This year’s keynote speaker

Advocate touts fish farming’s role in food security

The aquaculture industry has been under much scrutiny from society in the past

After Jose Villalon graduated from Florida International University with a degree in biological sciences, and followed it with a masters degree in fisheries biology from the University of Washington, he went off into the wide world to farm shrimp.

Twenty-seven years later, after his time farming shrimp in the Caribbean, Ecuador and Mexico, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) hired Villalon to move to Washington, D.C. and lead their aquaculture program.

“What I did for WWF for six years was manage a global initiative called the Aquaculture Dialogues,” Villalon told the Mirror while he was in town as the keynote speaker at the 30th annual BC Salmon Farmers Association Annual General Meeting, which took place Sept. 24 and 25 at the Campbell River Maritime Heritage Centre.

“Those dialogues were a very ambitious initiative to create environmental and social standards for 12 different species of aquaculture commodities,” from salmon to tilapia, shrimp to oysters and muscles, he said.

So he knows his seafood production, and how to do it properly.

When the standards were completed, Villalon said, they developed an independent body called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to oversee the implementation of these standards throughout the industry.

“I’m here to make a call to industry to demonstrate what they have achieved in the last two decades,” Villalon said.

The aquaculture industry has been under much scrutiny from society in the past – scrutiny that is obviously justified, considering it’s a food source – and Villalon said the industry has responded well to that scrutiny. Now that there is a “gold standard” set for producers to meet, the sky is the limit for what it can accomplish and they need to show off that they can do this, according to Villalon.

And they’d better get started.

“If the world population is expected to grow from seven billion to 9.3 billion by 2050, as estimated by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organizations, a department of the United Nations), and there’s going to be an increase of three billion in the middle class, it points to the need for food to double in production and output to meet that surging demand in 36 years.

“Double,” he emphasized. “Now, how are we going to do that on this planet without destroying it? If we do it right, aquaculture is a viable tool in the tool chest to address food security issues.”

From an environmental perspective, according to Villalon, aquaculture already has “a lot of good characteristics” when comparing the levels of protein production of seafood to other options, like beef, pork or poultry. For example, according to Villalon, farmed salmon need 1.15 kg of feed to produce one kilogram of salmon. “Beef is 10 to one,” he said, “so if you’re talking about efficient use of resources, fish are a much smarter choice from an environmental footprint perspective.”

The ASC is a very tough, rigorous standard, according to Villalon, so the BC Salmon Farmers committing to comply with that standard by 2020, as they have declared, is a very ambitious goal, and shows their dedication to the cause. There’s a unique opportunity here for the aquaculture industry to unify behind a standard and celebrate that achievement, Villalon said.

“It’s not that there aren’t issues that need to be addressed,” he said, “but we’re in the ‘continual improvement’ phase of developing the industry, and it’s come a long way. We need to continue that, and commit to that.”

By teaming up with the food sector, showing their success in regards to addressing standardizing practices and outcomes, and educating the public in terms of environmental impact versus value of the product, Villalon thinks that consumers will eventually begin to recognize that aquaculture is the best option for a sustainable food future.

One of the unique things about the ASC standards is that they’re measurable, Villalon said. Disease transfer, sustainable feeding, number of escapes and First Nations impacts are some of the main factors that a farm has to work on achieving in order to meet the standards that have now been set, and they need to have measurable results in these areas.

Loblaws was the first retailer in North America to make the commitment to source all their farmed seafood from ASC certified producers, Villalon said, and he is hoping the rest of the food service and distribution world will get on board as well, to recognize that aquaculture standards must be kept high to encourage the growth of the industry, because the industry will need to grow in order to secure food production for the growing global population.