From the unknown exotic to the export hit and from there to the most-criticized farmed fish in Europe - the "career" of Pangasius is difficult to top. The Skinny Cat, bred along the Mekong in Vietnam, was the shooting star among the edible fish in the early 2000er years. Quasi boneless, low calorie, with little taste and also indecent cheap: These were the factors that made the consumption in Germany - and not only there - in a few years sixty times from 600 to 36.000 tons. Pangasius was booming.

The case came 2012 with "The Pangasius lie," a documentary by the German broadcaster NDR, which revealed the production conditions in the Vietnamese breeding farms: The fish is pumped full of antibiotics, swimming in polluted river water and contaminated with toxins, so the conclusion of the broadcast , The subsequent slump in sales in Europe by temporary 40 percent triggered a veritable crisis in Vietnam, because as in many Asian countries, fish farming has become an increasingly important economic sector.

Half-half and more

No other area of ​​food production has grown as fast as aquaculture in the past 60 years. Although the controlled rearing of aquatic organisms has been feeding humans in Africa and Asia for millennia. However, it was not until the 1950 years that fish farming became possible on a completely new scale through novel practices of artificial propagation and the development of granulated fish feed. It was followed by decades with annual growth rates of almost ten percent. According to statistics from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the yield from aquaculture has almost caught up with turf. However, since almost a quarter of the tomboy is not intended for human consumption, already today more than half of the total fish meat comes on our plates from aquaculture. Already 2030 will account for about two-thirds, according to forecasts. And there is a simple reason: the rising appetite for fish, coupled with a rapidly growing world population, is simply not covered by traditional fishing methods.

Frugal freshwater fish species such as carp or perch are an important supplier of animal protein in many developing countries. China is a good example: At 49 million tons, the Middle Kingdom breeds more fish than all other countries in the world combined. Most of the production is eaten in the home country. But fish is also traded more heavily internationally than almost any other food; more than one in three fish is not consumed in the country of origin. In 2017 the European Union imported fishery and aquaculture products worth around 25 billion euros, most of them from Asia. Landlocked countries like Austria in particular are dependent on imports: We produce just six percent of the fish consumed in this country ourselves, or in other words: on January 17th of each year we ate what is bred in our home regions.

No boom without hooks, as in aquaculture: According to estimates, up to 1980 percent of global mangrove populations were damaged by the creation and operation of shrimp farms in the 38 years alone. The working conditions in the shrimp production made international negative headlines: In Thailand, child labor and forced labor for peeling the shrimp were not uncommon. All of this makes it clear that growth needs control, and aquaculture can only be part of the global food solution if it is sustainable.

Control for trust

Underwater Farms: Often the origin of our fish

But how does Otto Normalverbraucher inform himself about the conditions under which the salmon fillet or the shrimp skewer was produced, often thousands of kilometers away? Sustainability labels can provide guidance here: producers who comply with environmental and social requirements and can be checked by external experts, may decorate their goods with the respective logo and stand out from the competition. The first such approaches evolved from the eco-movement in the 1990 years. For example, Naturland, the German Association for Organic Farming, published the first set of rules for organic aquaculture in the mid-XNXX years, and the ARGE Biofisch in Austria also dates from this period.

It took until 2010, until the European Commission adopted the European Union organic regulation for the first time a Europe-wide legal regulation for bio fish and seafood. In Europe, only farmed fish products may be marketed as organic if they are controlled and certified under this Regulation, regardless of where they were produced. Shortly thereafter, the Austrian seafood company Yuu'n'mee brought the first organic black tiger prawns from Thailand to the local supermarket shelves. Nevertheless, bio is still a niche topic in global aquaculture. It is estimated that only 0,5 percent of fish farms worldwide are working according to organic standards.

How to get the large majority of conventional breeders to reduce their negative impact was the same question that the environmental organization WWF posed - and decided to collaborate with scientists, NGOs and producers to develop globally applicable standards for the environment to do traditional aquaculture. The result was the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, which has the turquoise ASC logo for breeding, looking after the local ecosystem, maintaining water quality, reducing the use of chemicals, using feed from responsible sources, and providing good working conditions.

One of the first ASC standards was that for Pangasius. In crisis talks, the WWF agreed with Vietnamese government and industry representatives to regain consumer confidence through demonstrably environmentally sound production. Today, seven years later, the breeds that produce for international trade have nothing in common with the dirty basins that are often seen in the media. Large breeding ponds, located off the Mekong, have water treatment, precise control of nutrient input into the river water and natural green boundaries. Meanwhile, the WWF recommends certified Pangasius even in his shopping guide, since he needs only low protein and fat quantities, so that the breed means a net protein gain. But the years of negative reporting has probably ruined the appetite of European consumers on Pangasius sustainable.

Booming Aquaculture

The wild catch has stagnated since the end of the 1980er years, the rising fish consumption is increasingly covered by aquaculture. Seven out of eight farmed fish come from Asia.

Everything in the river

Salmon is a long way from this problem - its consumption is three times higher than 1980. This will especially benefit Norway. With 10,9 2017 99,9, fish is already the country's second most important export commodity behind oil and gas - and definitely with better future prospects. That is why Norway is investing heavily in the further development of the young industrial sector. Much has already been achieved: In the past, antibiotics have been widely used in breeding, and effective vaccines and stringent hygiene regulations have contributed to XNUMX-related reduction in antibiotic use. For other species - such as sea bream and sea bass - is being researched on vaccines.

The fish food is also changing a lot. No wonder, on average, feed accounts for around two-thirds of aquaculture production costs and is also seen as one of the contributors to the overfishing of the oceans. It is therefore a goal of science and innovative companies to find more environmentally friendly substitutes. Fish need unsaturated fatty acids like Omega 3 for their growth, which they - like us humans - have to absorb through their diet. Statements that five kilograms of wild fish are needed for one kilogram of farmed salmon have been refuted for years, but they are still persistent. The fact is that fishmeal and oil could not afford the excessive use of fishmeal due to rising prices. A maximum of 30 percent of marine ingredients are found in predatory fish such as salmon today, with around one-third of them made up of industrial waste.

And even here there is potential for optimization: Some microalgae have a very high content of unsaturated fatty acids. Until now, these algae-based alternatives were of little interest to producers - high prices coupled with low availability. This could change soon. Veramaris, a joint venture of the chemical companies DSM and Evonik, recently opened a US plant for the production of microalgae. The initial annual production capacity will cover approximately 15 percent of the salmon industry's global needs for the Omega 3 and 6. The first algae-fed salmon products are now on the shelves of German retailers.

Also for the protein-rich fish meal alternatives are being researched. The focus is currently on two types of insects - mealworms and larvae of the black soldier fly, which have been approved as fish feed in the EU for two years. Here, too, one moves with giant steps out of the niche: The renowned feed manufacturer Skretting has just committed itself to the purchase of large quantities of insects of the young company Protix. And the French start-up Ÿnsect, which specializes in mealworms, has just raised 110 million in financing round C, the largest non-US investment in agricultural technology ever.

As far as the technology behind it is concerned, Austrian companies also have their fingers in the game: The Styrian company Christof Industries, for example, took over the entire system development for Agriprotein near Cape Town. Here, fully automated, biological waste is converted into a nutrient solution for fly larvae, raised and harvested and then processed into protein-rich feed. 250 tons of organic waste are turned into 50 tons of chicken and fish feed every day - upcycling in the best sense of the word.

Solutions wanted

The glassy salmon: Cameras and measuring devices control the conditions in the enclosures.

Promoting start-ups that are developing disruptive innovations for global fish farming issues has also made Hatch Blue's mission. This first sustainable aquaculture accelerator is located in Bergen, Norway, the industry's Silicon Valley. One of the start-ups in the portfolio is Jala. Jala is dedicated to a basic problem of fish farming - namely diseases. The Indonesian founder Aryo Wiryawan himself was a shrimp farmer and knows that shrimp farming is often a game of chance: "If you're unlucky, the shrimp will be dead within a day or two." For example, 2001 diseases have destroyed almost the entire shrimp crop in Indonesia. With Jala's monitoring and management tool, shrimp farmers can continuously review the water parameters, such as pH, salinity or temperature, that are important to their animals' health, while providing scientifically-based recommendations for action. The system is made available on a subscription basis at a price that can also be afforded by the many smallholder breeders in developing countries.

Non-controllable environmental influences present producers, regardless of their size, with substantial challenges and allow them to break new ground. Some time ago, Mowi, the world's largest farmed salmon producer, presented the Marine Egg project, a floating container in the shape of an egg. Up to 1.000 tons of salmon can be bred in it, protected from the big little enemy, the salmon louse. This has already spurred breeders to try out new creative treatment methods: They ranged from the use of wrasse, which eat the lice off the salmon's skin, to baths in warm fresh water, which the small parasites do not like, to the use of lasers. The high costs of fighting this natural enemy, together with rising prices for farm licenses, suddenly make a completely different form of production financially attractive: production on land, in systems with tanks and closed water cycles. While these capital-intensive "recirculation systems" often ended in bankruptcy in the past, analysts at Norway's largest financial service provider DNB consider them to be economically viable in the future. 2026 tons of salmon are to be farmed on land by 500.000, around half of what Norway is currently breeding underwater.

This also creates opportunities in countries that do not necessarily come to mind in connection with salmon. The company Pure Salmon is currently planning a plant in the African Kingdom of Lesotho, at 1.000 meters altitude and several hundred kilometers from the sea. Eight percent of Lesotho's gross domestic product would be produced at full capacity. Thus, small landlocked countries could soon be snacking on the global appetite for salmon. 

Photos: 2xASC, Veramaris

Interview with Michael Berlin, Blün

Blue-green cycle

The Viennese start-up Blün operates the first commercial aquaponic facility in Austria. Founder and CEO Michael Berlin explains why running in circles can be very sustainable.