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Aquaculture: Why is the EU Being Left Behind?

Chris Davies reflects on the May 19 ‘Blue Deal Debate’ hosted Rud Pedersen Public Affairs. A recording of the full webinar can be viewed at the link below.

The world now eats more fish that is farmed than is caught from the sea. Aquaculture development globally is growing faster than any other form of food production but is making little progress within the European Union. While Asia produces 90% of the farmed fish, the EU contributes little more than 1% of the total.

The webinar 'Blue Deal Debate' on May 19 brought together Javier Ojeda, general secretary of the Federation of European Aquaculture Producers, Lorella de la Cruz Iglesias, head of the aquaculture team in the European Commission, and Chris Ninnis, chief executive of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Not for the first time in a 'Blue Deal Debate' much common ground was found to be shared by the industry representative, the policymaker and the environmentalist.

Aquaculture is a marginal activity in most EU member states but its potential is huge. Fish is a healthy food with a low carbon impact. Increasing its production in Europe would not only create business opportunities but increase food security and potentially reduce the dependence on imports. The European Union has a long coastline and a wealth of expertise.

EU regulations require exacting environmental standards to be met and were strongly supported by the Blue Deal team. They are seen as giving confidence to producers and consumers alike. The problem, if there is one, rests not with the EU rules but with their interpretation and application by national governments and regional officials. Too often, it was claimed, this stands in the way of development and expansion.

"You have to be a hero to want to be an aquaculture producer in Europe." - Javier Ojeda, Federation of European Aquaculture Producers

What of the concern that wild fish are caught unsustainably to feed farmed fish, that perhaps 5 kg of less attractive fish are needed to supply every 1 kg of commercially popular farmed fish? "No longer true," it was said. "Despite the increase in aquaculture no more wild fish are being used as a feedstuff than 50 years ago." It's a claim likely to be disputed but most will recognise that progress has been made, that better use is being made of fish offcuts that would once have gone to waste, that algae and seaweed and insects and soya (problematical in themselves some will say) are making a larger contribution. Farmed fish are not vegetarian yet but their diet is changing.

European aquaculture is highly regarded, claimed our European guests, but they suggested that standards elsewhere in the world may leave a lot to be desired. An overall picture of improvement is offset by instances described as irresponsible, with inadequate disease control and unsustainable practices.

"Aquaculture has made great strides but in some parts of the world the consequences are catastrophic for the marine environment." - Chris Ninnes, Aquaculture Stewardship Council

Sanitary and health checks on imported products may provide protection for European consumers but they don’t go far towards creating a level playing field for EU producers that have to pay the cost of meeting the regulatory requirements. Giving consumers confidence in what they are buying provides an incentive for ASC certification, but the call for more information to be made available about standards was shared by all, with restauranteurs and caterers being urged to join with retailers in providing it. At least the EU’s Farm-to-Fork strategy suggests that there is a fair wind supporting measures of this kind.

“European fish farms have to meet high environmental standards. Giving consumers information is important,". Lorella de la Cruz Iglesias, European Commission

What will drive forward aquaculture in Europe? There’s some money; €1.2 billion in the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and more in Horizon 2020 to support research and innovation. But the call from Javier Ojeda was to cut the administrative burden on developers, establish a value chain that offers producers fair competition and a level playing field, cooperate to enhance the reputation of farmed fish, and ensure that fish imports have been produced in accord with environmental standards similar to Europe’s own.

The European Commission intends to produce new aquaculture guidelines for member states before the end of the year. Will they be able to propose ways of turning the wish list of ideas into practical measures? The EU’s collective power is limited; it can provide a legislative framework, and share best practice, but if aquaculture is to be taken forward in Europe it will require a demonstration of political will by individual member states.

Chris Davies is a former chair of the European Parliament's fisheries committee. He chairs the webinar 'Blue Deal Debates', which takes place thanks to the support of Rud Pedersen Public Affairs.