Sustainability & fish farming: working with a real case

Aquaculture, such as fish farming, is a key industry to ensure  sustainable food production in the future. Foods deriving from the seas face many challenges such overfishing and water pollution. At the same time, sea food has many benefits such as low climate impact and high nutritional value.

It is quite clear today that wild fish supply is not sufficient and that aquaculture is necessary in some form in order to supply current populations with sea food. However, fish farming has been criticized for unsustainable practices through the years and the industry still struggles with some of them like sea lice, escapes and sustainable feed sources.

In the course I teach at NHH ‘Measuring sustainability’ we each year work with  a real case on how to measure sustainability. Last autumn, we collaborated with Norwegian Responsible Investment association Norsif on how we can measure and evaluate the sustainability of aquaculture companies. One of the things I love about these cases is the creativity the students show when coming up with new ideas and solutions. I truly believe this kind of creativity, combined with academic thinking and facts, is one of the most important skills we can teach students.

One of the learning points from working with the aquaculture case is how important national regulation is for sustainable fish farming. One of the drastic differences is the use of antibiotics. Aquaculture uses significant amounts of antibiotics, which is a critical issue considering antibiotic resistance, but the industry also shows that it can do without it when it has to, such as in Norway.

Another difficult issue is that fish farming in Europe is mostly done with omnivorous fish such as salmon. It is less efficient to raise fish that partly eats other fish than fish that only feeds on algea. Instead of feeding the salmon other fish, we could eat this fish directly and thus skip the step of raising the salmon. The fish in the feed can also lead to further overfishing. Of course we can feed salmon a vegetarian diet but salmon that are fed on vegetable rather than animal proteins may be lacking in Omega-3, which is one of the main reasons salmon are so healthy for a human diet. A better solution would be to instead farm a fish that naturally feeds on for example algea.

Another key issue for sustainability, the students discovered, is future orientation of the companies and investment in research to find sustainable solutions to issues we have not yet solved. During the course, we we’re visited by the head of sustainability and risk at Cermaq, Wenche Gronbrekk, who explained how the company works to address sustainability issues. Wenche has answered a few of my questions below and also describes their investment in future solutions: iFarm.

Sabina: The Norwegian aquaculture industry has made quite some progress in terms of addressing its sustainability challenges. What are, in your opinion, some of the main achievements? 
Wenche: We have made great progress in lifting the industry standard the past years through collaboration –  through dialogue and knowledge sharing between government, research and industry. Also, in the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), addressing key issues such as standardization, feed ingredients and biosecurity. Vaccine development has also been key to advancing sustainability to the level we see today.

Sabina: Still, as we have learnt when working with this case, challenges remain. What’s on top of your to-do-list in terms of sustainability?
Wenche: Sustainability requires continuous effort, and we work every day to be better than just complying with minimum standards. Developing new solutions that address key problems is also a priority – such as our iFarm concept. It may solve many of the key challenges today through individualized treatment of each fish, increasing animal health and welfare, optimizing feeding and any need for treatment, which may in turn reduce the environmental footprint of our activities.

Sabina: Sustainability is, according to its definition, about the long term perspective, future generations even. Still most organisations operate with a shorter time perspective in their day-to-day business. How are you able to take the long term perspective into account?
Wenche: Salmon farming is largely dependent on taking a long term view – we operate in the sea and biological risks do not respect financial quarters. To have a business over time, our operations need to be sustainable in all aspects: environmentally, socially and economically. 

Sabina: Many who work as sustainability officers or even head of sustainability find that change management is crucial in order to conduct their work. Is this your experience as well?
Wenche: As a sustainability officer you need to work across the organization, break silos and in many ways be a change agent. Integrating sustainability in business strategy also means that many companies need to innovate their business model – and it is my experience that sustainability professionals often play a central part in this transformation.

A big thank you to Wenche and Cermaq for sharing your experiences with us and also to Norsif and Norsif member Folketrygdfondet and Tine Fossland who attended the students presentations and provided feedback on their evaluation models. We could not have done this without you!

Plastic pollution: what we can do about it

There’s been a lot of talk about plastic in the news lately. There are at least three reasons to be very concerned about the plastic pollution.

Animal welfare. Plastic is filling the oceans and researchers estimate that if this development continues, there’ll soon be more plastic than fish in the ocean.  In fish and shellfish, plastic is found in one out of three. We recently heard about the whale that died because its stomach was filled with plastic. Surprisingly, the animal right movement is not doing much on the issue.

Human health. In our turn, when we consume fish and other seafood  this plastic accumulates in our bodies. Scientists have not yet studied the consequences on us.

Resource use. Plastic is not all bad. There are occasions when plastic is absolutely needed and where we don’t have a good alternative yet, for example in health care. However, most of our plastic use is for one time purposes like packaging, cups and cutlery. Basically, we should save plastic, a non-renewable source, for when it is absolutely needed.

Although we could wish that our policymakers were looking out for us, in the meantime, there are a lot we as consumers can do about plastic pollution:

  • Choose natural fibres and textiles. Plastic fibres are released into our waters when we wash polyester/acrylic/elastane garments at home. Scientists have concluded that such everyday washing is a bigger source of plastic pollution than the microplastics in skincare.
  • Choose plastic free skincare without mineral oil and microbeads. Look out for PE, PET, PP, PVC, PS, PVA, PMMA and PTFE.
  • Avoid plastic bags. Our grandmothers carried shopping nets with them when they we’re out and about because our convenient plastic bags didn’t exist.
  • Avoid plastic bottles. Glass is better but best is of course to refill your own bottle.
  • Avoid one time cutlery, packaging and cups. In Sweden, only 14% of plastic packaging is recycled. The zero waste movement offers a lot of inspiration on how to avoid unnecessary plastic waste.
  • Don’t throw cigarette butts on the ground, the filter contains plastic and is a threat to wildlife that may mistake it for food.
  • Recycle your plastic and turn in old plastic. Regulation of new plastic has improved but a lot of the old and toxic plastic is still in use.

Do you have another favourite trick for reducing plastic pollution? Please share it with us in the comments!