Fish – Are We Loving Them to Death?

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Author: Ed Aneshansley

Seafood is a critical source of protein for the world’s population. It is the only major protein source significantly supported through the management and harvest of natural “wild caught” populations, as well as farmed products.  Seafood is delicious, and popular throughout the world — we currently harvest nearly 175 million metric tons of finfish (fish that have fins and swim in the water column) through wild fisheries and aquaculture every year, and that number is expected to rise.

The problem? We’re loving fish to death. We have been harvesting wild caught seafood populations at the planet’s maximum sustainable threshold for several decades. This production rate is not expected to increase without the risk of crashing these natural populations.  As world population grows, the additional demand for seafood will need to be supported through commercial aquaculture, and the ratio of “Farmed / Wild Caught” production will steadily increase.

From a global perspective, we are currently producing more seafood through aquaculture than we are harvesting from wild populations. Only 30 years ago, aquaculture contributed only 10% of the global seafood production.  The technologies we have developed and implemented on a global scale for finfish production are being stressed by the increased demand and cannot support significant sustainable growth in the years to come.  Developing a solution to that problem has been my focus for nearly 20 years.

As an Environmental Engineer, I have dedicated my career to the advancement of Recirculation Aquaculture Systems (RAS) technology as an alternative to the traditional aquaculture practices used to culture finfish.  As an aquaculture specialist and RAS expert at McMillen Jacobs, I design RAS technology into systems that support both wild fisheries management programs and commercial aquaculture ventures.  We are revolutionizing our approach to fisheries and aquaculture system design — and positioning McMillen Jacobs to be a leader in the development, design, construction, and support of sustainable fish production facilities.

I am passionate about this technology because I believe it can play a critical role in supporting our nation’s food security with cascading benefits across areas including health and wellness, environmental sustainability, trade balance, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  So how can RAS technology be effective?

Sustainable Protein Production

Finfish offer a much more efficient way to produce protein than any terrestrial animal.  This is due to the fact that fish are predominantly cold blooded and spend their lives suspended in water. This alleviates the need to expend energy on body temperature regulation and the development of bone structure to support their bodies.  The MOWI corporation, a large salmon producer, has recently been issued the title of the “Most Sustainable Protein Producer”1 in the world, followed by other salmon producers.  A small transition from beef and pork could have a significant beneficial impact on our global greenhouse emissions.

Healthy Protein Production  

The health benefits of eating proteins rich in Omega-3 fatty acids are well documented.  Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for those over 65 and increasing the ratio of seafood in your protein intake has been adopted as a healthy lifestyle choice.  This trend is likely to continue to increase in the United States, compounding the increase in demand for seafood associated with population growth alone.

Local Protein Production

RAS technology allows us to culture seafood in nearly any geographical location.  This allows seafood production to take place close to the markets where it is consumed.  This aligns with the general support of local farming and buying local, the concept being that by supporting local farmers, you are reducing your “food miles” and are supporting a more sustainable product.  This is especially true when it comes to fresh seafood, which is highly perishable and has a narrow window in which it can be safely consumed.

Addressing the U.S. Seafood Trade Deficit

In the U.S., 90% of the seafood consumed is imported.  It’s a complicated and inefficient food network that ultimately results in a U.S. seafood trade deficit exceeding $15 billion per year, one of the largest trade deficits we face as a nation.  At a time when our “Farmed Product” contributions to the GDP are at an all-time low, this represents an opportunity to grow and manage our nation’s seafood in a much more sustainable manner.

The opportunities in the aquaculture industry are monumental and current investments being made are inspiring.  After 20 years of innovating RAS technology, I continue to be excited about its potential. I look forward to making great strides through the professional engineering and construction capabilities of the McMillen Jacobs team, offering clients one firm that can take them from land acquisition to designing and constructing facilities.

1 “Mowi Ranked Most Sustainable Protein Producer”, September 4, 2019