Oceans need us to expand our minds 

Human activities are putting extreme pressure on aquatic ecosystems worldwide. United Nations’ Oceans Decade was launched to promote increased understanding and protection of oceans, seas and coasts around the world. New thinking and concepts are needed to meet the needs of both people and the planet. 

Issues within the aquatic ecosystems reflect on life quality as a whole. Oceans have become ending points for waste. Pollution is negatively impacting microorganisms in the water. Overfishing is causing extinction of species, further exacerbating the issues and imbalance in the ecosystems. 

UNRIC’s recent article discussed the destruction of mangroves to raise awareness of aquaculture’s impact on coastal ecosystems, such as mangroves.  

Juhani Pirhonen has looked into algae production that utilizes waste water from aquaculture. Photo: Juhani Pirhonen

Juhani Pirhonen is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Jyväskylä who has specialized in aquaculture research and fish biology.  

“In today’s world circular economy should be the starting point for everything. Much of aquaculture is open systems from which nutrients spread into the environment. These nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, cause eutrophication. Sludge also impacts the benthic invertebrates”, Pirhonen explains. 

Nevertheless, fish is a significant protein source for millions of people worldwide, especially in

Timo Halonen works with commercial fisheries at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Finland. Photo: Timo Halonen

developing countries. As the global population grows, sustainability questions become increasingly relevant. 

Timo Halonen is a Ministerial Adviser at the Ministry of Aquaculture and Forestry in Finland, which has led him work with making the national fisheries more sustainable. 

“The concept of sustainability is wide. There are social, ecological and economic perspectives. The conversation in Finland has a lot to do with ecology because of the current state of the Baltic Sea. There are issues with eutrophication that highlight the importance of finding ways to reduce nutrient emissions from aquaculture as well”, Halonen explains. 

Towards new concepts 

The United Nations launched “Ocean Decade” this year. The purpose is to increase global research and strengthen partnerships that can bring solutions to these issues within oceans. 

In spite of certain environmental concerns regarding fish farming, aquaculture still remains as a highly interesting way of producing food. 

“Fish is one the best animals to utilize the feed it is given. If we want to produce animal protein, it is one of the most efficient options”, Pirhonen points out. 

Ocean Decade of 2021-2030 promotes increased ocean research and co-operation worldwide. Photo: UN

Increasing amount of land is being cleared for agriculture. Meanwhile, the world would need move towards land restoration to protect land and its biodiversity.  

“There is huge potential in aquaculture development because 70% of our planet is covered with water. In addition, with land we can only consider two dimensionality. With water areas we can consider the opportunities of three dimensionality”, Halonen explains.  

Indigenous communities around the world have also shown that aquaculture practices can be sustainable. These communities have created a symbiotic relationship between humans and their surrounding environment, which is often balanced and beneficial for both parties. 

Innovation at the heart 

Current management is not only damaging the oceans, but it is also not taking use of the all the widescale potential they could provide for human wellbeing. 

The Aztecs used Chinampas to grow plants on top of water by taking use of nutrient potential of waste. Today, seaweed production as part of aquaculture is primarily only used in certain parts of Asia. 

Chinampa was a system used by the Aztecs. It is an example of sustainable aquaculture. Photo: FAO

Pirhonen has also worked with systems where microalgae are being grown by using aquaculture wastewater. The concept of recreating a multitrophic ecosystem is highly interesting: “We have also tested filter feeding animals in the system, including water fleas and mussels”, the researcher explains. 

In July 2021, FAO published a new document that discussed the potential of seaweed and microalgae production in the aquaculture sector. 

There are issues with sustainability of aquaculture. However, with proper research and development the sector can bring completely new opportunities. Photo: Hanson Lu/Unsplash

“Through this method, nutrients or wasted feed would be utilized. It is called a symbiotic production model that neutralizes the situation while also creating more sustainably produced biomass for sale”, Halonen explains. 

Benefits could go beyond 

Producing two crops simultaneously, fish and algae, is an interesting concept. This type of food production could also bring ecosystem services such as eutrophication mitigation, carbon capture sequestration, ocean acidification amelioration, habitat provision and shoreline protection. 

Pirhonen has also looked into recirculating aquaculture systems that prevent nutrients from spreading into the environment. These systems do not usually guarantee the production of another crop – algae or plants. 

“Some research is looking into denitrification in recirculating aquaculture systems. In this process the nitrates turn into gas and vanish into the atmosphere. However, I think that this style is still wasting the nutrients. It is sort of backwards when thinking about circular economy. Aquaponics (the combination of aquaculture with hydroponics) is ideal in sense that the plants lower the levels of nitrates automatically”, Pirhonen explains. 

Algae could be used to produce a variety of products – including cosmetics, medicine and dietary supplements. Photo: Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Unsplash

Algae can be consumed by humans or be used as an animal feed. It could also be used for other purposes including as food additives, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, textiles, biofertilizer, bio packaging and biofuel.  

“This type of algae production could utilize the existing infastructure for aquaculture. If this new biomass created a new market, it might bring a situation where algae production could remove more nutrients than what is being created in fish production”, Halonen ponders.

Diverse farming of fish and mollusc along with algae production is highly interesting. Photo: Frank Vessia/Unsplash

Significance of policy 

Research and development are needed to assure sustainable development of aquaculture. Meanwhile, incentives play an important role in guiding both consumers and producers. Halonen believes the key is to re-evaluate current environmental regulations to assure new business models become attractive.  

“Environmental regulation in Finland is quite narrow-minded at the moment. Currently, even if a company would have compensating activity going on somewhere, it cannot be taken into consideration if it does not happen directly at the same point“, he says. 

Aquaculture development could also benefit from regulation that would focus on limiting emissions instead of production: “We should create opportunities and send a clear message: by investing in innovation and circular economy solutions, increasing production without creating more emissions is possible”, the official adds. 

Halonen also believes carbon and emission taxes could be potential solutions for improving aquaculture if implemented wisely: “They could work if they cover all food sectors and not only fish production. When comparing different animal protein production, fishing and aquaculture still have a very low carbon footprint”. 

Much has to be done before these type of symbiotic systems can reach the desired level of development. Increasing public awareness and understanding of the opportunities is the first step forward.  

Symbiotic algae production could revolutionize aquaculture. Photo: Bill Oxford/Unsplash

“It is vital to increase public discussion about the potential of symbiotic aquaculture production. This would increase popularity and the level of interest of both producers and investors to adapt these solutions. Increasing research and investment grants should be directed more heavily towards these methods. Reducing the risk levels that currently come with these systems, is also needed”, Halonen concludes.  


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