Is aquaculture the answer to our fishing problems?

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“No Fishing” signs are popping up more frequently than ever as the National Marine Fisheries Service has identified so-called “overfished” saltwater stocks, albeit using mostly unreliable science.

That’s caused much disagreement about which stocks, how much and how long, should be included in any sensible rebuilding plan. However, in posing sudden and arbitrary closed seasons, no-take zones, bag limits, boat limits, catch shares and similar ideas, the National Marine Fisheries Service could be overlooking the best answer of all — increased aquaculture.

According to a United Nations report titled "The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2012,” what has brought us to this point isn’t the recreational angler — although anti-fishing loons like to claim that. No, the truth is fish has become an increasing part of human nutrition. For 3 billion people worldwide, for example, fish constituted more than 20 percent of their annual diet in 2009.

Here in the U.S., per-capita seafood consumption is at record levels and will go higher. After all, even the U.S. Department of Agriculture says fish consumption is only half of what it should be. But actually seeing consumption reach USDA-recommended levels isn’t likely as the catches from fisheries globally, dubbed “capture fishing,” have been actually declining for 20 years. Still, growing populations are creating increased demand for seafood.

Aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, is the business of raising fish populations, both in fresh water and salt water, under controlled conditions. Right now, in nearly 190 countries there are about 600 species being aquafarmed. In 2010, world aquaculture production reached 60 million tons with an estimated value of $119 billion. Surprisingly, it provided 50 percent of the seafood destined for human consumption.

It should be no surprise that aquafarming is predicted to outpace “capture fishing” because the latter is in decline. In terms of labor productivity, aquaculture, with an output of 3.6 tons per person per year, edges out “capture fisheries” with their 2.3 tons per person.

The U.S. is a minor player in aquaculture right now. The overwhelming majority (89 percent) is in Asia. Notably, China’s share alone is 60 percent. Meanwhile, aquafarming in the U.S. and Europe has remained stagnant. We need simply this to change for the long-term good of recreational fishing, which is so important to the success of our marine industry.

And it can happen if we can cause a shift in government focus. Right now, we see billions of dollars subsidizing and stimulating so-called alternative energy sources from solar panels to windmills. Good, I suppose, if we believe our coal, oil and natural gas supplies to fuel our power plants will run out (not gonna happen). Or we see a Renewable Fuels Standard that, in effect, subsidizes an absurd mandate that we burn instead of eat our corn crop.

Against those policies, it’s not hard to see the good sense in a program that provides major support and real incentives for expanding aquafarming in the U.S. private sector. With the right incentives, we can be sure industry will develop new and improved technologies for even more productive aquafarming.

And, after all, we’re talking about two incredible benefits with such a policy: (1) increasing fish supplies for food as urged by the USDA and (2) the effective reduction of pressure and need for “capture fishing,” allowing our fish stocks to return to sustainable levels and eliminating those “no-fishing” decisions that are alienating and penalizing our nation’s recreational fishing families.


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