Conservation group promotes bivalve and algae farms as essential parts of beneficial food systems
The U.S. conservation group The Nature Conservancy (TNC) today published a meta-analysis of existing research literature that determined that regenerative or regenerative aquaculture – algae and bivalves – not only improves surrounding ecosystems, but contributes also to healthier marine animal habitats and biodiversity.
Entitled “Habitat Value of Aquaculture”, the study was published in the journal Reviews in Aquaculture. Robert Jones, global head of aquaculture at TNC and one of the study’s authors, told Advocate that the review of 65 published sources – which he called “global synthetic science” – is the first of its kind to review and consolidate data around the idea of restorative aquaculture.
“Can we show that these farmers have a positive benefit on the environment? That was the goal, ”Jones said. “It seems somewhat counterintuitive, because in terrestrial systems it would be rare to find an example of setting up a farm somewhere and improving wildlife habitat. But people familiar with the ocean understand that the structure of the ocean can generate a habitat effect, just like with artificial reefs. But aquaculture is a living system, and there may be more benefits than the structure itself. “
Much of the results of these studies had been “buried in the literature,” he said, so TNC set out to centralize the information.
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TNC worked with partners at the University of Melbourne, the University of Adelaide (both in Australia) and the University of New England (Maine, USA) to assess the biodiversity benefits mussel, oyster, clam and seaweed farms. In each case, a greater number of fish and invertebrates were observed at the rearing sites compared to neighboring sites, with mussel rearing showing the greatest ability to act as an aggregator of marine life. In fact, mussel farms attract about 3.6 times more fish and invertebrates than neighboring sites.
“Previously, our research focused on mapping potential ecosystem benefits of aquaculture, which makes it a high-level dossier. Then as we digged in, we found some problems and three really strong arguments for restorative aquaculture, ”Jones said. “One is the quality of the water and [excess] the elimination of nutrients – this is the one we master the best. There is another body of emerging information on climate and carbon sequestration. This is an area that we are also digging into and will have more of it later this year. The third is habitat. The benefits of biodiversity [surrounding aquaculture farms] is not as well understood.
The TNC report also shows that oyster beds have been shown to be effective in increasing biodiversity, as 30 percent more species were found in oyster beds than in surrounding areas. Sea farms, Jones said, are good for providing breeding and feeding grounds as well as shelter from predators.
“Food production has had a significant negative impact on the natural world, including 80 percent of habitat loss, and aquaculture alone accounts for up to 30 percent of mangrove loss in parts of Asia, which are vital growing areas for fish and marine life, ”said Dr. Heidi Alleway, global aquaculture scientist at TNC. “As a result, conservation efforts have increasingly focused on how to reduce the adverse effects of food production practices. The benefits identified in this study open a fascinating conversation about how we might better design – to better design – a food system that not only tackles environmental impacts, but perhaps even supports the repair and recovery of ecosystems or degraded areas.
The authors want policy makers at local, regional and global levels to recognize the potential of aquaculture and integrate it into regulatory systems. They hope that shellfish and seaweed farming systems can inspire the application and development of “nature-positive” aquaculture and agriculture that contributes to food security efforts.
“We were able to show for the first time, in a conclusive way, that [seaweed and shellfish farms] tend to have a positive impact on the abundance of marine life and the diversity of marine life, ”Jones said, noting that not all farms reviewed in the literature met the criteria for a net environmental benefit. “Biodiversity is the essence of healthy oceans. If the animals that live there are healthy, there is an inherent benefit to a functioning ocean ecosystem, but there are also implications for humans if we use these animals as food sources.
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