Monday, June 14, 2010

Hooked on Fish - Part 1

 Its Just Not Good Enough   

     In my article about saving the whales I touched on the concept of Aquaculture - Fish Farming to the uninitiated.  If we look at aquaculture in its global application, it is not a cottage industry.  Yet, in many countries, countries that could benefit enormously from this type of food production, it remains just that.  Indeed, in Australia, it would hardly be described as a mainstream form of food production.  The commercial fishing industry, while well managed these days at, generally, a sustainable level, is really just an anachronism to most of the 22 million people who live here. Its a little like the "family farm", "life in the bush" and Banjo Patterson.   For most of us, the fishing industry is a sunny day, a flat white or cappuccino, an outdoor cafe with a view of the "fleet" as it travels back and forth.  Somehow, those lovely fishies arrive at the supermarket, probably all caught by those brave men in their lovely little boats.  "What's that? Another latte? Don't mind if I do."

     Well, I can't leave it at that, can I?  So I have decided that, having raised the topic, I have a responsibility to explore this fishy tale just a little further.  We in Australia have a great deal of land, a great deal of coastline, a great deal of scientific skill and a great deal of enthusiasm when we find something we believe in.  Many of us in Australia are concerned about how to use scarce resources well, how to best utilise our land, how to manage our coastal responsibilities and how to cope with an increasing population.  Many of us are equally concerned with the huge problem of "feeding the world" and how best to contribute to that.  So, lets get on with it!

    However, before we proceed, some caveats may be appropriate.  Firstly, I am no scientist and have no particular expertise in this area.  I have researched and present this topic with a view to promoting discussion and, perhaps, facilitating change.  Secondly, "climate change" is a factor that must be considered in context with these articles.  For those readers who may be skeptics I simply ask, what is wrong with the precautionary principle?  Do you cross a busy highway without taking the precaution of looking at the flow of traffic or, perhaps, using a crossing?  So, my view will be, put simply and bluntly, that there can be nothing wrong with less crap in the air, less crap in the ocean, less crap in our water supplies and less crap in our food.

     Aquaculture is not a new invention.  According to an ABC "Catalyst" program in 2003, a Victorian Aboriginal tribe, the Gunditjmara people around Lake Condah, some 350ks from Melbourne, may have farmed eels over 8000 years ago.  The Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) describe early Chinese aquaculture going back to around 2000 BC.  The Japanese have cultivated seaweed for centuries and there is evidence of fish cultivation in Roman times.  During the 19th century a great deal of trial and development was carried out in the US and Canada, resulting in seriously operating industries by the close of that century.

     In its Yearbook of Fishery Statistics, the FAO has provided the the following figures for worldwide marine (fish & plant) harvesting during 2006:

CAPTURE91,994,321 T1,143,273 T
AQUACULTURE51,653,329 T15,075,612 T
TOTALS143,647,650 T16,218,885 T

     The figures for Australia, by comparison, are:

CAPTURE192,574 T15,504T
TOTALS241,456 T15,504 T

     Interestingly, New Zealand, with whom we like to compete on all things from cricket, to rugby, to ownership of movie stars, caught 470,708 T and produced 107,522 T from aquaculture during the same period.  What's going on?  Have we been asleep?
     Of course, what we do have in Australia, is a cultured pearl industry.  While this is not food production, it must be recognised that it is a vital economic contributor to the Aquaculture industry (around $300m per year) and significantly enhances employment, science and skill development. 

     The cultured pearl industry is also a significant draw card and player in the tourism industry.  The Western Australian town of Broome would not be thriving as it does without pearls and the flow-on effect on the economy of that State cannot be overstated.

     Pearls aside, however, it would not be unreasonable to take a view that the Australian aquaculture industry remains without a national focus and a national strategy.  Now, of course, someone will draw my attention to the National Aquaculture Council and its Strategy circa 2007.  This strategy draws attention to many issues needing attention within the industry.  There are good things here and the strategy should not be sidelined.  Nevertheless, I have to say that it is without the type of gutsy, long range, vision necessary to drive this industry forward with pace and vigor.  It is, in fact, "sleepy", so obviously a bureaucratic document, making all the right noises to gain all the right support for the pittance of funds it asks for.  The strategy focuses heavily on entry to the European Community, arguably one of the more difficult markets to enter.  It makes no attempt to draw on the expertise of the pearling industry as far as marketing is concerned and, most importantly of all, fails to address the easiest market to access.  What is that, I hear you say?  The Australian market!  It has got to be easier to replace the 380,000 tonnes (FAO 2001) of seafood product we import than to develop new markets thousands of kilometers away, at least as a first step in growing this industry.

     The following graphs, courtesy of the FAO, illustrate clearly what is happening to Australian fish production:

This figure illustrates the Australian "caught" production, as in caught in the ocean, not farmed.  It shows what appears to be a decline in recent years, after some 15 years of variability.

This figure illustrates the Australian "farmed" or aquaculture production.  It is showing a steady growth since the late 1980's.  This would coincide, roughly, with the growth of salmonid production in the southern states.

This figure illustrates total Australian seafood production.  It will be seen that, in spite of the growth in the aquaculture industry, total production is in decline at approximately the same rate as the decline in "caught" production.   

     The stark fact that these graphs tell us, provided they represent the real situation, is that in a country with vast amounts of land, surrounded by vast amounts of coastline, we are unable, or unwilling, to produce enough fish to meet our own needs.  This nation, rightly or wrongly, found the means to produce rice, cotton, oranges, tomatoes, beef, wool, lamb and wine in what is, virtually, desert.  

     How much fish product could be produced from a 5 hectare land based aquaculture project and how much rice, cotton, beef, etc, could be produced from the same area?  Oh, before you ask, I'll bet pounds to peanuts that, with a little good management and a little bit of recycling, a land based aquaculture project would use a fraction of the water required for any of the other agricultural products.  Not that I have any objection to those type of products, of course.  Quite enjoy a sausage, or a steak, perhaps a tasty lamb shank, even a glass of red. that's a thought.

      We manage the marine fishery reasonably well these days and are heading toward a fully sustainable marine environment.  Yet, we have not done well in growing and developing an aggressive and advanced aquaculture industry.  What we do not do well ourselves cannot be taught, given or sold to others.  In spite of some great individual efforts, our national commitment is just not good enough.

     Next - Part 2 - We Can Do This! 

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