from the oceans cannot be increased any more, although the demand is increasing worldwide.

"Aquaculture can contribute to meeting these challenges", adds IGB researcher Dr. Fabian Schäfer, co-author of the Policy Brief. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, over half of the fish products consumed worldwide already come from aquaculture – and the trend is rising. "However, this expansion must urgently be made sustainable in order to counteract the further overexploitation of natural resources – otherwise little is gained," emphasizes Fabian Schäfer.

Opportunities: Sustainable aquaculture has potential in Germany

All in all, the IGB researchers conclude that in terms of water, area, technology, know-how and purchasing power, Germany in principle has sufficient resources to significantly increase its own production of edible fish species for the domestic and export markets using sustainable methods. Potential is seen in particular in land-based (partially) closed recirculation systems (RAS), which can also be integrated into other existing production cycles. Synergy effects in energy, water, heat and cold supply can be used or nutrients can be recycled.
Through the regionalization of aquaculture and comparatively high environmental standards, the quality of animal husbandry, animal welfare and product as well as the security of supply and local value creation in Germany can be fundamentally increased with good management, the scientists explain.

Challenges: Higher production costs and consumer acceptance

In addition to the opportunities mentioned above, however, the authors point out that the existing challenges must also be discussed transparently. This concerns for example the higher production costs in RAS: Investment, energy and technical personnel costs are reflected in a more expensive product, which can hardly compete with cheap imports, where also the environmental costs were shifted abroad. "Sustainable fish from RAS production has its price. Without a higher actual willingness to pay on the part of trade and consumers, this form of aquaculture will probably not be established nationwide in Germany", explains Fabian Schäfer.

According to the IGB analysis, a further challenge for the industry is to gain consumers' understanding of fish farming in technical systems. This is because production systems that are close to nature or embedded in nature are often judged by people on an emotional level to be more "harmonious", whereas technical circulation systems on the other hand tend to have a deterrent effect. This phenomenon is also known from other areas of consumption, often in the context of a relatively idealized and romanticized idea of modern food production. Many consumers know fish only as a processed and ready-to-eat product on the shelf, which in most cases has been imported. Aquaculture production often takes place abroad under lower social or environmental standards. However, the production conditions and the environmental effects associated with them remain largely unknown - or are faded out.

Does sustainable aquaculture have a future in Germany? Politics and society must decide

"All in all, the situation shows that a public and political discussion about the demands on and ideas of modern and sustainable aquaculture must be conducted. However, no one-sidedly advertising marketing messages for aquaculture should be spread, but reservations and suggestions from society should be taken up," emphasizes Werner Kloas. "As a public and independent research institute, we support this process with fact-based research knowledge. But whether aquaculture is fundamentally desirable and how it should develop is the result of political and social decisions".

* The Member States of the European Union are obliged to draw up a multiannual national strategic plan for the development of aquaculture. The National Strategy Plan for Aquaculture in Germany (NASTAQ) is intended to map opportunities and goals of the entire German aquaculture sector and was first published in 2014. However, the goals formulated for 2020 were clearly missed.

In 2020, the NASTAQ will be updated and revised and is to be valid until 2030. During the public consultation, the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Germany's largest research center for inland waters, submitted a statement on this issue. In addition, the IGB makes its assessment available to the public in this IGB Policy Brief.

The IGB Policy Brief refers to the situation in Germany and is therefore only available in German.

Further information and contact

www.igb-berlin.de