Four hundred and fifty kilometres inland, the small town of Bilbul in southern New South Wales may seem like an unlikely hub of aquaculture in Australia. Yet its water from the Murrumbidgee River and hospitable climate is resulting in the town quickly becoming an ideal hub of fish farming in the region.
Six years ago, surrounded by wheat or wine producers, local farmer Matt Ryan was looking to make the switch from grain farming, when he and his wife came across the fast-growing, lucrative Murray Cod farming industry. In five years he was able to produce upwards of 18 tonnes of fish annually, using less irrigated water than had he switched to dairy farming.
Matt is not alone in making this switch. Across Australia and the globe, fish farming is becoming big business. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that sometime in 2018 farmed fish production will exceed that of wild fisheries for the first time.
The disastrous combination of super trawlers, illegal fishing and a growing population wanting to eat seafood have pushed wild fish stocks to unsustainable levels. The UN estimates that “40% of popular fish species are now being caught at unsustainable levels”. Aquaculture, and the new technologies being developed are helping to reduce our dependence on over-exploited fish, as well as bridge the gap between an ever-growing demand for seafood and a limited supply of wild fish.
Aquaculture is not a particularly new industry in Australia. Almost 6,000 years ago, Indigenous Australians in south-west Victoria created series of eel traps used to manage and sustain the populations in Lake Condah, ensuring a more sustainable and reliable supply of eel meat all year round. However, what is new this time around are the recent technological advancements that are allowing humans for the first time to properly regulate, grow and produce a wider range of seafood on a commercially viable scale. Improved understandings in marine biology are allowing fish farmers to breed and raise fish in confined areas, whilst still supplying them with the right mix of nutrients vital for the fish to thrive.
Australia, with its diverse coastlines and inland rivers, is fast becoming a leader in the global aquaculture market. Just as Australian beef and wines are sold for a premium around the world, Australian farmed fisheries are marketing their sashimi-grade kingfish, as well as sustainably sourced tiger prawns and Murray Cod as superior to that of other countries, where quality controls and ethical standards may be lower.
This is proving why aquaculture is currently Australia’s fastest growing primary industry. In 2015-16 the Department of Agriculture estimated the value of Australian farmed seafood production to be $1.3 billion, making up 43 per cent of Australia’s seafood production by value. Aquaculture is only growing, and becoming immensely important to the Australian economy by providing better quality seafood and more diverse employment opportunities. In Tasmania, the Salmonoid Growers Association estimates that salmon farming alone contributes up to $550 million per year into the state’s economy.
The industry is not only economically beneficial; aquaculture can also improve the natural environment when practiced responsibly. By increasing the supply of sustainable seafood, aquaculture is helping to relieve the pressure on over exploited fish stocks, whilst also doing so at lower prices, as farmed species have a sustainable and reliable supply without the need to hunt increasingly sparse schools of fish in the open ocean.
Unfortunately, the industry in Australia is not yet perfect. The technologies and methods used for intensive fish farming are still developing, contrasting commercial agriculture methods which have been able to strengthen over hundreds of years. Yet this does not excuse outliers that have blemished the industry as a whole. As exposed by an ABC Four Corners report in 2016 into the salmon farming industry in Tasmania, intensive aquaculture can put immense strain on aquatic environments, which may struggle to naturally support the nutrients and waste produced over time by the unnaturally high density of fish.
However, innovative technologies and responsible business practices can help to mitigate these risks. New fish pen designs, such as Ocean Farm Technologies’ Aquapod, may reduce these environmental costs, building sphere-shaped cages that are able to be transported across waterways, spreading and reducing the total waste produced by high-intensity fish farming. Better-integrated farming systems will also help to offset the environmental footprint of the industry, as many of the new inland fish farms built into specialised irrigation dams are able to use the wastewater produced by fish to help fertilise surrounding fields.
On average, humans nowadays eat four times more fish than they did in 1950. Wild fish stocks are not able to meet this growth in demand alone. Aquaculture is therefore necessary to supply the world’s fish needs sustainably, reliably and affordably, as well as to bolster Australia’s economy as an important growing industry.
For the first time, we as a population are able to reduce our dependence upon wild stocks, allowing global fish populations to recover without humanity needing to cease consumption of seafood altogether. We will one day look back at the way wild fish were caught and realise the inefficiency of commercially hunting fish stocks to levels near extinction, whilst viewing the rise of aquaculture as a viable way to expand the economy and protect our oceans.
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 Wahlquist, C. (2018). Indigenous owners hope ancient eel traps will be recognised as world heritage. the Guardian. Retrieved 9 April 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jan/10/indigenous-owners-hope-ancient-eel-traps-recognised-world-heritage
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