Everyone is talking about Seaspiracy and the environmental impact of commercial fishing.
That’s great. This is an important environmental issue that people need to be aware of. As a recruitment consultant in this space, I talk to animal health leaders and experts every day who agree that this is a major concern.
However, Seapsiracy has created controversy throughout my network due to its limited exposure of the aquaculture industry.
Throughout the Netflix documentary, the director and star, Ali Tabrizi, continuously dismisses the idea of eating fish sustainably and pretty much overlooks the entire aquaculture industry. He never properly interviews a single industry expert or gives them a chance to speak.
This is something the New York Times - which has previously supported previous plant-based diet documentaries like Cowspiracy and What the Health – has noticed too. The paper described Tabrizi’s interviews as “a cheap imitation of hard-hitting investigative journalism.”
It’s a real shame. Aquaculture is an area that’s open to change, embracing new technologies and adopting more sustainable practices. So, what’s actually going on? What good is aquaculture doing? And what does the industry have to say about Seaspiracy?
Having seen my LinkedIn feed explode over the past month, the main criticism from the aquaculture community seems to be that Seaspiracy is oversimplified. They’ve tried to answer an extremely complex question in 1 hour and 29 minutes with limited expert sources.
In the film, the idea of sustainable and responsible aquaculture is dismissed which leads Tabrizi to conclude that we must abstain from seafood consumption of any kind.
I’ll admit that this could work for some people. But what about the three billion people who rely on fish for their primary source of animal-based protein? And what about in under-developed countries where changing diet is just not an option for people?
The world needs fish for food, so the answer is more complex than what Seaspiracy suggests.
Instead, we need to keep improving aquaculture and strive for a more sustainable future. We need to positively contribute to the ocean or at the very least, avoid harming it. That means fishing and seafood farming must continue to embrace more responsible and environmentally friendly ways of working.
I know that there’s so many innovative aquaculture companies and people working hard to do this right now. But unfortunately, Seaspiracy chose not to feature them. We are using drones, satellites, artificial intelligence (AI) – you name it – to improve sustainability and our environmental impact.
For example, one Canadian aquaculture technology company, XpertSea, uses data to improve the efficiency and sustainability of shrimp and fish hatcheries, farms and research centres. Its platform replaces traditional hand-counting with precision hardware and software tools. This helps rapidly count and analyse aquatic species with 95% accuracy or better.
Combining AI, computer vision, machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT), the XpertSea platform is increasing the availability of quality food, reducing the environmental impact of food production across the aquaculture food chain.
Technological advances in AI have also been helpful in disease detection. Disease poses a significant threat to aquaculture sustainability, causing an estimated $6 billion worth of aquatic animal losses each year.
Multiple aquaculture companies have innovated to find sustainable solutions in disease prevention. For example, feed supplements are used to boost the natural defences of aquatic animals. Other companies use ‘cleaner fish’ (like ballan wrasse) too, which prevent disease by grazing on harmful sea lice in aquaculture pens.
Sea lice are dangerous. In the salmon industry alone, their estimated to cause $1 billion worth of damage a year. One innovative company, Benchmark, is on a global mission to change that by providing preventative measures to keep the aquatic animal supply chain healthy.
Its medicinal bath treatments are used on well-boat fishing vessels (which store and transport live fish) in Benchmark’s water purification system, CleanTreat. This system filters and removes harmful organic material from treatment water including sea lice, egg strings, fish scales and faecal matter to stop disease from spreading amongst fish.
With constant monitoring to ensure the welfare of the fish, Benchmark’s system is helping keep fish healthy and minimising industry wastage. It’s for this reason that it received the Aquaculture Innovation Award for CleanTreat in 2019.
However, there’s more great work being done beyond disease prevention. For example, the aquaculture industry is embracing more sustainable feeds to help build resilient supply chains and become more environmentally friendly.
There’s been an increased adoption of low-impact protein alternatives, like insect feeds, in aquaculture. Insect feeds are great because they require minimal water, space, energy and time to grow when compared to other feed sources.
There are no signs of this adoption of insect feed slowing down. World leaders in insect meal production, Protix, has continued to receive backing from multiple major aquaculture companies like Aqua-Spark. While companies are still working hard to prove the cost-effectiveness of insect feed, the sustainable advantages remain a positive that aquaculture can’t ignore.
Norwegian company, Molofeed, is also providing sustainable feeds but not through insects. Instead, the company has developed larval feed for marine finfish and shrimp which can serve as alternative to their traditional feed sourced from live prey (like artemia and rotifers). This alternative is cheaper, better at preventing disease and has a significantly reduced environmental footprint.
Molofeed’s solution, Micropro, is the world’s first microcapsule for larval feed that’s designed for nutrition of marine larvae (shrimp, sea bass, sea bream, cleaner fish and more) ranging in size from five to 500 microns.
Micropro includes pre-digested and other water-soluble components in a capsule and slow-release the nutrients after feeding. This technology has several additional potential applications, including acting as a delivery system for bioactive peptides, immunostimulants and probiotics.
However, to achieve sustainability, it needs to be front-of-mind throughout the food change – from animal feed right up to what we eat. While Seaspiracy concludes that everyone should to stop eating all fish, this does not take into account the diversity of aquaculture.
There are bony fish, crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms (sea cucumbers) – as well as different types of seaweed collected as a part of aquaculture. Each of these have their own sustainability benefits and challenges, so must be treated on a case-by-case basis.
For example, non-fed aquaculture offers huge environmental advantages. Marine bivalves (like clams, mussels and oysters) get their nourishment by filtering microscopic plants, detritus and nutrients from the water that surrounds them. They require minimal inputs and can even improve water quality, making them prime candidates for farming.
Aquatic animals that do require feed (like prawns and bony fish) also have an environmental advantage over animals raised in terrestrial agriculture. That’s because most of these fish are cold-blooded, which allows them to convert food into body mass more efficiently than birds and mammals. That means it takes less feed to produce a kilogram of salmon, for example, than it does to produce a kilogram of beef or pork.
So, cutting-out all fish isn’t the answer for a sustainable future. Even so, the aquaculture industry has continued to innovate to provide responsible alternatives.
Californian-based BlueNalu is on its way to becoming the global leader in cell-cultured seafood. The company’s seafood products are produced directly from fish cells in a way that is healthy for people, humane for animals and sustainable for our planet. It’s pretty cool, right?
As you can see, sustainable aquaculture is equally complex and important. While I am glad that Seaspiracy has got people talking about this crucial topic, the simplified way it has drawn its conclusions isn’t great.
While we know that there’s work to be done to improve aquaculture, it’s important that what is being done doesn’t go unnoticed. This is a great, innovative space that is working hard to be sustainable and we should be proud of that.
If you work in animal health, I'd love to know what you think about Seaspiracy. Send me an email at Anna.Heslop@lifesci-cm.com and we can get chatting.
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