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The Catch 22 Of Tuna Farming Australia, September 17, 12

 

Port Lincoln tuna farmer Hagen Stehr: “Without aquaculture we will not have any more seafood in the future.”
Source: The Australian
One of Australia’s most powerful energy executives David Knox, has a problem with the menu of single cubes of jelly-pink tuna, each portion fresh-cut, butter-soft and luminous, cradled on its own white Chinese soup spoon. Knox can’t do it. If his daughter discovered he had eaten fresh tuna, Knox says, she would kill him. The fact that this Southern bluefin tuna may well have been raised in a ranch-style aquaculture system pioneered in Santos’ home state of South Australia doesn’t make any difference. Sustainable seafood guides, which are shaping consumer preferences and supermarket chain buying habits, make no allowance for Australia’s most productive aquaculture fisheries.

Environmental charity the Australian Marine Conservation Society lists both wild-caught and ranch-fed southern bluefin tuna, listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as code red - stop! Don’t eat it! Farmed Atlantic salmon, Australia’s highest value fishery is also on the “say no” list for AMCS because of its potential environmental impact. Black tiger prawns, Australia’s other big aquaculture success story, fares only slightly better. “Think twice about choosing” is the recommendation.

The AMCS list highlights longstanding concerns about aquaculture: that more protein is required from wild-caught baitfish to feed the aquaculture stock than is produced as edible flesh; the threat of pollution to waterways from high numbers of fish held in sea cages; and the threat from chemical discharges. For its part, the aquaculture industry complains it is smothered by government regulation and is largely misunderstood.

And herein lies the dilemma. Wild fish stocks are coming under increasing pressure from overfishing and ocean fish stocks are increasingly being locked up in marine parks and other no-go fishing zones. At the same time, demand for this valuable protein keeps growing. Logic says aquaculture - claimed to be the fastest-growing primary industry in Australia, where 40 seafood species are farmed - should be the answer. Aquaculture already provides almost half of the fish consumed globally and a Worldwatch Institute report released last month says that an additional 23 million tons of farmed fish will be needed by 2020.

But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Farming a migratory, little understood species of fish poses unique challenges. Australia is working towards overcoming them, but there have been some costly disasters. And there will be more to come as hard lessons are learned and new technologies tested.

Nobody knows the highs and lows of aquaculture better than larger-than-life Port Lincoln tuna farmer Hagen Stehr, who was there at the beginning of tuna ranching in this country. “I sit on my helipad and I can see where it all started,” says Stehr. “It started in Boston Bay, Port Lincoln.”

In 2009, Stehr’s breakthrough in getting southern bluefin tuna to breed in captivity put the company he founded, Clean Seas, into Time magazine for what was billed as one of the most important inventions of the year. Three years later, Clean Seas which produces tuna, mulloway and kingfish - is in trouble on the stock market and in the water. The company’s kingfish aquaculture business has suffered catastrophic setbacks from disease that has proved difficult to identify. A bout of enteritis, an infection of the intestine, has swept through the kingfish, wiping out about 38 percent of its 2012 stock and 17 percent of its 2011 stock. To make matters worse, experts found fish that survived the illness were hit by secondary infections due to their weakened health.

“It’s a bloody nuisance,” says Clean Seas company secretary, Frank Knight. “What we don’t know is where the bug has come from.” Fish health has not been the only issue. “One of the problems common to this industry is you get ahead of your ability to sell,” Knight says. “We started overproducing kingfish. We got very good at growing them but we hadn’t set up the markets to take these fish.”

Clean Seas was floated in 2005 as a public company to ranch tuna; wild juveniles between two and four years of age are caught as they swim past southern Australia, and transferred to sea cages to be fattened up for market. The company says it can double the size of a fish - from 20kg to 40kg - in about seven months. While it is criticized for taking wild stocks, the advantage of ranching is that the fishing quota is measured from the fish caught - not the end product.

The blue sky for aquaculture, however, is in closing the southern bluefin tuna life-cycle and breeding fish in captivity. Clean Seas has 24 very large tuna in a 3.5 million liter tank which it uses as brood stock. Water temperature and light is manipulated to trick the fish into spawning. It is the first and only company to get captive southern bluefin tuna to spawn; the only problem is that for a species that migrates annually from the tropical waters of Indonesia to the Southern Ocean, the waters off Port Lincoln are proving too cold for the juveniles to survive. For the third year running, the tuna fingerlings bred in captivity have failed to make it to summer. Combined with the kingfish disaster, it resulted in a $30 million loss for the company, placing it in a perilous position.

Despite the setbacks, Stehr remains unbowed. He is convinced that aquaculture is the future; he just has to find a way to make it all work. Stehr believes if he can get the fish to spawn in October and grow to half a kilo by the time they are put out to ocean cages early the following year, the ocean temperatures will be warm enough to ensure their survival.

“In the old days catching tuna was like a war,” Stehr says. “You had your own helicopters and aeroplanes [to spot them] and made big money in a short period of time. Today you have got to do it steady, you have got to be sustainable. People, and the Federal Government, do not realise how important it will be for Australia that we have an aquaculture industry because without it we will not have any more seafood in the future,” he says.

Stehr admits the industry has made mistakes, such as the catastrophic kill in 1996 that saw Port Lincoln tuna ranchers lose $80 million worth of fish in Boston Bay. “It was blatant greed, low tides, a lot of sun, no oxygen in the water and the tuna were stuck together in a small area because they were easier to handle and we created a major bloody problem at the time,” Stehr says.

Today, the tuna pens have been moved further out to sea into deeper water and feeding is better understood. “We have now got everything automated,” Stehr says. “We have got electronic devices in the water and divers sitting in the cages monitoring the health of the stocks. One diver used to do three or four nets by himself and dive every second day. Now I have got 11 or 12 divers all earning $100,000 a year for two months’ work. Environmental issues are important because if you haven’t got it right you only get away with it for so long in the end it catches up with you.”

Despite a long history in Asia, the farming of seafood is still very much a sunrise industry in Australia. The pioneers like to say aquaculture is at the point where terrestrial agriculture was several hundred years ago, and the trend is similarly unstoppable. They note the ocean is the last bastion where wild stocks are harvested for food and now governments are starting to think about establishing offshore aquaculture zones, like farmland. “I liken tuna ranching to when the first hunting and gathering tribes decided that instead of chasing sheep around the hills they would round them up, keep them alive and just hold them in a paddock,” says former Port Lincoln tuna hand Matt Waller. “Until aquaculture, fishing has been about going out and hunting and gathering and bringing it in. Aquaculture is leading towards greater stability and sustainability but it has a long way to go.”

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics puts the gross value of aquaculture production in Australia at $870 million in 2010, the latest available figures. Prawns, tuna, Atlantic salmon and oysters accounted for 87 percent of the total. Atlantic salmon, valued at $369 million, makes up 43 percent of total aquaculture production. Tuna accounts for 12 percent and prawns nine percent.

National Aquaculture Council chair Pheroze Jungalwalla says that while Australia’s aquaculture production may be small by world standards, we concentrate on high-value, high-quality species rather than mass protein production. We have also been at the forefront of the technology curve, particularly Stehr’s spawning of captive southern bluefin tuna.

But opponents of aquaculture have long memories and are less excited about the future of the industry. A major campaign is being waged against the planned expansion of Tasmania’s successful Atlantic salmon industry, which has overtaken crayfish as the nation’s highest-value fishery. Growers want to establish fish “ponds” - net pens - in Macquarie Harbor, a large, shallow body of water on Tasmania’s west coast which abuts a World Heritage Area.

Environment Tasmania’s Bec Hubbard says concerns about the Macquarie Harbour plan are both about the potential environmental impacts and the way it was approved by the state government. The proposal still needs the nod from federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, who is simultaneously juggling the creation of the world’s largest system of marine reserves, which will cut back commercial fishing, and a raging controversy over the arrival of the world’s second-largest factory fishing ship, the FV Margiris, since renamed the Abel Tasman. Ironically, the Abel Tasman is chasing baitfish, the sort needed to provide feed for the aquaculture industry.

“Marine farming has been advocated as a clean, green alternative but it has certainly not been seen that way by environment groups and community groups in Tasmania,” Hubbard says. “What happens with many of these industries when you go from low volume but high quality and high value products, and try to change that into high volume and lower value products, is you start to see much bigger impacts on the environment.”

“There are really big issues around sustainability of feed source, and the huge input of nutrient and therefore impact of pollution on waterways. These things need to be resolved before we can accept fish farming as a sustainable source of seafood protein for the world at large. Aquaculture is definitely not a panacea to our fish protein needs and we would certainly urge people to choose seafood that is pole caught, and caught in lower quantities that supports local fishermen.”

National Aquaculture Council secretary Neil Stump accepts that developing aquaculture in coastal waters is attracting greater public interest and scrutiny. “People don’t want to see an aquaculture farm outside their shack door. We do have to prove our production methods are sustainable and that we are working to minimize any potential environmental impacts. But part of the education process has to be to explain that whatever we do as humans has an ecological footprint. The task is to minimize the footprint.”

A big advantage of aquaculture is the ability to vouch for the chain of custody in production. “You know where all your ingredients come from. You know where the animal has been all of its life and you have got that control over it,” Stone says. “In the US they are trying to certify fish as organic but the US Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t certify any fish as organically produced, especially wild fish, because you don’t know where they have been. If you do the aquaculture side of it and make sure your ingredients aren’t contaminated and you are doing it in a non-contaminated area, you can certify it as organic.” Greater control also allows growers to respond to fickle consumer tastes. “The typical Australian wants white, bland flesh, whereas the Asian market wants it to taste like fish,” Dr. Stone says. “Fortunately you can tailor that in the last few weeks of the production cycle.”

Uniformity has been a key selling point for Clean Seas kingfish. Boston Bay Wines chef Tony Ford says farmed product makes it possible for restaurants to have greater confidence that a particular fish will be available when planning menus. There will always be debate about whether farmed product will ever taste the same as wild caught. Pond-grown barramundi is widely considered inferior to wild barramundi, which is conditioned by energetic swimming. Cone Bay believes the huge tides that rip through its barramundi cages on the Buccaneer Archipelago give it the edge over other farmed product.

Steven Clarke, SARDI’s Marine Innovation SA program manager, says the future of aquaculture will lie in mixing things up a bit. The theory of integrated aquaculture is to use the waste from one product as a feed source for another. Nutrients released into the water become food for seaweeds or stimulate blooms of plankton that become food for mussels. Shellfish, such as mussels, are already favored by environment groups such as AMCS, which rates them code green. Natural filters, mussels and oysters do not need to be fed, removing concerns about pollution from increased nutrients.

In Boston Bay, former tuna rancher Andrew Puglisi is now farming mussels on grid networks of ropes that he argues clean rather than dirty the waters. Clarke says integrated systems can take the environmental impact back to neutral or even positive.

The industry does have its environmental supporters. The Cone Bay barramundi operation is the first aquaculture partnership involving the Australian Conservation Foundation. And Tasmanian Atlantic salmon industry leader Tassal has partnered with WWF-Australia in what it calls a Sustainable Aquaculture Partnership.

WWF-Australia aquaculture spokesman Peter Trott says the organization recognizes aquaculture is here to stay. “We are seven billion people now and we’re going to hit nine billion pretty quickly, and obviously there is going to be an issue about food and economic security around resources,” Trott says. “Aquaculture will play a pivotal role there and so will wild-caught fisheries, and that is why it is important to make sure that both industries are managed sustainably and on a long-term ecosystem footing.”

According to SARDI’s Steven Clarke, aquaculture will increasingly become the “bread and butter product” and wild-caught will attract a premium.

This has certainly been the experience in salmon and tuna, where stable production has slashed prices. “Sixty years ago, the world production of salmon was very, very little,” says Hagen Stehr. “Production was 10,000 to 20,000 tons and the experts said it would never get past 20,000. Then, as farming technology improved, the harvest grew from 20,000 to 30,000 and the experts said it would never get to 40,000, then 50,000, but over time it is now 1.5 million tons a year. It has become a common commodity.”

Stehr is still determined to see farmed tuna follow salmon’s lead. Successfully closing the life cycle for tuna remains the holy grail for aquaculture scientists. Against the odds, and advice, Stehr has got the top order predators to reproduce in captivity. And he still believes growing them out will become possible within a few years.

“People said to me you will never be able to shift fish with a helicopter from two miles out to sea into a tank system,” he says. “Before that they said you will never be able to herd fish in a cage at sea for more than one year or two years or they will die. The science community said you will have to let breeding stock settle down for two years - but within four months we had the tuna sperming in the water and we have triggered them every year now for three years. The only thing we haven’t got right yet is the right feed [to keep the fingerlings growing to the point where they will survive on a known diet].”

Stehr is living proof that aquaculture is for optimists. He likens it to long-distance running. “If you run a marathon and you come into the stadium and do one complete lap and then you fall 10 meters from the end, you get yourself up or you crawl inch by inch to the finish line,” he says. “We are well and truly in the stadium, we see the end goal - it is just a matter of time.”