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Aquaculture feeding Africa

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Learning about conservation and sustainability issues across Europe and Africa is an important part of the expedition planning process. The purpose of this preliminary research is to explore issues and identify lessons and / or strategies that might have application and benefit those in the developing world (and vice versa). For readers that are looking for academic prose, stop here; this is an uneducated layman's summary of an initial investigation into some key common issues and assumptions that might merit further investigation and / or 'truthing' 'on the ground'. This process helps identify organisations, places and things to see or visit along Tip Toe's planned route and will ultimately help inform Foundation Five's project selection.

Feeding Earth's growing population without causing catastrophic damage to the natural environment and associated species presents a huge challenge. This need is compounded by loss of arable land through increasing desertification caused by climate change, insect infestation (locust swarms), competition with wildlife, poor irrigation, seeds and fertilisers, small subsistence farms and lack of mechanisation. All contribute to poor yields, even famine. These issues are all drivers to find new sources of protein.

Globally aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector. Fish farming (aquaculture) which is a reasonably mature industry in Europe and Canada, is now providing a growing source of protein in Africa. The fishing sector generally is not without its problems; poor regulation and policing, over fishing offshore and the use of foreign flagged factory processing ships raping coastal seas and oceans. Of course much of Africa's fish farming is done in rivers, fresh water ponds and lakes but nevertheless the foundations and strategic objectives of the industry have much in common with the fish farming industry in Europe and Canada.

The Global Market

The global fish farming market is estimated to be worth approximately $270 billion and is forecast to continue to grow to about $376 billion by 2025. Closer to home, farmed salmon is Scotland’s biggest food export at approximately £600m. The industry provides 2500 jobs with thousands more supported by aquaculture sector and coastal communities. Approximately 200 fish farms are forecast to produce 200,000 mt per year in 2020 with a target growth to 300-400k mt per year in 2030. Once a luxury, approximately 1m farmed salmon meals are now eaten in the UK every day.

Atlantic Salmon exports make up about 70% of the Norway’s total seafood exports providing 14 million meals of Norwegian salmon served every day in over 100 countries. Europe is the primary trading partner with Norway for Atlantic Salmon. The largest European importer of Norwegian salmon is Poland, where the fish is further processed and smoked for markets throughout Europe and the world. France is the 2nd largest trading partner. Having recently resolved a trade dispute with China, Norway is looking to further expand production to satisfy this market, which has an insatiable appetite for fresh Atlantic salmon.

Canada has the world's longest coastline, as well as the world's largest freshwater system and tidal range, aquaculture is an obvious choice for Canada. Wikipedia shows that "Aquaculture makes a significant contribution to Canada's economy totaling 2.1 billion dollars in revenue and jobs in Canada in 2009. The total gross domestic product of farmed fish in Canada totaled $1,005,180,000 dollars in 2009 and $14,495,000 dollars in total employment in Canada. The value accumulated from aquaculture solely for employment is exceptionally important for the members employed in this industry. Over 90% of all jobs (both direct and indirect) are located in rural, coastal, and Aboriginal communities where the human population is low and employment opportunities are scarce. Aquaculture in Canada has proven to revitalize both social and economic factors in these small communities. Over 8,000 Canadians are directly employed in aquaculture – most of them full-time. The aquaculture supply and services sector creates an additional 8,000 jobs. Two-thirds of all workers are under the age of 35."

China is the biggest consumer of fish with an industry now over 20 yrs old. Yellow Croaker makes up 75% of the nations output. Pufferfish farming (an exotic toxic fish) is worth approximately $43m. Tilapia is mostly farmed in fresh water in Hainan with the majority exported to USA and Europe. China have developed a deep sea farming semi submersible mega structure which is to be delivered to Norway in Sep 20 designed to hold 2m salmon and to improve sustainability.

So, aquaculture is big business, it makes a significant contribution to the GDP of some countries and generates significant profits for companies and their shareholders. The livelihoods of employees and whole communities depend upon the industry. Aquaculture in Sub Saharan Africa is still very immature and it currently generates only about 1% of the worlds farmed fish.

Regulation and Legislation

The development of aquaculture should take all environmental, economic and social conditions into account. The inherent objectives of regulation and legislation should include 'zero harm' within or caused by the industry to people, fish (farmed and wild), the environment, property and the promotion of sustainability to protect the industry’s image and reputation.

National Governments are responsible for regulation and enforcement of legislation related to fish farming and the creation and maintenance of human food standards. Governments work closely with industry to manage the image and reputation of the sector in their countries to protect national brands and export revenue's. They finance research and supporting laboratories. Governments also have responsibility for licensing, inspection, environmental protection in their areas of responsibility, negotiating and setting offshore fish quotas.

To ensure sustainable expansion, growth of the Norwegian farmed salmon sector is predicated upon the issuance of ‘green licenses’. This is intended to safeguard a sustainable future not only for the environment, but for the Norwegian aquaculture sector and coastal communities. Meanwhile in Scotland, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has been criticised for its regulation of industry. No company in Scotland has been fined or prosecuted despite various accusations including over crowding in fish pens. Wider enquiry and research is required.

Health

Salmon welfare is affected by a number of factors such as nutrition, handling, transportation and disease. The objectives of the fish farms are to grow and bring healthy salmon to market in the quickest time possible whilst building brands associated with fine quality and healthy food to achieve the best prices. The following issues are integral to the health of wild and farmed salmon:

Water quality. Is very important for fish health and one of the reasons why salmon fish farms were initially established in the same areas that wild salmon run. Aquaculture sites should be designed and maintained to keep fish enclosed and allow the steady and free flow of fresh water through the fish pen. Oxygen saturation, temperature and salinity should be checked regularly to ensure good water quality.

Fish Pen Size. Salmon farm pens must be large enough to allow the fish to swim and behave as naturally as possible. The regulations state that a cage must contain 97.5% water to give the salmon good growth and living conditions.

Inspection. Fish pens should be inspected daily and maintained at regular intervals to prevent collapse (perhaps caused by structural failure and / or build up of crustacea) and escape. Fish should be monitored at regular intervals for disease. Operational plans must include an emergency plan to ensure that infection control and fish welfare are upheld in a crisis.

Feed. Salmon must not be overfed but the fish feeds are designed to accelerate the growth rate of the salmon. Feed is adapted according to the fish age, stage of development, weight, physiology and behaviour. Farmed salmon are fed on processed feed and / or medicines to ward off disease and infestations. Some of these feeds include chemical additives, including Ethoxyquin which was originally designed for use a pesticide. There is a high probability that underlying infection in the constituents of fish feed such as pathogens, chemicals, other additives including antibiotics will contaminate farmed salmon and they in turn may contaminate the human food chain. Infected water leeches out of the pens and infects passing wild salmon and other species such as herring feeding on the waste.

Pathogens. Good infection control and hygiene are essential for salmon welfare. There are three major pathogens that can infect salmon. These are: Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA), an internationally reportable disease, Alphavirus (with its origins in Norway) and Piscine Reovirus (responsible for attacking muscle and causing heart attacks in salmon). These Salmon viruses can be spread internationally in eggs. Infected eggs exported from Norway to Chile nearly wiped out the entire stock of farmed salmon and caused $2B damage in Chile.

Antibiotics. Sea lice are "a key impediment" to the expansion of the Salmon Farming Industry. Sea lice in fish flesh can kill fish. Their presence drives farmers to use pesticides that can cause genetic mutations. There are increasing pressures from environmentalists to reduce the parasitic burden; this in turn can drive an increase in traditional treatments which in turn increases the risk of mutations and sores; a progressive spiral of doom. Where antibiotics are not used, the fish can be subjected to ‘hot washes’ to remove the sea lice. These hot washes (28-34 degrees centigrade for 30 seconds) kill the lice and cause them to fall off but they also place significant strain on the fish; injury and increased mortality have been reported.

Dead or moribund fish. Approximately 9.5m Scottish salmon die in fish farms every year; this is approximately 20% of total. Records should be kept of dead or moribund fish removed as soon as possible from tanks / pens. Dead fish should be stored in a secure area until safe disposal - although its not known what ‘safe disposal’ entails.

Contaminating the human food chain. Farmed salmon bring much higher pollutants to the food chain than any other food type found in supermarkets and is an increasing cause of concern. UK supermarkets including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose have been informed that this is already happening. Fish pulp used in processed food typically includes several fish types, some of which may also be contaminated with persistent pathogens and chemicals.

The origin of the SARS 2 Coronovirus (Covid 19) virus is thought to be a wet seafood market in Wuhan China. The subsequent pandemic highlights the risks of cross species infection and disease. The risk of contamination, infection and human consumption increases where fish pens are overcrowded. Further, use of untested chemicals, such as Ethoxyquin used in fish feed and originally a pesticide, is now used to prevent fat in fish food becoming rancid. The effect on human health has not been determined but Ethoxyquin has been shown to be capable of crossing the brain blood barrier protecting the human brain from blood born toxins! If this is not fully and urgently addressed, it could be the next food scandal and the impact on the industry could be catastrophic.

Fat content. Farmed Salmon have a higher fat content than wild salmon. A link has recently been established between farmed sea food and obesity (due to the high fat content). Medical advice regarding the consumption of farmed seafood has recently changed. Salmon was often recommended as part of a healthy diet but recommended intake has been reduced. Increased fats, toxic chemicals, PCB’s, dioxins and feed supplemented with untested chemicals including those designed to give salmon its fresh pink colour, have been found within the fish and the implications of human consumption are untested.

Environmental Impact and Sustainability

Wild salmon stocks are at the lowest levels since records began and it seems there is a crisis unfolding in the wild salmon population. The Missing Salmon Alliance, reports that in the mid-1980s there were between 8 and 10 million salmon swimming around the Atlantic and now it is estimated that the number has dropped to just 2-3 million. This phenomenon has also been identified in British Colombia, Canada where the numbers of salmon returning to the rivers to spawn have declined dramatically and to such an extent that commercial fishing of wild salmon has been suspended. Wild salmon is not currently commercially fished in the UK.

Genetics. Escaping farmed salmon and fry, can dilute the genetics in wild salmon and it is then reported that they then appear to lack the intuitive urge to return to the rivers to spawn. It has been suggested that climate change and the impact of sea lice may be contributory factors but salmon making the journey back to spawn were found dead or dying in the rivers below the spawning grounds. Other factors preventing salmon reaching their spawning grounds include physical barriers such as weirs, dams and hydro-electric schemes across the salmon runs. (A hydro scheme is currently being built in the formerly pristine Etive River, Scottish Highlands).

Trials releasing Smolts into rivers in an effort to try and encourage return and growth of wild salmon numbers have not been successful. Perhaps this is indicative of a different and more sinister underlying problem?

Marine Pollution. There is a dioxin health warning in place across the Baltic and advice to minimise the eating of salmon and herring in that region. The origin of the pollution has been traced to Paper Mills in Stockholm discharging dioxins into the sea. It is not clear how long this will take to clear but in the mean time there is a risk that these chemicals ‘move up’ the food chain.

Seabed remediation. A 2018 MSP report indicated that Scotland's marine ecosystem faces irrecoverable damage from salmon farming if environmental concerns are not addressed. It reported that fish mortality is at unacceptable levels and there have been little progress in tackling issues since 2002.

After each production cycle, regulation requires a farmed site to be fallowed for at least two months to let the seabed recover and avoid any diseases spreading. Salmon farm organic waste accumulating on the seabed can significantly degrade communities of benthic animals beneath or near farms. Installations, production units and other work related equipment are also regularly cleaned to avoid spreading of infections and water must be filtered. Huge quantities of waste are generated and its unlikely that two months is sufficient time to allow the seabed to recover. Divers and / or ROV's with cameras should be used to survey seabed under the fish farms and the structure containing the fish.

River health. Slurry from farms and adjacent farmland runs off into the rivers. This contamination also kills fish.

Wind farms. The impact of offshore wind farms within or close to salmon runs is not known.

Wild Salmon. Fisheries Management Scotland (FMS) highlighted an average of 20% reduction in returning wild salmon. This was thought to be due to sea lice. The Scottish Government’s latest classification of Scotland’s salmon populations places almost all rivers in the west Highlands and inner Hebrides in the worst-performing categories, with wild salmon stocks not reaching their conservation limits. Is this just sea lice or could it also be infection by pathogens transmitted by farmed fish to passing wild salmon?

Other fish species. Such as Herring are attracted to fish farms where they too are endangered by feeding on the waste. Thousands of these fish can remain trapped within the pens even after the salmon has been harvested and many die infected with sea lice.

Locating Salmon Farms

Fish farms are often hidden from view on remote islands where they can avoid public scrutiny. In an attempt to grow salmon in water known to sustain healthy wild fish, the salmon farms are typically also located within or close to wild salmon runs. There is a hypothesis, now supported by growing evidence from British Colombia that farmed salmon escaping from pens, waste matter on the seabed and associated pathogens leak into the surrounding water and contaminate wild salmon swimming up river to spawn. Young salmon returning to the sea also become contaminated and weakened by exposure to the extent that they may not be fit enough to survive the rigours of life in the wild or have the energy to swim back up rivers to spawn. It is thought that this combination of factors is maybe causing the dramatic reduction in the numbers of wild salmon over the last thirty years. This hypothesis is supported by evidence that the numbers of returning salmon in rivers that do not have salmon farms or hatcheries in the approaches are continuing to thrive.

Government and industry sponsored research

By way of example only, the Scottish industry is investing £50m per annum in new innovations and £10m per year in research to address challenges and maintain is position as the prime exporter.

In an attempt to determine the reasons for the reduction in wild salmon, the Atlantic Salmon Trust are implementing a three year tracking project due to start in 2020. Tracking smolts as they head out from rivers and up to their oceanic feeding grounds. The purpose is to determine where they are going to inform planning decisions on where to put fish farms or offshore wind turbines.


There have been accusations that the subject and scope of projects are or have been carefully chosen to avoid results that might damage the fish farming industry.

NGO’s and Activists. Regulatory responsibilities may be divided across various Government departments but ultimately this framework leaves a risk of ‘mischief’ – who audits the regulators? Investigative journalists are typically not welcome by governments or the wider industry; aquaculture is a somewhat secretive and opaque world. Whilst I do not agree with tactics used by some activists, they nevertheless do have an important part to play where regulators are clearly failing or even obstructing investigations into fish welfare and the protection of the human food chain.

Numerous articles, reports and film / video clips can be found on the internet about the salmon and fish farming industries - some are shown at he end of this blog - addressing different issues and looking at the industry from different ‘angles’. Amongst these films can be found a documentary called Salmon Confidential produced by a group called ‘Salmon Are Sacred’ and featuring the work of Alexandra Morton. The film presents issues affecting Salmon in British Colombia (BC) and alleges a government cover up of what is actually killing BC’s wild salmon. It is worth watching and for you to decide how much is fact. A strong case is presented that links pathogen (and other) infections passed from salmon farms located in the main salmon runs to free swimming wild salmon. It makes the case that pathogens could be the root cause of the loss of wild salmon. There is no doubt that the numbers of both Wild Atlantic Salmon and Sockeye are diminishing; now is not the time to turn a blind eye. Pathogen infection could explain the loss of the huge numbers of Atlantic Salmon and the Sockeye in BC.

Farmed Salmon Industry Issues

Conflicts of interest can and clearly have occurred. Political pressure can be applied to protect international trade, national or commercial strategic objectives, especially where key managers or their families have commercial interests within the fish farming industry. The potential for direct and indirect ‘mischief’ increases with the scale of the issues at hand. By way of example (and there is some evidence presented in the documentaries online to suggest some or all of these may have happened in one or more jurisdictions in the past):

  • Government department senior management up to and including Ministerial level and their families compromised by owning or being major shareholders in fish farms;

  • Pressure placed to gag or control findings of Researchers including withdrawal of finance, discrediting eminent scientists and scholars, loss of employment and livelihoods;

  • Threats of withdrawal of licensing or finance for key laboratories;

  • (Deliberate?) Failure to test for specific pathogens or chemicals or designing test regimes whose results can be summarily dismissed;

  • Failure to test all chemicals used in the industry and especially those that might enter the food chain;

  • Licensing of fish farms including choice of location, lack of control over the export of fish fry or eggs including associated testing;

  • Selective avoidance of studies likely to generate findings not in the financial or political interests of the industry;

  • Drafting of draconian legislation and / or companies ‘strangling’ whistle blowers;

  • Placing economic interest before sustainability and environmental protection;

  • Failure to investigate contamination and other impacts including 'disappearance' of wild salmon;

  • Lack of control of the treatment of farmed salmon with antibiotics;

  • Failure to test fish sold to the consumer for pathogens and other potentially harmful chemicals to prevent entry into the human food chain;

  • Water quality monitoring, failure to remove and disposal of contaminants, especially on the seabed;

  • Poor maintenance of fish farms to reduce risk of collapse and the escape of farmed salmon; and,

  • ........... others.

In my opinion, the root cause of the dwindling numbers of wild salmon including pathogen infection, merits urgent and serious independent scientific investigation. All key stakeholders should participate but to avoid interference or unwelcome influence (see ‘Farmed Salmon Industry Issues’ below), this study should ideally be independently funded, perhaps by philanthropy. The study should include recommendations for a comprehensive Wild Salmon ‘get well’ program and steps required to ensure ‘Zero Harm’ by the industry. Where necessary recommendations might include the creation of pilot programs to validate findings. There is much at stake here (international politics, trade, shareholder value, jobs etc) and findings may be difficult by some or all to accept but the root cause of the loss of wild salmon must be identified and treated or we stand to lose them. The health and restoration of wild salmon numbers is paramount. Fish must not be farmed at the expense of those in the wild.

Fish farming in Africa

There is no doubt of the need for additional sources of protein to feed Africa. Africa tends to follow the lead of developed countries for industry regulation and any gaps (or malpractice) can be imported by default into developing countries. It is difficult to be truly credible in dictating 'best practice' when the industry in the developed world clearly has not go it right and is flagrantly exploiting fish farming at the expense of introducing new disease to humanity, conservation of wild fish and environmental impact. Nevertheless for the visionary there is an opportunity here to get it right in Africa without incurring significant costs.


The environment and associated operational techniques are of course fundamentally different to salmon farming in Canada and Europe. Much of the fish farming in Africa is done in rivers, lakes or ponds with fish species such as Talapia, Catfish, Carp, Black Bass and Trout. Despite the industries being fundamentally different, many of the issues described above are common or similar. Some NGO’s are already promoting fish farming and assisting in development in some countries. Right now the industry in Africa in proportionately tiny and needs to be researched in more detail but Tip Toe visits in Africa could include:

  • Nile River. Impacts of dams and riverine agriculture on fish catches. Egypt has developed the largest aquaculture industry in Africa (approximately 650k mt) and accounts for 4 out of every 5 fish farmed on the continent. This cheap source of protein feeds about 650,000 people through markets in Cairo and Alexandria.

  • Kenya - Lake Turkana. Managed by Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI). Some of these issues were discussed previously in my blog titled ‘Gilgel Gibe III Dam. Community and Wildlife Crisis Management at Lake Turkana’

  • Lake Victoria. Over fishing and pollution.

  • Malawi. Aquaculture production accounts for about 2 percent of the nation's total fish production. There are 4 050 fish farmers. Approximately 30 000 people are involved in fish farming related activities including fishpond digging, pond management and fish harvesting. However, the aquaculture sector is growing at a very high rate. Lake Malawi. Pond culture is the only production system carried out in Malawi. The other production system of cage culture is carried out in very isolated cases. Fishponds are fertilized with poultry, goat and cattle manure. Fish is fed on farm dry matter, but availability is affected by the free-range system of keeping livestock and by the availability of labour. Maize bran is the common feed input used by most fish farmers. Integrating aquaculture with agricultural production is now common practice among over 2 500 farmers. Intensive fish farming systems of tilapias in ponds are now emerging in the pre-urban as well as urban areas of Malawi. A cage culture farm in Lake Malawi has been initiated by MALDECO in the Mangochi district in the southern region of the country. Its target is to produce 3 000 tonnes of fish. Production consists mostly of Tilapia (93%), Catfish (5%) and exotic species such as common carp, black bass and trout (2%).

So what?

Aquaculture merits further investigation and exploration. It seems that the salmon crisis is entirely man made and that the industry is walking blindly in total denial into an international crisis of its own making. It’s clear there is much at stake and where dollars and livelihoods are concerned it’s easy to lose sight of the need to conserve wild fish but it appears to be much more serious than this. The possibility of an industry transforming event (like the oil industry's 'Piper Alpha') is very real. Discreet professional proactive intervention now could significantly reduce the risks but key stakeholder appetite to address the issues and manage subsequent change seems to be missing.


The challenge for Africa is to develop a robust aquaculture industry whilst avoiding the pitfalls experienced in Europe and Canada and without causing damage to people, wildlife and the associated ecosystem.

To improve industry knowledge and understanding, it is hoped to visit fisheries in Scotland, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Fisheries in Africa including Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa should also be visited to gain an understanding of local issues and share learning.

Other learning’s include:

  • An ecosystem based approach to industry development is required. Open cage salmon farming in open sea lochs appears to be out of balance with the environment, conservation of wild salmon and sea trout.

  • There is a link between the falling wild salmon stocks (a trend that started in the 1990’s) with the introduction of fish farms many of which are still located in or close to the main wild salmon runs.

  • In the absence of better information, it seems that pathogens are the more likely root cause of the ‘missing’ salmon and the reduction of wild salmon numbers in the oceans and rivers.

  • Regulators are either working ‘in denial’ or appear unwilling to really ‘grasp the nettle’; there appears to be real potential for a major incident leading to the collapse of the fish farming industry.

  • Whilst factors like climate change, sea lice infestations and dams may contribute to the falling numbers of wild salmon returning to spawning grounds, there appears to be sufficient evidence to warrant an urgent and comprehensive investigation into the impact of pathogens transmitted from farmed fish to wild salmon. This work should be well planned and resourced, carried out by an international independent team, recognised by all key stakeholders, fully but independently financed (ideally by philanthropy), unencumbered and supported by one or more world class laboratories. The presentation and publishing of results must be open and unobstructed. Government regulators should cooperate fully and industry should give open access to fish farms and records.

  • A trial should be conducted in one or more areas in main salmon runs that should be cleared of salmon farms. The seabed should fully remediated to remove contamination to see if the numbers of healthy wild salmon subsequently increase. In the mean time, planning approvals for new fish farms should only be granted in areas outside the main wild salmon runs.

  • The potential for conflict of interest between politics, international trade, shareholders, communities and employees dependent on the industry for their livelihood is high. Countries need to be encouraged to implement national systems designed to avoid these conflicts of interest to ensure the longevity and well being of both wild and farmed salmon.

  • Best practices should be adopted globally to ensure health of fish, protection of the environment and optimise production and nutritional value. The farmed fish industry must be developed sustainably, safeguarding humanity and wild salmon.

  • Regulation appears to be weak or insufficient and needs to be reviewed.

  • The risk, existence and impacts of pathogens or antibiotics / pesticides and other chemicals transferred into the human food chain should be fully investigated.

  • The international movement of salmon eggs, fry or smolts should be fully controlled and tested for pathogens / infection or other contaminants prior to shipment and prior to release to minimise the risk of international contamination.

  • A GIS salmon situational awareness tool should be developed to record the locations of the salmon farms and results of fish health auditing and testing. This should help visualise the scope and scale of the problem.

  • The above principles and best practice should be applied to farmed fish in Africa.

Foundation Five Aquaculture projects should take into account national legislation and any gaps should be filled with international best practice taking care to avoid the pitfalls described above.



References:

F. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations National Aquaculture Sector Overview Malawi dated .

H. Artifishal (a documentary about salmon hatcheries and impacts in USA rivers)

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