Key Findings

Sustainability must be demonstrated, not assumed

Data availability and quality remain preeminent challenges to any assessment of sustainability. However, verification of the sustainability of any production system requires that abundant, high-quality data are available for analysis. Data deficiencies are particularly challenging in the traceability of feed stocks, feed formulations, and the cumulative ecosystem effects of both chemical use and escapes. The long-running debate regarding sustainability has been largely informed by qualitative information and spotty data. The long-term ecological and economic viability of the industry depends on shifting policy and production decisions towards quantitatively rigorous performance-based regulatory frameworks such as GAPI.

Not all marine finfish aquaculture is the same

While it might be reasonable to assume significant performance difference across drastically different types of aquaculture such as shellfish farming and marine finfish farming, GAPI scores reveal tremendous variation in environmental performance just within the marine finfish sector. These variations are highlighted in species-country pair scores, country scores, and species scores. For instance, normalised species-country scores range from a low of 10 (groupers–Indonesia) to a high of 73 (Chinook salmon–New Zealand). Similarly, normalised country scores range from 30 (Taiwan) to 73 (New Zealand) and normalised species scores range from 18 (groupers) to 72 (Chinook salmon).

There is substantial room for improvement

While there is strong variation in GAPI scores across countries and species, and while GAPI does not define passing or failing scores, the findings strongly suggest that there is room for improvement within the entire marine finfish sector. Even the best performers are approximately 30 points away from the aspirational target performance (100). As aquaculture expands, attention should be paid to ensure that, at a minimum, the industry does not shift further towards the poorer performers, at least until their practices improve significantly.

The worst-performing sectors of the industry are also the fastest-growing

Marine finfish farmed in tropical and sub-tropical water, such as groupers (normalised score, 18), red drum (normalised score, 26), and cobia (normalised score, 37), have some of the worst scores on both a normalised and cumulative level, yet production of these three species has grown by more than 40% per year for the last five years on record. Low scores in this sector are due to poor performance across most indicators. In particular, warm water species consume large quantities of feed and require large amounts of antibiotics. Additionally, cold water species tend to be produced in industrialized countries and to have benefited from improved production efficiency. The same cannot be said for warm water species, on average.

Asia faces significant sustainability hurdles

Asian countries account for the 15 lowest species-country scores. The trend towards lower normalised scores in Asian countries largely results from the prevalence of poor performance in the Inputs category, such as ecological and industry energy, feed sustainability, and biochemical oxygen demand. Asian countries also tend to score poorly in the antibiotics and parasiticides indicators since GAPI assumes that performers use the maximum allowable dose or quantity in the absence of actual performance data. In general, Asian countries’ cumulative scores are relatively higher than their normalized scores by virtue of the modest production in those countries.

Atlantic salmon performance illustrates that scale is everything

GAPI’s comparison of cumulative to normalized scores demonstrates that the sheer scale of production can have drastic effects on environmental performance. Some of the best-performing species on a normalised basis are among the worst on a cumulative basis due to the sheer scale of those industries. For example, Atlantic salmon is the third-highest-ranking species on a per mT basis (normalised score, 70), but when production volume is taken into account, Atlantic salmon’s score drops almost 50%, which ties it as the third-worst of the 20 species assessed by GAPI. In contrast, cobia is one of the worst performers on a normalised basis (37). Per mT of production, cobia has one of the biggest environmental footprints of any marine finfish. However, because cobia farming is a modest-sized industry, it has a small cumulative impact (cumulative score, 65) compared to bigger farming sectors like Atlantic salmon. In other words, large production of better-performing species could create more environmental damage than a single poorly performing farm. This discrepancy raises a question at the heart of sustainability: How do we expand aquaculture to support the food and protein needs of 9 billion humans without overwhelming the carrying capacity of the marine environment? Clearly, part of the answer lies in selecting the right species, choosing the right environments in which to grow them, and utilizing responsible farming practices. At the same time, regulators need to consider the carrying capacity of local waters and begin to design and reward operations that minimize the environmental footprint of marine finfish aquaculture.