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Evelyne Nusalim (supported by Chris Leftwich) led a panel discussion at a recent international conference in Kuala Lumpur on …

Aquaculture: Ensuring the Future through Sustainability:

Will aquaculture be an opportunity to increase the availability of seafood
as well as reduce health risks?


With our acknowledgment to the panelists, colleagues and participants who assisted us in this debate and for Infofish for giving us the opportunity and in particular for the contribution of Mr. Mohamed Razali Mohamed from Marine Fish Farmers Association Malaysia –Aquagrow Corp. in this article.


Fish is known to contain high percentages of beneficial fats, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and a high amount of protein, while at the same time being low in calories. Therefore it can be beneficial in preventing cardiovascular diseases and obesity. With an increasing amount of people suffering from cardiovascular diseases and obesity in the EU and US, the governments of those countries advise their citizens to eat fish twice a week for a good health.

For this reason, oily fish such as salmon, tuna and other ocean fish that contain a higher level of omega-3 fatty acid than freshwater fish are considered a healthier option. Many of these oily fish are also captured and processed also for food supplements, which is an ever-expanding market and places even more pressure on supplies for consumption.

The FAO has predicted that the world population in 2050 will reach 9 billion. With this predicted increase in world population, assuming that everyone eats two portions of seafood a week, it would require a total worldwide increase of fish production to around 195 million tons by the year 2050.

As supplies from the oceans are diminished due to overfishing, the required production of fish will not be met.  Alternatives should be found to meet the demands of the increase in world population.

Conflict of Principal

There is conflict of interest between the importing countries, such as the EU and US, and the exporting countries from the Asia-Pacific region, on how the utilization of fisheries products have impacted on the development of freshwater and marine aquaculture.

The importing countries often regard seafood as a means for the prevention of diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and obesity, which are diseases that are expensive to treat and cause massive strains on the health care budgets of those Countries. Fish is eaten more for their health as food supplement rather than as food to fill the stomach.  It is also processed by the pharmaceutical enterprises for food supplements that are extremely profitable. This leads to more demand for fish, as they can pay more than average consumers, which in turn means less fish are available as food for the less fortunate people.

The NGO's from the Asia-Pacific region – the exporting countries – prefer to view fish as food, to satisfy basic needs, and for its taste, leading to food security in the region. These conflicting principals and needs can lead to unsustainable practices for producing fish.  The business operators are tempted to raise fish as quick as possible, producing more omega-3 fatty acid in the fish in order to obtain higher profits. Fish are therefore pushed to grow faster and food supplements are added in the feed to meet the demands, leading to weaker species. In addition, medicines used to prevent and cure disease can make aquaculture fish dangerous to human health if used incorrectly.


Aquaculture in this context is raising fish in marine and freshwater.

Fish business operators and a number of policy-makers hope that aquaculture will be the solution to overfishing. The quantity of fish required could be cultured according to demand. Furthermore, it is assumed that in integrated aquaculture aspects such as food security, safety and environment can be controlled.

However, ecologists do not agree with this assumption. Aquaculture is feeding fish to fish, with a ratio varying from 2 to 5 kilograms, fish in and fish out. It requires 2 to 5 kilograms of fish as feed to produce 1 kilogram of marketable fish. Salmon fisheries in the UK reach a ratio of 1.7 to 1 kilogram while in Malaysia, 7 kilograms of trash fish is needed to product 1 kilogram of high value marine finfish, such as grouper, snapper and barramundi. In Malaysia, small-scale farmers due to “affordability” and cash flow issues practice this high feed ratio

The larger, commercial scale farmers (like Aquagrow Corporation Sdn Bhd) uses only formulated diets and the FCR is similar to the Norwegian salmon industry of about 1.7 to 1. Unfortunately, most marine fish farmers throughout those countries listed above are small-scale farmers.

For aquaculture feed purposes, small fish are captured in the ocean, thereby reducing the overall fish stocks. This can have a negative effect by reducing the amount of food available in the ocean for other species. Large wild fish, such as salmon and tuna as well as seals and seabirds, acquire less food as they also feed from the same small fish.

The seed required for aquaculture originates from wild stock. While transferring the seed from the ocean or open waters to aquaculture, more than half is wasted. Moreover, the rate of survival of seed in aquaculture is less than it is in its natural environment. In this aspect, aquaculture is competing with wild stock and will place even further pressure on diminishing wild stocks.

Hybrids, which were developed in aquaculture in order to get a better and stronger species, can threaten the wild species once they escape to open waters. Furthermore, wastewater from aquaculture is often discharged to open waters, carrying toxins and diseases, which could endanger the wild species.

However, freshwater fish, such as carps, are herbivorous; they feed on plant-based foods, not on other fish. Another main species that does need to be fed fish is tilapia that eats essentially phytoplankton and detritus found in ponds. Both are widely cultured in Asia.

An aquaculture system that will sustain an increase in fish production and meet the demands of all parties needs to be developed.

Sustainable aquaculture

As there is no standard definition of ‘sustainable’ aquaculture, during the debate it was agreed that sustainable aquaculture should be environment friendly, profitable and socially responsible

Environment friendly aquaculture should help in establishing food security and therefore may not lead to further overfishing, emptying oceans and open waters. Wastewater from aquaculture should be treated so that it will not discharge to open waters while containing toxins and diseases. Different forms of aquaculture should be considered, such as rice-fish culture, which does not threaten the environment by for example requiring mangrove forests to be eliminated to establish the fishponds.

In addition, aquaculture should be profitable to motivate business operators to develop it in a sustainable way. However, fish coming from integrated aquaculture cannot be considered safer than wild catch. To generate profits and reduce risks, fish are often pushed to grow faster, making the cultured species weaker than the wild ones. Medicine, such as antibiotics is often used to prevent or cure diseases, which, can if administered incorrectly be dangerous to human health.

Feed plays a crucial role in sustainable aquaculture as well. Duckweed and algae are good sources of protein that could be used as alternatives for feed. However, feeding omnivorous fish with plants could lead to physical and biological modification of the fish, as well as their color. The red color of salmon or shrimp cannot be obtained when using duckweed or algae as feed.

In general, technology used in extensive and semi-extensive aquaculture is based on trial and error.

Monitoring systems to control feed are now available but often not used on the grounds of cost and therefore in many instances there is no control on feed. Prohibited substances and medicines can also be added in feed and if not detected find their way into the human food chain.

Although aquaculture certification requires identification of feed used in the process this does not guarantee the food safety as required by the importing country such as in the EU that needs the guarantee to be given by the Competent Authority of the exporting country.

Endangered species used as feed cannot be controlled although some certification bodies claim that it is under control. The existing mandatory traceability system do not monitor the fish used as fish oil or feed, as the system is only established for human consumption. Trash fish and by catch not fit for human consumption are not registered and reported but are often used in the production of fishmeal.

The different certifications required by importers from different countries can lead to high costs for the processors and less profit, but does not provide a better comprehension on ‘sustainable aquaculture’, as every certification body has different criteria that the exporters have to meet to be accredited.

Social acceptance and culture also play a major role, especially when finding alternative feed for aquaculture so that it does not need to depend on small fish from the ocean. Moreover, feed coming from sources, which are considered as environmental unsustainable or against the culture of the consumers, will lead to resistance of consumers to buy these fish.

Integrated aquaculture may be the solution, provided that it takes into account all aspects of sustainable aquaculture.

Ensuring the Future through Sustainability

Multiplying the fish production is necessary to satisfy the need for food in 2050. Marine aquaculture is preferred as marine fish contain more omega-3 fatty acid than freshwater ones.  Also for some people the taste is considered to be superior.

Marine Fish Farmers Association Malaysia, established in 2011, has been encouraging sustainable practices to 2,390 marine fish farmers throughout the country. They are doing this by spawning local area associations, holding seminars regularly, publishing technical and marketing information on their website and reaching out to all farmers with information on sustainable practices and other issues that affects the industry. And working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) on research projects to prove beyond any doubt that the use of formulated diet produces a lower “cost of production” than using trash fish. It is cheaper to buy trash fish and the farmed fish growth rate using trash fish is faster but the higher FCR and the much higher mortality (due to introduced pathogens into the farms from poor handling of trash fish) actually resulted in a higher cost of production. But small-scale farmers typically do not collect data or analyse their cost of production, cash flows and internal rates of returns.

However, freshwater fish also have important nutritive value and raising it is less expensive.

To ensure the future on fish production, the majority of people in the world have to able to feed themselves. Aquaculture techniques should be simple, effective and low cost that could be done by small farmers all over the world.

Furthermore, indigenous practices that have been done for generations and have been proven to be sustainable should be encouraged and supported with modern technology.

They are among others:

1.     Polyculture

Aquaculture of several species that can live together will provide biodiversity with mutual benefits. The targeted fish and the feed are raised together, leading to a more efficient and sustainable aquaculture, and possibly an organic aquaculture system. A variant on this is hydroponics where the wastewater from the aquaculture is used to grow crops, which has been done quite successfully in many Countries.

2.     Rice-Fish Culture

An indigenous aquaculture system practiced globally wherever rice is the basic food for the population. China has been using this system for more than 4000 years and it is well known in other Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Thailand, India and Bangladesh as well as in Europe, the US and Australia.
As rice is a basic staple food in many countries, fish raised in the rice fields will not only generate extra income for the farmers, but also the extra protein needed for their physical development.

Culturing rice and fish together is a win-win situation; the waste of the fish is fertilizer for the rice, while insects and pests for the rice are feed for the fish. Rice plants also provide the fish with the oxygen needed during the day.

Selecting herbivorous fish suitable for the rice species, and omnivorous fish, which eat phytoplankton and detritus, can lead to a sustainable aquaculture, producing more food with high nutritional value.  Crustacean and mollusks can be also raised with this system. Aquaponics has more or less similar opportunities and benefits.

3.     Bivalve mollusks

Bivalve mollusks, such as oysters and mussels, that filter water, will help to clean the environment. Bivalve mollusk culture will contribute more food with good nutritional value. This could form part of an integrated coastal management system and provide a good source of sustainable seafood at a very low cost


Sustainable aquaculture cannot stand-alone; it needs the cooperation of governments, business operators and scientists to achieve it. Simple affordable techniques are required to ensure the future.


This article is based on the presentation of ‘Debate on Aquaculture’ and reflecting the major points discussed during the open debate following the presentation, held at the conference of MISE 2014 held on June 20, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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