Wednesday, February 28, 2001
The Halifax Chronicle Herald

Blue Revolution: from fishing to farming the seas

By Brian Lee Crowley

A REVOLUTION is underway off the world’s coasts. In that revolution, the old “capture fishery” – hardy men in boats battling the elements and each other for an unpredictable share of the wild fish swimming by – is waning. In its place is emerging the technology and the expertise to farm the seas in a stable, predictable way. Not agriculture, the cultivation of the land, but aquaculture, the cultivation of the waters.

The emergence of settled agriculture was a boon to humanity. Life became less subject to the vagaries of weather and availability of wild animals. Human beings began to control their environment, rather than the other way around. Without this change, humanity would never have been able to produce the food necessary to support today’s vast populations.

On Canada’s prairies, we went though a wrenching shift from the wild buffalo hunt to agriculture. A traditional way of life was displaced, but the social benefit was the freeing up of vast tracts of rich land that not only provided food for the world, but a dynamic society based on private ownership and control of the land and livestock. Thus, agriculture flourished; while the poor buffalo, owned by no one and thus fair game for all, was hunted almost to extinction.

This story is being repeated in the world’s oceans. Overexploitation of the wild fishery, environmental degradation, poor property rights in wild fish and a host of other factors have caused the collapse of whole stocks and the exhaustion of previously rich fishing grounds. The production of the wild fishery has levelled off, and is even declining at a time when the world’s population continues to grow.

Aquaculture’s production, on the other hand, has increased seventeenfold in the last 50 years. The industry supplies a fifth of all the protein consumed from the sea. In the not-too-distant future, farmed fish, shellfish and algae will overtake the wild fishery, producing a vast array of domesticated fish species. Some are comparing this Blue Revolution to the Green Revolution that boosted world food production in the last 30 years. Seven scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science argued recently that aquaculture is vital to world food security.

In many ways, this is an ideal industry for Atlantic Canada. It’s based in coastal communities where jobs are scarce, it’s not seasonal, it’s high-tech, it meets a growing market demand worldwide. And indeed the industry has established itself, to the tune of over $150 million annually in New Brunswick, for example. Ironically, our technology and expertise is in demand around the world, but the industry’s local growth is slow compared to that of the global industry, representing huge lost opportunities for workers, investors and taxpayers in the region.

 

This slowness to capitalize on what should be a natural strength is due largely to outdated views of aquaculture and tendentious campaigns by the David Suzukis of the world. Yet the critics of aquaculture who care what the science says are seeing that peaceful coexistence is both necessary and positive. No one is more sensitive to water quality than the aquaculturist whose livelihood depends on his fish thriving there, making the industry a natural ally of those who want cleaner water. Escapes of cultured fish are a disaster to the business that owns them, resulting in significant investment to prevent escapes and a continuously improving industry record. Use of antibiotics is declining rapidly because of improved management of fish stocks.

The technology that the industry has developed is even being put in the service of restocking depleted wild salmon rivers in Atlantic Canada, according to the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

Steady incremental progress in cleaning up the industry’s early problems will continue, because it makes good environmental and business sense to do so. But the main challenge that aquaculturalists now face arises from governments. Dozens of federal and provincial departments must give separate approvals for an aquaculture operation to go ahead. Some of this is legitimate and necessary, to protect all legitimate uses of the ocean – recreation, sport fishing, navigation, and tourism as well as aquaculture. Much of it is unnecessary and damaging to the industry and coastal communities.

Just as seriously, the process for granting aquaculturalists use of the water is capricious and arbitrary. Leases are often too short or too small for efficient operations, and this absence of high-quality property rights in the water hampers the development of aquaculture, just as the presence of private property on the prairie hastened the development of a rich agricultural society.

But then, if agriculture didn’t already exist today, it’s an open question whether we would be able to invent it. The same forces blocking aquaculture would oppose it for many of the same reasons. And humanity would be much poorer in both wealth and numbers as a result.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@aims.ca