Science-To-Policy Tara Europa Lab Workshop in Barcelona – An Ecological and Ethics Discussion on Aquaculture

Aquaculture Workshop

On the 18th of March 2024, BlueRemediomics partners from Tara Ocean Foundation held a thought-provoking science-to-policy workshop on Aquaculture in Barcelona, Spain in collaboration with local partners from ICM-CSIC. Similar to the previous Tara Europa Lab workshops, the event was organised as part of the BlueRemediomics Outreach actions, linking in with the Traversing European Coastlines (TREC) expedition

The Barcelona workshop focused on exploring the “do no significant harm” principle and an ethics discussion around Aquaculture, discussing specifically the environmental impacts of aquaculture systems and how to deal with emerging challenges and solutions. A group of more than 25 aquaculture stakeholders from across Spain came together for an insightful discussion on Ecological and ethics consideration on the projected growth up to 50% of marine protein consumption from farmed fish.  

Andre Abreu (FTO) kicked off the workshop with an introduction of the “Tara Europa Lab Workshop” series and its link to the TREC expedition and BlueRemediomics project. This was followed by five insightful presentations from different thought leaders in the aquaculture sphere, including renowned BlueRemediomics researchers Lars Ebbesson from NORCE and Pablo Sanchez Cueto from LEITAT, as well as local Spanish partners from ICM-CSIC: Francesc Piferrer, Fran Latorre and Guiomar Rottland. 

Advancements and Challenges in Aquaculture

The aquaculture industry has experienced significant growth over the past decades as a response to stagnant global fisheries captures worldwide, which are projected to decrease further in the coming years. This aquaculture trend is driven by a growing human population, resulting in higher caloric and protein consumption, which in turn necessitates alternative protein sources. Francesc Piferrer’s (CSIC) presentation provided an initial overview on global tendencies and targets in aquaculture and highlighted the fact that efficiency in aquaculture has significantly improved since the 1980s, particularly in feed efficiency and fish nutrition. A good example for this is the improvement of FIFO (Fish In:Fish Out ratio), which has been examined over time as a way to look at the performance of aquaculture in relation to the wild fish that are utilised in feed. Today, 1kg of wild fish is needed to produce 1kg of aquaculture fish. Even if the dependence on marine ingredients still persists, the output was five times lower in the 1980s. 

Following from this initial overview, BlueRemediomics researcher Lars Ebbesson (NORCE) discussed emerging aquaculture systems aimed at reducing environmental impacts. Norway served as a good case study for this, facing challenges such as space limitations and potential environmental impacts when it comes to aquaculture. Concerns include the release of waste from aquaculture facilities, the risk of escapees interbreeding with wild populations, and the emergence of diseases and parasites exacerbated by climate change. To address these issues, Norway is exploring offshore aquaculture and alternative techniques like Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) and multitrophic integrated systems. Legal reforms are underway to regulate these changes, with significant investments allocated to alternative techniques focusing on enabling controlled environments, waste capture and environmental sustainability.

A large part of the BlueRemediomics project is dedicated towards promoting healthy microbiome approaches and strategies in aquaculture and the evaluation of the ‘do no significant harm’ concept in relation to marine microbiome manipulation. In line with this research aim, Pablo Sanchez Cueto (LEITAT) emphasized the role of the microbiome in aquaculture systems, highlighting the importance of microbiome based solutions to establish early warning signals for potential contamination of bacteria, viruses and fungi. Based on recent DNA analysis techniques with metagenomics and transcriptomics, we can now generate forecasts by assessing microbiome composition shifts, enabling us to identify unhealthy fish at an early stage. A large part of the BlueRemediomics linked to this, is the creation of a Health Microbiome Index (MHI) that aims amongst others aims at defining biomarkers for “healthy aquaculture” facilities. 

With a look to the future, local researcher Fran Latorre (ICM/CSIC) explored the potential of microalgae in large-scale aquaculture. Microalgae offer solutions for various industries and products (including algae oil, proteins, biomass, energy), but maintaining viability in industrial systems is challenging due to unpredictable types of contamination. Projects like PRODIGIO aim to predict contamination, while INCEPTION focuses on understanding microalgae strains and their microbiomes for improved cultivation.

Another pressing issue related to making aquaculture more sustainable, is related to animal welfareWhile there is a growing awareness of welfare concerns among aquatic animals, legal frameworks are still lacking, with only water quality being currently regulated. Guiomar Rottland (CSIC) highlighted the need for the increase in productivity in aquaculture to be coupled with better conditions for the animals.


Town Hall Discussion on Aquaculture

Following the insightful presentations on the various facets of aquaculture, the workshop delved into a discussion on policy and ethics issues related to aquaculture, applying the concept of “doing no significant harm”, with a focus on “an ocean microbiome-centric exploration of the environmental implications of sourcing 50% of animal protein from farmed fish by 2050 for human consumption”. A discussion evolved around this topic including questions such as: is aquaculture a good response to declining fish stocks? Are EU policies doing well for aquaculture? What perception from society is pushing or preventing advances for a sustainable aquaculture? 
The discussion commenced with an exploration of whether aquaculture truly serves as a sustainable solution amidst declining fish stocks. While some participants viewed it as a promising pathway, others emphasized the need to explore alternative options concurrently. EU policies regarding aquaculture came under scrutiny, with concerns raised about potential barriers and limitations. An important issue raised was related to imports of farmed fish from non-EU countries that have less strict rules when it comes to aquaculture. Possible EU policy solutions mentioned included 1) a more selective use of farm spaces, 2) regulating aquaculture imports and 3) establishing aquaculture farming facilities on land. 
Deliberations extended to the role of various stakeholders in informing society about associated risks. Suggestions included leveraging NGOs, educational institutions, and scientific platforms to disseminate information effectively and inclusively. This is especially important as the aquaculture industry has in recent years gained a bad reputation in societies due to issues of “escapees” interbreeding with wild populations and unknown causes of mortalities in aquaculture farms. 
In navigating the ethical dimensions of aquaculture, participants emphasized the importance of collective action, informed decision-making, and proactive measures to address challenges such as escapees, mortalities, and environmental impacts. Ultimately, the dialogue highlighted the imperative for nuanced approaches that balance technological advancements with ethical considerations and societal values to foster a sustainable aquaculture industry.