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

Oregon Aquaculture Highlights

Hello! I am a new fellow so I’ll start by introducing myself and my background. My name is Amy Ehrhart and I am the Aquaculture Fellow for Oregon Sea Grant. I started this position in November 2020 part-time while I finished my PhD in Environmental Science and Management at Portland State University. I was about two weeks away from my defense when the position began which made for a whirlwind of a month. But somehow I was able to defend, edit and submit everything on time. It feels surreal to be done with graduate school and starting a fellowship, especially during a pandemic. 

So how did I get into aquaculture? My dissertation research focused on pharmaceutical contaminants in coastal ecosystems. Two of my research chapters addressed effects and accumulation of these compounds in Pacific oysters, which are commercially grown in Oregon and Washington. To conduct field experiments, I used off-bottom rack-and-bag culture methods (see picture below) to grow oysters in areas near and far from contaminant sources. While aquaculture was not the main focus of my research, I gained a good understanding of oyster biology/ecology, different growing methods, areas where culture is taking place, and some industry priorities. Since starting the fellowship I have learned A LOT more about aquaculture in Oregon and the West coast and I am enjoying the break from contaminant work, which can be very interesting, but also a little doom and gloom.  

Pacific oysters being grown in mesh bags attached to a PVC rack in Netarts Bay, Oregon (April 2017).

So far in my fellowship I have focused on three main projects: conducting a landscape analysis, planning a needs assessment, and participating in a regional seaweed aquaculture collaborative. I also provided updated content for the Oregon Sea Grant aquaculture website to highlight these current endeavors. There hasn’t been a large focus on aquaculture at Oregon Sea Grant for a few years so there was a need to identify who the major players are in the industry. I was tasked with completing a “landscape analysis” or more simply put, a spreadsheet of people, groups, and agencies involved with marine aquaculture in Oregon. I spent a good portion of my time compiling this information, and I continue adding to it as my work continues. 

My second project involved planning a needs assessment for growers, prospective growers, agencies, and researchers working on aquaculture topics. Globally, about 50% of seafood comes from aquaculture (NOAA Fisheries), and a lot of this is imported to the U.S. from other countries. There is federal support for coastal states to increase domestic aquaculture production, but they face several challenges and barriers. Oregon aquaculture production is fairly low compared to other states, and there is a potential opportunity for expansion, which could provide significant economic benefits for the state. But we don’t know if there is interest in expansion in marine aquaculture or what the current challenges are for growers. The goal of the needs assessment is to identify needs and barriers surrounding aquaculture expansion and use this information to inform outreach and engagement strategies. I am currently finalizing an online survey that will be distributed as soon as it gets human subjects research approval. 

My third project has been participating in a collaborative group that represents California, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska with a focus on seaweed aquaculture. Seaweed is a relatively new product, and one that I knew very little about coming into this group. I have been working hard to catch up so I can contribute meaningful recommendations. Our goal is to plan a regional symposium on seaweed farming that will be beneficial to growers and other industry members in all west coast states. This is incredibly challenging as all of the states have highly variable regulatory requirements, environmental constraints, and current seaweed operations. In Oregon, seaweed aquaculture is in the very early stages and constitutes 2-3 growers that cultivate Pacific dulse seaweed in land-based tanks. This is very different from a state like Alaska, that produces large amounts of kelp in the offshore environment. Identifying topics and strategies that apply to all states at a regional level has been an interesting challenge, and I look forward to strategizing and learning more. 

These first three months of my fellowship have flown by and I am really enjoying the work! It was difficult to start a job with a heavy focus on stakeholder engagement during a pandemic that restricts in-person interactions, but I am feeling much more optimistic about the future as vaccines are being administered and COVID-19 cases are starting to drop.

Thanks for reading and stay safe out there!