How Technology Can Improve Sustainable Aquaculture

Bryton Shang, CEO, Aquabyte.

Right now, there’s legislation before Congress to add basic standards, regulations and safeguards for offshore aquaculture in the US, called the AQUAA Act. (Aquaculture means farming fish and aquatic life as opposed to hunting them.) By “basic,” I mean just that: The US is well behind other countries that already have a central agency and strong policies to regulate the health and growth of farmed seafood.

There are enough crises in the world that sustainably farmed fish might not seem important. As long as the fish gets to your stores and restaurants, does it really matter where it came from or how it got there? It matters.

The US imports around 80% of its seafood, to the tune of a $17 billion seafood trade deficit as of 2020. This isn’t sustainable. Health, jobs, standards, climate and also economic balance and food availability are on the line.

Not long ago, farmed fish had earned a dubious reputation: unhealthy fish in unhealthy waters, of suspect quality, with a risk of parasites that could imperil wild fish populations. Meanwhile, careless mass net fishing was scooping up endangered populations along with its intended catches, destroying delicate underwater ecosystems and wiping out fish breeding grounds so that wild populations couldn’t replenish their numbers.

The wild fishing industry seized its marketing moment and did an excellent job of educating the public that line-caught fish were the best choice for consumers and the environment. Which was mostly true, except for one giant problem: There is no way that wild fish can keep their vital place in our planet’s ecosystems and feed the world’s rapidly growing human population at the same time.

In fact, the United Nations issued its State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) report in 2021 which says, “Over 800 million people now suffer from hunger and 2.4 billion people have severely limited access to adequate food. … the challenge to feed a growing population without exhausting our natural resources continues to increase.”

Taking more food than we replenish is simple math that doesn’t end well—and that’s not factoring in the damage done by climate change to native species and our interconnected food chains. Storms, heat waves, fires and disrupted growing seasons don’t vote, but they do change the food you get, how you get it and how much it costs.

How Technology Can Influence Sustainable Aquaculture

When we think about global food solutions, sustainable aquaculture needs to fill the gap. It’s the most efficient source of protein, and the UN has said that it is crucial to help meet its Sustainable Development Goals.

By “sustainable aquaculture” I mean fish raised in large pens (a ratio of about 98% water to 2% fish), monitored and managed to raise the healthiest fish possible with care for the environment and the climate, minimizing treatments, waste and contamination of wild fish populations. Healthier fish sells for a higher price, so fish farmers are highly incentivized to grow higher quality farmed fish because they earn a higher income.

What’s changed, to make this oldest of industries better and more sustainable? Technology.

The same thinking that brought us the tractor instead of hand cultivation, or weather satellites instead of just looking at the sky, could make aquaculture more efficient and healthier. The best fish farms today follow the adage, “What isn’t monitored isn’t managed,” and technology can help revolutionize this industry by allowing fish farmers to:

• Monitor and manage everything that’s happening beneath the surface

• Get rid of the microplastics that contaminate our oceans and disrupt the ecosystems the fish and humans depend on

• Use AI, drones and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to monitor and improve all fish farming practices for health and sustainability.

Farmed Fish: A Social Imperative

Much of the world depends on fish as a primary food source. If we rely on dwindling supplies of wild-caught seafood (without growing better farmed fish), fish will be reserved for export only to those who can afford it. That means global food shortages and rising prices, forcing many people to eat lower-quality protein that wasn’t raised for health and minimal environmental impact.

Plus, mass fishing is the last form of industrialized hunting; we have long stopped hunting other species at scale to prevent extinction or disruption of the food chain.

The constraint in farmed fish is the biological carrying capacity of local waters—and whether people can get to the farms to operate them. If we enable fish farming (with safeguards) in the open ocean or on land, we increase areas where farmed fish can be grown to feed the world.

The farmed fish industry and technology industry need to work together and show off the improvements made in the past few years, with a proper supply chain and economies of scale, at orders of magnitude larger than where we are now. (A couple of excellent examples of collaboration for sustainable seafood worth checking out: MOWI’s Blue Revolution Plan, and the Nature Conservancy’s work with marine communities globally and in the US)

At the same time, the US must rethink how it will farm fish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries recently released its first-ever Five-Year Strategic Plan for Aquaculture, detailing an incredibly comprehensive road map to make aquaculture reflect best practices in safety, sustainability, policy, technology and diversity.

In short, we can safeguard our food systems while also protecting our marine ecosystems and the communities (and economies) that depend on them. This isn’t the farmed fish of 20 or even five years ago. We can make this work. The whole world can be better—and better fed—when we do.


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