Aquaculture Literacy

I can’t believe I’ve already been a fellow for six months! Time is really flying by. In the last quarter, I have distributed a needs assessment survey to stakeholders involved in Oregon aquaculture, continued working with West Coast Sea Grant partners to plan a seaweed symposium, served as a reviewer for two grant proposals, and started working on an aquaculture regulations report. In my next blog post, I plan to give a more thorough update on these projects, but for now, I am going to discuss a side topic that is frequently brought up in literature (and other media) and conversations about sustainable aquaculture development.

Every other week I participate in a regional meeting facilitated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) where all of the West Coast Sea Grant programs give an update on their aquaculture work. Sometimes we spend part of the meeting discussing a relevant topic, and we have recently been focusing on aquaculture literacy, which I am defining very generally as knowledge and understanding of aquaculture among the public. This has sparked some very interesting conversations about how the public perceives aquaculture, how these perspectives have changed (or not) over time, and how to address the myriad of misconceptions that persist. 

To give you some background, there is a general lack of awareness of current aquaculture practices among the public. Aquaculture is not something that most people knowingly interact with on a regular basis, and this is especially true for folks living in landlocked states – although these states grow a large number of freshwater aquaculture products. About half of consumed seafood is farmed (NOAA Fisheries 2020), so it is likely that most people who eat seafood regularly are consuming some aquaculture products. Despite this prevalence, negative perceptions of aquaculture are abundant and persistent, which can limit aquaculture development. Like any method of food production, farming of aquatic species comes with risks to the environment. For example, some forms of aquaculture can contribute to pollution and disease spread from farmed to wild species. But aquaculture also provides benefits such as jobs, food security, and ecosystem services. Additionally, scientific literature has refuted many of the associated risks that are commonly cited (Knapp and Rubino 2016), but since most people have limited engagement with updated information about aquaculture, negative perceptions can still present a barrier to expansion.

When addressing the issue of aquaculture literacy, I think it is really important to acknowledge that aquaculture is a diverse and growing industry that utilizes several farming methods to grow numerous aquatic and marine species (e.g., fish, shellfish, seaweed, etc.). This diversity means that blanket statements about the environmental impacts of aquaculture are rarely representative of the industry as a whole. The impacts and sustainability are very much dependent on the species, habitat, and method of farming, just like they are for any other type of food production. For example, raising fish in an offshore net pen in the open ocean will have very different risks than raising them in a recirculating tank system on land. The industry has grown significantly over the past 20 years, and has experienced a lot of pressure to increase the sustainability of their practices (Naylor et al. 2021). During this time, they have been working hard to implement improvements that greatly reduce risk. As a local example, longline oyster growers in Washington have developed tools to reduce the amount of marine debris (specifically yellow rope fragments) released into the environment, including a machine called the “cluster buster”.

Aquaculture is an important tool to meet increased demands for seafood products since the majority of wild caught fisheries have plateaued (see Figure 1). In order for the aquaculture industry to expand sustainably, there is a need to improve aquaculture literacy and address misinformation. The question is, what is the best way to do this? In our regional meeting discussions, some suggestions included focusing on the environmental and economic benefits of aquaculture (e.g., jobs, food security), reaching K-12th grade audiences, working with aquariums and other informal/formal environmental education facilities, and sharing success stories from the industry. These are all great ideas and I would add highlighting the diverse, sustainable forms of aquaculture and technological advances. Check out this article from NOAA that discusses some current technology and regulations. I also think it is helpful to frame the sustainability of aquaculture in comparison to other food production systems, which may assist consumers in making informed choices. For a good comparison with wild caught fisheries, plant-based meat and livestock, I recommend this article. Lastly, funding opportunities that prioritize aquaculture literacy are needed to provide resources to educational institutions. There was a recent call for proposals from NOAA and the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) to address aquaculture literacy by providing funding to partnerships among informal learning centers (i.e., aquariums), the aquaculture industry, and NOAA. I am excited to see these organizations creating opportunities to support effective science communication and look forward to continued discussions about ways to address this issue.

Graph comparing world fisheries and aquaculture production from 1950-2018.
Figure 1. Plot showing the amount of capture fisheries vs. aquaculture production from 1950-2018. Source: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report (2020).

References

FAO, 2020. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9229en

Knapp, G., Rubino, M.C., 2016. The Political Economics of Marine Aquaculture in the United States. Reviews in Fisheries Science & Aquaculture 24, 213–229. https://doi.org/10.1080/23308249.2015.1121202

Naylor, R.L., Hardy, R.W., Buschmann, A.H., Bush, S.R., Cao, L., Klinger, D.H., Little, D.C., Lubchenco, J., Shumway, S.E., Troell, M., 2021. A 20-year retrospective review of global aquaculture. Nature 591, 551–563. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03308-6

NOAA Fisheries, 2020. U.S. Aquaculture. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/aquaculture/us-aquaculture

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