Ecological Aquaculture in the Ocean Food Systems of Rural Coastal Economies

Aquaculture is an ancient practice. Scientists say it began when seafood-eating peoples along the coasts and lakes of the world couldn’t meet their needs from the wild and they developed farming. Thus, aquaculture is nothing new.

But what is new is that our world soon will have about 10 billion people and many of them eat seafoods. Not everyone is going to go vegetarian. Wild fisheries, no matter how well managed, can’t keep up. Most large-scale aquaculture farming systems are also very new. Salmon, shrimp, tilapia, and Asian catfish traded globally from aquaculture industries are only 50-60 years old. Terrestrial farming systems have had tens of thousands of years to evolve.

The democratic process that Mainers are having about the future of aquaculture is going on everywhere in the rural areas of our coastal world. Many countries, especially Canada and our Nordic neighbors, and being offered opportunities to incorporate aquaculture into our rural communities. Aquaculture is new, complex and "scary" for a lot of traditional fishing communities worldwide. Incorporating it will mean change to our coastal communities but it could mean we could become vibrant centers of innovation, education and ocean farming systems excellence, not just world-class tourist destinations where our children who want to stay in Maine or rural Iceland for that matter, only have the opportunity to work cleaning hotel rooms, or work seasonally in summer jobs in restaurants.

All food systems on Earth have social-ecological impacts. Salmon farming is only about 50 years old, and along with all aquaculture systems, it is changing rapidly with many technological, transportation, and market advances. Tremendous opportunities are appearing with the advent of new, land-based aquatic production systems that enhance entire economic value chains.

Just look north across the Maine border to Charlotte County, New Brunswick. Aquaculture has transformed this area from a high unemployment/low income area to one of relative rural prosperity. Salmon aquaculture accounts for about 26% of employment income.

OK...YES, the salmon farming system there is net pens; but consider net pens an important aquaculture system now but a transition technology. Maybe think this way...that land-based recirculating aquaculture systems are the I-Phone; and net pen systems are the flip phone...and there's still some of those flip phones around! Salmon aquaculture in Charlotte county has a localized production footprint in Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick, but it has a large business impact. About 100 aquaculture service companies are headquartered in St. George, N.B. supplying aquaculture goods and services including processing, nets and maintenance, transportation, packaging, machinery, and equipment.  It’s estimated that of the C$ 200 million/year made by the industry about C$ 150 million is spent in the county as direct and indirect inputs.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in Norway in 2018.

Aquaculture has produced a tremendous social-economic transformation of the Norwegian economy and the food systems of Europe, and actually, the world.

Existing aquaculture farming systems are net pens and these are not perfect; but there’s amazing new faerming systems designs being tested at a significant scale by Norwegian research/industry institutions that have the potential to launch its aquaculture industries into the 21st century’s most environmentally friendly, socially responsible, large-scale protein production systems the world has ever seen, producing millions of healthy meals.

And young people in Norway are leading the way in this aquaculture revolution. A recent survey was conducted in two rural regions of Norway both heavily involved in aquaculture. More than 67%  of the people surveyed in the 18 to 44 age group said they thought salmon farming was good for the country, compared with about 31% in the  65 and over group

Aquaculture is a very new concept for many where it has no traditions. Aquaculture in Norway is not traditional. What’s different is that Norway has invested both in applied R&D and in knowledge-based public education to help the public make informed decisions about the future of its far-flung rural coasts.

I have heard our new aquaculture investors coming to Maine want to emulate this. I urge them to continue to involve the public, but also to invest in knowledge-based education  programs for coastal decsion-makers so that we can work together and plan to get the full value of localizing value chains and the value-added industries allied to the new aquaculture production systems.  Such value chains actually have a greater potential for economic development than the aquavculture production systems themselves!

I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes one way Norway has created an accelearted "social contract" for aquaculture. I invite you to join me soon on a visit to “The Salmon Center in Bodø, Norway “A Center that offers Dialogue”