Servizio Comunitario di Informazione in materia di Ricerca e Sviluppo - CORDIS

Final Report Summary - CONSENSUS (Multi-stakeholder platform for sustainable aquaculture in Europe)

The European Commission has established several programs to ensure that fish farming in the European Union is sustainable and assures the availability to European consumers of farmed fish that is healthy, safe and of good quality.

European fish farming also provides long-term secure employment in an environmentally sound and profitable European-based industry. Programs for the tracing and the identification of the origin of fish have become obligatory within the European Union. Farmed fish can be traced throughout its entire life cycle. This provides excellent guarantees to consumers that the healthiness, safety and sustainability of European farmed fish is optimally monitored and constantly controlled for, until it reaches the consumer's plate. As wild fisheries continue to remain static or even to decline, and as demand and seafood consumption continues to increase, the only future scenario is that more farmed fish and shellfish will be consumed. Aquaculture producers, processors and distributors therefore have a responsibility to prove to consumers that their products are tasty, healthy and safe to eat.

The CONSENSUS initiative was funded by the European Union as part of its key action 'food quality and safety'. With its stakeholder representation of consumers, aquaculture producers, environmental and other nongovernmental organisations, CONSENSUS is building sustainable aquaculture protocols based on low environmental impact, high competitiveness and ethical responsibility with regard to biodiversity and animal welfare.

We are more aware now than ever before of the benefits of eating seafood, and information and advertisements that portray the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and the other nutrients contained in seafood for our health and wellbeing are abundant. Our doctors and nutritionists also confirm this need. Health supplements containing fish oils and functional foods, such as enriched milks and margarines containing omega-3 fatty acids, are widely available, although there seems to be agreement that the best source of omega-3 is seafood.

Because farmed fish and shellfish are produced under controlled conditions, it is possible to maintain the highest quality standards from the egg to the plate. In the same way that business processes may be certified to meet standards (e.g. ISO), aquaculture production also has certification schemes. They are increasingly supported by various codes (of conduct and of good practice), developed at national and European levels.

Production of fish and shellfish on farms allows for consistent and even enhanced levels of the elements in seafood that do us good. For example, the level and balance of omega fatty acids, vitamins and minerals such as iodine and selenium can all be influenced through specially designed fish feeds.

A number of factors have combined to make us more aware than ever of the safety of food. Firstly, increasingly accurate measuring techniques allow us to detect even the lowest levels of contaminants. Secondly, increasing media focus on food safety has highlighted issues such as BSE, dioxins and salmonella, and 'food scares' have become regular features of news broadcasts. For food to be acceptable, it must be proven to be safe to eat. Food safety standards have been developed giving clinically proven safe levels of food constituents that may at higher levels provide a risk to health.

As fish species become scarcer in the oceans, they will become less affordable to consumers.

All of the approximately thirty species of fish in European aquaculture production have shown a decrease in farm gate price as their production volume has increased, while improvements in production techniques have resulted in ever-increasing quality.

Atlantic salmon and rainbow trout are almost exclusively farmed. They are now comparable in price to land farmed produce such as chicken and pork. The availability of 'new' farmed species (sea bass, sea bream, cod, sole, scallops, octopus etc.) has the potential to provide this increase in affordability to all consumers.

Infectious diseases are encountered in all food production. Fish and shellfish may be more under threat from disease than land animals or plants because germs survive longer and can spread more effectively in water. The rapid identification and treatment of bacterial and viral infection is therefore crucial in aquaculture. While best management practice remains the preferred option for producers, the use of therapeutic agents may sometimes be necessary.

Parasites are not unique to farmed fish, but in the wild they obviously go untreated. Parasites fall into two main groups - ectoparasites, which affect the skin and external organs, and endoparasites, which invade the body and attack the musculature and internal organs.

As on land-based farms, when animals are held at higher densities parasites can infect a stock relatively rapidly. Because unhealthy fish mean substantial loss to the farmer, however, it is uncommon in modern fish farms to find harmful burdens of parasites. Outbreaks are controlled by modern farming practices and the use of medicines that authorities have deemed safe to the fish, to consumers and to the environment.

Questions are sometimes raised about welfare aspects of aquaculture production. Usually, such questions focus on three issues: stocking densities, the possibility to have 'free-range' aquaculture and the way farmed fish is slaughtered at harvest.

Scientific studies have identified operating indicators of fish welfare so that producers are able to measure the welfare status of their stock. The 'freedom food' certification scheme of the RSPCA in the United Kingdom is a very good example of a welfare standard that has been built by on-farm dialogue with producers and which is now available for salmonid species.

An increasing number of fish are finding their way onto the CITES3 lists of endangered species. The production of juvenile fish and shellfish in hatcheries is far more efficient (in terms of survival) than in the wild. These juveniles may not only be grown on as food, but also for the conservation and restoration of fish populations (through release or restocking) and the provision of fish for angling.

This technique, also known as 'stock enhancement' or 'enhancement aquaculture' has an economic advantage in that production costs are much lower, and has proven to be successful for a variety of marine fish species, mainly in Norway, Japan and the United States.

In recent years, the development of aquaculture has raised some associated environmental concerns. Like any farming operation on land, fish farm cages produce waste materials. These fall into three categories - uneaten feed, fish faeces and dead fish. Most of the environmental impacts of aquaculture can be managed and minimised through understanding of the processes involved, responsible management and the effective siting of farms.

One of the most-frequently cited issues with the sustainable development of aquaculture is the capture of other fish as raw material to be used as fish feed in the form of fish meal and fish oil. It is seen as an issue because a food production sector is in part relying on a capture fishery for the supply of raw materials for the production of aquaculture feed.

Typically, these other fish species are small, oil-rich, bony pelagic fish that are not normally used for direct human consumption. Two decades ago, the majority of fish meal and oil was used to make feeds for land animal production. At present, over 50 percent of fishmeal and over 80 percent of fish oil is used for aquaculture.

If aquaculture is to fill the gap in demand for seafood, this raises important sustainability issues as to the availability of sufficient feed supply. This is particularly relevant given the fact that fishmeal and fish oil production has been, and is likely to remain, relatively constant at around 6 million and 0.9 million tonnes per year, respectively.

Over the last 15 years, considerable efforts in research and development have accompanied dramatic production growth in the aquaculture sector. This research generally focused on areas such as production techniques, feed development and knowledge of fish diseases and their treatment. This is what was called the 'farm to fork' approach - where the emphasis was on selling the fish that farmers had produced.

Current research is significantly more consumer-focused and orientated towards identifying consumer needs and meeting those through production and processing technologies. This is now called the 'fork to farm' approach - where the emphasis is on producing the fish that consumers want.

This 'fork to farm' concept drove the European Union research framework programme from 2002 onwards. This framework programme also placed considerable emphasis on the role of scientific knowledge in developing and supporting policy in aquaculture.

Future impacts - and a longer term objective of CONSENSUS - are based on the establishment of a 'European sustainability standard' recognised by industry and by consumers.

An alternative scenario is that the gap between demand and supply will not be filled by European production, but by imports from third countries - a trend that is already being observed. At the end of the day, European consumers will choose whether to buy European aquaculture products, or not.

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