The future of aquaculture value chain research

Aquaculture has emerged as a major sector in the global food system. The sector contributes up roughly half of global seafood production and one fifth of animal protein intake for nearly half of the world’s population.

Many of the gains in farmed production can be attributed to advances in technical research which increased yields around the world. But if we want to shape more sustainable and equitable growth of aquaculture globally we have to better understand how the industry is organised from production, trade to consumption.

In a recent special issue in the journal Aquaculture we brought together 19 papers from around the world to identify five current trends that are shaping the development of the global aquaculture industry.

First, we see that aquaculture production and trade is predominantly located in domestic markets in the global South, particularly domestic value chains in Asia and Africa. It is these markets that we will continue to drive the majority of demand for aquaculture in the future, rather than OECD markets.

Second, the growth of the aquaculture industry cannot be divided into categories of industrial vs. small scale, or intensive vs. extensive producers. Production is instead occurring at a range of scales and levels of intensity that all play a role that appear to be increasing production and creating wealth for farmers and their communities.

Third, the growth and organisation of the industry is driven by changes in the wider global food system linked, for instance, to urbanization and associated diet change. These wider transformations drive where aquaculture is produced, traded and consumed, by who and how.

Fourth, we see growing attention on issues of equity and environmental performance in the aquaculture industry. Which people are, for instance, included in, or excluded from, value chains. And whose values around environmental sustainability are most influential in shaping production practices.

Finally, research is now addressing how processes of technical and institutional innovation can foster improved production and trade. This is not only in terms of technical efficiency, productivity and profitability, but also in terms of environmental impact and social equity.

These emerging themes in aquaculture research also show us what is yet to be done. It is striking that so little international research has paid attention to the organisation of the largest global producer, China, either domestically or through its growing international reach.

There is also much work to be done on fish consumption. In doing so value chain research can reveal far more about changing demand for fish than the literature currently focused on food safety and marketing.

We’ve also only just started to scratch the surface when it comes to the disruptive role of digital trading, like the online retailers Ali Baba and Amazon, or new technologies like block-chain, are already playing in shaping aquaculture trade and logistics.

Likewise there is still a long way to go in understanding how aquaculture value chains can contribute to a more ‘circular’ economy’ leading to the efficient use and reuse of material (waste) flows.

In short, we’ve made progress. But there is a long way to go before we really understand whether and how aquaculture can meet the estimated forecast of 93 million tonnes of production need by 2030 to meet global demand in a sustainable manner.

To learn more read the Special Issue in the journal Aquaculture


FADs, FAD-Free, FIPs or MSC?

The rise of sustainability claims in the global tuna industry has grown over the last decade, with NGO and market influence largely driving the growth. But what affect will have on the future sustainability of the tuna industry? Simon Bush addressed this question in his presentation at the 6th European Tuna Conference held in Brussels in April.

The growth of sustainability claims has led to an emerging risk of a coordination failure between the sustainability claims of tuna fishermen and buyers. In practice this means that established eco-labels such as the as the Marine Stewardship Council and increasingly competing with new claims associated with FAD-Free and fisheries improvement projects.

The interaction between these claims, and the sustainability schemes that promote them, can have many outcomes. But one likely outcome is competition and a potential decline o the credibility of all sustainability claims.

What then does the future hold?

It is unlikely that the industry will move to a “gold standard” claim or sustainability scheme. It is more likely that existing claims and schemes will need to be actively coordinated to account for the differences in fisheries, both in terms of gears and the capabilities of fishers to comply with sustainability standards.

See the slides of the presentation here:


Sustainable fisheries require capable fishers

Full participation of thousands of small tuna fishers in fishery improvement  projects require specific capabilities, like firm capabilities (e.g. higher capital) and collective capabilities (e.g. membership to a fisher association) for organising and marketing their fish. Fishers who don’t have these capabilities are less likely to participate in projects to improve sustainability, Frazen Tolentino-Zondervan and colleagues from Wageningen University & Research demonstrate in a paper published in PLoS ONE today.

Fishery improvement projects led by non governmental organisations (NGOs) and the retailers are an attempt to support mostly small scale fishermen to comply with eco-label requirements like those of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Retailers in the Netherlands and other western markets have committed to only selling fish with this or equivalent eco-labels by 2018. But retailers have also struggled to meet this target because of a lack of fish products, like tuna, that are MSC certified.

NGOs and retailers have tried to improve the design of fishery improvements projects to eventually increase the supply of certified fish. A top-down approach attempts to create direct links between importers or retailers in Europe or the US and fishermen, while a bottom up approach focuses on training fishers to meet market requirements and compete on the open market.

“Our results based on a survey on 350 fishers in the Philippines, show that the success of both kinds of fishery improvement projects are dependent on fishers to have specific capabilities, such as firm capabilities (e.g. higher capital) and collective capabilities (e.g. membership to a fisher association), to participate and improve their fishing practices. If these capabilities are ignored or not developed by those running these improvements projects then fishers will not participate,” says the lead researcher of the study Frazen Tolentino-Zondervan.

“If these small scale fishers in a developing country like the Philippines don’t participate in these fishery improvements projects then they won’t move on to MSC certification,” she says.

Putting this into perspective, co-author Simon Bush adds: “Given that only 7% of all MSC fisheries are from developing countries and 12% from small scale fisheries globally, understanding these capabilities is key in expanding the global impact of eco-labels”.

The researchers recommend NGOs and retailers not to focus on one fishery improvement strategy. Instead market incentives need to be supplemented with support to fishing communities and local government if these projects are to succeed.

Read the full paper here:

Tolentino-Zondervan F., P. Berentsen, S.R. Bush, L. Digal, A. Oude Lansink (2016) Fisher-Level decision making to participate in Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs) for yellowfin tuna in the Philippines. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0163537. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0163537

Is pangasius safe to eat?

By Simon Bush and Tinka Murk

Pangasius has emerged as one of the most controversial seafood products in both Europe and the US. In a recent paper published in Reviews in Aquaculture we ask whether the controversy justified. 

Full of poison?

Pangasius has emerged as a key aquaculture species in Vietnam which accounts for more than 90% of what is sold on the international market. The industry has become an important source of employment and wealth generation in the Mekong Delta. In short it is one of the key success stories of Asian aquaculture.

The industry has expanded in terms of both production and trade. Pangasius is now traded to well over 100 countries worldwide. It is also one of the top five most consumed species in both the US and the EU, and is rapidly expanding in Asia and other regions of the world as a cheap source of fish protein.

But at the same time, there have been a number of claims made about the safety and sustainability of pangasius. These have ranged from statements that pangasius is ‘full of poison’ stemming from the ‘heavily polluted Mekong River’. The group making these claims is very broad. It includes membes of the European fishing industry and US farmed catfish industry concerned about protecting their market Europe. But it also extends to environmental NGOs and politicians.

Their claims have been successful to the extent that they continue to be circulated via social media. But on the other hand have not affected exports to any great extent.

It’s a complex story which made it interesting for us to bring together sociology and toxicology to examine how mass mediated claims are confusing how the public understands the difference between hazard and risk in aquaculture production.

Testing claims

In our paper published in Reviews in Aquaculture we compare these various claims over the presence of toxic compounds in pangasius we decided to study exactly what risk they actually pose.

In doing so we first systematically documented claims across television, radio, newspaper, online and social media made in the US and different European countries from 2008 to 2014. When available we collected the levels of the compounds named as well as the sources cited. We also took all notifications of restricted substances found in imported pangasius to the EU recorded in the EU Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, or RASSF.

The RASFF database actually presents the worst case situation, given the products listed were not allowed into Europe. We then calculated the amount of pangasius fillet that could have been safely eaten every day. The highest level for every restricted substance in the RASFF database was used to calculate the maximum daily safe consumption.

Finally the results were compared with the various accusations made in the wider media.

The most surprising result was that none of the suggested toxicological risks were supported with actual data on chemical analysis or intake levels. The compounds that were suggested to pose a risk were also not the ones that were reported in the RASFF database.

Even if we take the highest levels of the toxic contaminants ever reported in RASFF alerts for Vietnamese pangasius, daily consumption of that filet would still be safe based on the toxicological risk assessment.

The maximum amount of filet that could have been consumed without any adverse effects would be between 3.5 and 167 kg per day for the entire life of a 70kg adult when considering pesticides and between 0.6 and 303 kg filet/day for the filets recalled in the last 10 years because of the presence of preservatives and antibiotics.

It is important to state that in the vast majority of imported Panga no toxic compounds can be found at all. Based on our study we conclude that consumption of pangasius available on the European market does not pose any concern for the health of the consumer.

Mass mediated risk

From a sociological perspective what we see is that claims made come from a poor understanding of the difference between potential and real health risks.

For sociologists this opens up questions like who is responsible for defining risks? How do different societal groups create uncertainty that influences decisions over production and trade? And what economic and political interests lie behind the claims that are made?

The confusion that this misrepresentation leads to refers to this ‘mass-mediated risk’. This  can be characterized as an ever wider group of non-experts giving voice to the definition and interpretation of risk with little engagement with or reference to the scientific process of risk assessment.

The pangasius case also shows how mass-mediated communication can shift attention from claims based on science to claims based on political and economic interests. This means that any reference to a chemical gives the impression of danger without understanding the risk they might pose to human or environmental health.

Given that mass mediated claims hold considerable consequences for the sustainable and safe expansion of aquaculture, building an understanding of how policy makers, companies and consumers respond to such claims is an important next step of the research.

Hazards are not risks

This is not the first example of confusion between risk and hazard. And for the aquaculture industry it certainly won’t be the last. People especially worry about synthetic compounds that could be present in their food such as pesticides and plasticizers.

Scary information is published about the potential risk of these compounds, but hardly ever about the actual levels nor the amount the body can handle before the safe limit is reached.

In the future its necessary to increase the understanding of risk assessment of our environment and  food. It is also necessary to the make scientific interpretations of risk publically available. This is important for ensuring that the great uncertainty being generated in the media about aquaculture can be countered by improved public knowledge.

But the very first step is to make clearer to the public and policy makers alike that the hazard of a compound does not necessarily pose a risk. A potential risk only is a risk if you actually are exposed to it in higher levels than even the most sensitive person, including unborn children, can handle.

Want to read more?

Murk, A. J., Rietjens, I. M., & Bush, S. R. (Forthcoming). Perceived versus real toxicological safety of pangasius catfish: a review modifying market perspectives. Reviews in Aquaculture. xx:xx-xx

Wright, J. (2015) Risk v. hazard: A dispassionate look at pangasius. Global Aquaculture Advocate, November 30, 2015 [online]

Little, D. C., Bush, S. R., Belton, B., Phuong, N. T., Young, J. A., & Murray, F. J. (2012). Whitefish wars: Pangasius, politics and consumer confusion in Europe. Marine Policy36(3), 738-745.

Reversing the burden of proof for sustainable aquaculture

The transition to sustainable food production requires the inclusion of small-holder producers. Given many of these small holders are integrated into global systems of trade market-based approaches such as third party certification appear to hold relevance. But certification as it is now practices is focused on proving sustainability at the farm level. Evidence shows us that this approach is costly and leads to the exclusion of those with some of the biggest sustainability gains to make. Is there a way to shift this burden of proof to those that demand sustainability in global markets? If we can’t certify consumers, then why not retailers?

Read my perspective on such an approach in the recent issue of the Solutions Journal

Bush, S.R. (2017) Certify sustainable retailers? In J. Duncan and M. Bailey (Eds), Sustainable Food Futures, p. 133-144. (London: Routledge).

UPDATE! An extended version of this paper has been published as part of a new book edited by Jessica Duncan and Megan Bailey.

Bush, S.R. (2017) Certify sustainable retailers? In J. Duncan and M. Bailey (Eds), Sustainable Food Futures, p. 133-144. (London: Routledge).

Technical tunnel vision in Dutch pulse trawl fisheries

By Tim Haasnoot, Marloes Kraan and Simon Bush

Acceptance of new fishing techniques requires not only detailed environmental and technical studies, but also an adequate understanding of the social context in which the innovative fishing gear needs to operate. This is our conclusion in our recently published paper in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.

Time mapper


The Dutch fishing fleet has undergone a significant transition over the last 10 years. Most North Sea sole is now caught with the Pulse trawl – an innovative fishing technique that uses electricity instead of chains to startle fish from the bottom into nets. The Pulse trawl has delivered positive impacts for the Dutch fishing fleet, including a 50% reduction in in fuel costs and reduced rates of by-catch and less seafloor disturbance compared to standard beam trawls.

The improved results obtained with the pulse trawl have led the Dutch government to propose the permanent use of this fishing technique within the EU. But to succeed the Dutch need to have a 30 year ban on fishing with electricity overturned. The new proposal resulted in a strong opposition from policymakers and stakeholders in Europe.

So why has the Pulse trawl has met with such strong opposition if it appears to deliver such important environmental and economic benefits? The answer to this question lies in the reconstruction of the transition process of the Pulse trawl, which already started in the 1970s, since 1988. Interviews were carried out with Dutch actors and institutions involved in the development and implementation of the pulse trawl.

One of the most important conclusions of our study is that there was too much focus on the technical aspects of the fishing gear, such as vessel efficiency and environmental impact. Instead attention should also be paid on the social context in which the innovative fishing gear needs to operate. The latter has received little attention during the introduction of the pulse trawl at the European level, and until it does little may change.

We can never assume that simply designing a new technology will lead to its adoption. With so many innovations needed in fisheries it is time for social science perspectives on transformation processes to be brought into mainstream policy and practice.

Want to read more?

Haasnoot, T., Kraan, M., and Bush, S.R. 2016. Fishing gear transitions: lessons from the Dutch flatfish pulse trawl. ICES Journal of Marine Science DOI: 10.1093/icesjms/fsw002

An interactive timeline presenting all the important events since 1988 can be found here:

Can shrimp farmers co-produce eco-standards?

Better management practice standards (BMPs) are used by NGOs and governments alike to steer producers towards improved environmental performance. But just how much input do farmers have in developing the content of these standards? 

Our research published in the December issue of Maritime Studies indicates shows that those involved in production can be involved in the development of BMPs. We followed the WWF-led process of defining and implementing standards for East Kalimantan in Indonesia from 2009 to 2013. But our results also indicated that who these ‘farmers’ were and the content of the standards were not as representative as first thought.

The term ‘farmer’ is ambiguous in many parts of Indonesia. In Northeast Kalimantan those invited to give input were not farmers but owners of the ponds. While these individuals controlled many of the decisions over shrimp production they were not involved in the daily tasks of pond management. The result is that the perceived bottom up technical input to the standards was filtered through those with interests in pond expansion more than better practice.

The limitations of the final standards were first seen when they were first piloted. Buffer zones, pond preparation, mangrove rehabilitation were all found to be highly problematic. Why? Despite the best of intentions, the social relations of shrimp production (and therefore the interests of owners) were ultimately more influential than what were deemed technical guidelines on how to grow ‘ better’ shrimp.

The consequences of this research are far reaching. If those designing BMPs and other (private) standards see them purely technical they will likely face similar constraints during implementation. Standards also represent the interests of those that design them. So, while the BMPs of East Kalimantan can be commended for being locally embedded, they also mis-represent the technical challenges of farming along that particular coast.

So how to build a better standard? While local engagement is important, social science input is essential – not just as input to the content of standards, but to the design of who is involved, how and with what effect. Taking such ‘social’ input seriously into this process is therefore essential to any long term environmental impact.

Want to read more?

Kusumawati, R. and S.R. Bush (2015)  Co-producing Better Management Practice standards for shrimp aquaculture in Indonesia. Maritime Studies 14: 21 DOI: 10.1186/s40152-015-0039-4


Who is demanding traceable seafood?

Trust is high on the agenda in the seafood industry. The EU demands it by regulating against illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. The US is in the final stages of a presidential task force on seafood fraud. So market demand should follow right? The answer may not be as clear as we might think.

Explanation by Megan Bailey on the IFITT model

The IFITT programme has been developing an approach for transparency tuna fisheries in Indonesia. The idea started off simply enough; introduce a consumer facing traceability system (ThisFish), combine it with an existing privately-led enumeration system (MDPI), and the market will support it all by buying the tuna.

While the programme has established a clear proof of concept – traceable tuna is available on the US market – it is less clear whether this solution is scalable beyond a niche product. Surely it should be given the widespread regulation requiring greater transparency in seafood.

What we are learning through the IFITT programme is that traceability that goes beyond a bare minumum of one-up, one-down, is regarded as highly disruptive to seafood trade. The fear of disruption in turn means that buyers risk limiting the extent of transparency that is possible in the industry.

Why are they doing this? Our research reveals a range of reasons. Traceability increases costs with no clear return on investment; it exposes consumers to the global and predominantly frozen character of seafood (which goes against assumptions of local fresh fish!); and it might expose proprietary information to others. From a researchers perspective, it is not clear whether these concerns are well founded given the dearth of information around the effect traceability has on value chain transparency.

The fact there is little consensus on what kind of traceability best serves the interests of the industry does not help. There are multiple traceability providers all vying for the attention of buyers. What buyers seem to be struggling with is answering a central question in this debate: what is transparent enough? And further to this, which of these traceability providers can I trust?

So who is demanding traceability? Governments are mandating greater transparency and traceability providers are stepping up to deliver. If buyers, including consumers, are not voting with their wallets, it seems greater transparency remains a normative agenda by regulators than a private demand. But at some point norms and regulation will dictate these private actions. Is then fair to assume that before that happens the seafood industry should look to invest and innovate, or be left to catch up?

Interested in reading more?

Bailey, M., Bush, S. R., Miller, A., & Kochen, M. (2016). The role of traceability in transforming seafood governance in the global South. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 18, 25-32. DOI: 10.1016/j.cosust.2015.06.004

Certifying sustainable territories

Eco-certification in food sectors such as seafood is often thought as a very ‘market-based’ affair. By buying a eco-labelled fish consumers are thought to increase demand for that product and influence a producer to improve their production practices. In a recent paper published in Environment and Planning A, we provide a theoretical way of analyzing and challenging this very idea.

Eco-certification works by certifying production practices in a given area or ‘territory’. Whether this is a positive thing or not is a the matter of considerable debate. While some think these certified territories are akin to a sustainability enclave – within which the things we care about (be they environmental or social) are protected. Others think that these private territories impinge on the sovereignty of states by overriding legislatively agreed upon rules. In doing so public resources are ‘grabbed‘ under the pretense of sustainability.

Debates like this are polarizing and don’t help us understand how these territories are defined and used, for better or worse, to address sustainability. We used the seafood industry to explore this; both fisheries and aquaculture open two very different spatially configured production systems. But in the end, they both deliver fish to the same retail counter.

Our approach is based on the sociological concept of ‘assemblage’ – which in simple terms recognizes that environmental regulation is not a fixed process. Instead it shows that it is a choice to regulate or protect, and the rules that are use to do so are continually negotiated by those we think are expert enough to represent societies interests. But in the end this also means choices are made, some of which favour certain environments or groups of people, while others don’t.

What certification then does is define spatial boundaries around territories that either include or exclude the things we are concerned about. These boundaries are also defined by who is applying for the certification (the subjects of concern); farmers, companies and governments. Finally, boundaries are defined by the expertise available to monitor and assess these objects and subjects.

So what does this show us? For one, it demonstrates that the territories that seafood certification creates are both inclusive and exclusive. In some cases enclaves are created that save some environments and people and not others. In other cases certification undermines states sovereignty. And in other cases still it is used to strengthen the government control over resources. But in all cases we see that certification is far from market-based alone. It is instead assembled, actively or not, by the social and political interests of those that are seek control over resources and the sustainability of these resources alike.

Interested in reading more around this topic?

Bear C, (2013). Assembling the sea: materiality, movement and regulatory practices in the Cardigan Bay scallop fishery. Cultural Geographies 20 21–41. DOI: 10.1177/1474474012463665

Fairhead, J., Leach, M., & Scoones, I. (2012). Green Grabbing: a new appropriation of nature? Journal of Peasant Studies, 39(2), 237-261. DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2012.671770

Vandergeest P, Unno A, (2012) A new extraterritoriality? Aquaculture certification, sovereignty, and
empire. Political Geography 31 358–367. DOI: 10.1016/j.polgeo.2012.05.005

Vandergeest, P., Ponte, S., & Bush, S. (2015). Assembling sustainable territories: space, subjects, objects, and expertise in seafood certification. Environment and Planning A, 47: 1-19. DOI: 10.1177/0308518X15599297

Towards mangrove-shrimp integrated aquaculture?

Shrimp aquaculture is widely seen as a major factor in the degradation of coastal mangrove ecosystems in Southeast Asia.  If mangroves are lost the ecosystems of which they are an integral part become less resilient. But can we have our mangroves and eat our shrimp too? This is exactly what the Wageningen University funded RESCOPAR programme examined over the last decade, and the focus for Olivier Joffre and colleagues in their recent paper in Ocean and Coastal Management.

Maintaining mangroves in tropical coastal areas is commonly seen as diametrically opposed to shrimp aquaculture. Surely we can’t hope to maintain or increase mangroves if we continue to reduce the extent of their habitat? The answer may not be so straight forward. There are in fact multiple spatial configurations of mangrove-shrimp aquaculture possible, each with a different effect on the extent and impact of these coastal ecosystems.

At one end of the spectrum are closed aquaculture systems that can exist more or less anywhere – so long as there is enough money to maintain the energy required to run them. The other end of the spectrum is what are termed mangrove-shrimp integrated systems, with shrimp production integrated into mangrove forested coastal landscapes. In between are multiple states of more or less mangrove integration, including less desirable clear felling models.

As with any food production system, there are trade-offs when deciding on the system that might offer the best environmental and social outcomes. But if policy makers and industry don’t have the money or know-how to move to expensive (and largely experimental) re-circulation systems, are they then able and willing to maintain or expand shrimp-mangrove integrated systems? And if they are willing, what would make them choose for these systems?

Based on an expert analysis, Joffre and colleagues show that development of integrated shrimp-mangrove aquaculture is driven by a combination of bio-physical, value chain and regulatory drivers. The most important decision driver for increased mangrove cover is their influence over reducing the risk of disease – one of the major reasons ponds are abandonment and extensification of shrimp ponds.  But the final decision to invest in integrated systems remains profitability, which are related to the structure of the global shrimp value chain, as well as government regulation over shrimp aquaculture and mangrove forestry.

If farmers are given the right financial incentives they are likely to change their production practices to integrated systems and expand mangrove forest cover. But if policy tools like eco-certification and payments for ecosystem services are to prove useful, at least three changes are needed. First, farmers require transparent, equitable and timely delivery of economic incentives, such as price-premiums, if they are going to invest in organic certified production. Second, contradictory regulations that promote mangrove conservation while pushing for intensified production need to amended. Third, government policy and certification standards need to move beyond the farm-level to enable landscape scale governance of mangroves and shrimp aquaculture.

If these conditions are met, farmers will be more willing and able to move away from vulnerable production practices that result in mangrove deforestation and reduced shrimp production. The choice might be for a system with less kilograms of shrimp per farmer, but if production becomes less risky the overall gains may well outweigh the long-term cost.

Interested in reading more?

Olivier M. Joffre, Roel H. Bosma, Arnold K. Bregt, Paul A.M. van Zwieten, Simon R. Bush, and Johan A.J. Verreth (2015) What drives the adoption of integrated shrimp mangrove aquaculture in Vietnam? Ocean and Coastal Management 114: 53-63. doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2015.06.015