[An edited version of this story first appeared on SciDev.Net, 18 July 2016]
According to FAO, aquaculture volume has been expanding at an average of almost 9% every year since 1980. In 2013, aquaculture contributes 43% of world total fish production with most farmers running small-scale fish farms. But various socio-economic and environmental risks that extend beyond the farm can threaten the sustainability of small-scale fish farms.
A new research project will study how small-scale fish farms can reduce shared risks and improve market access through cooperation and adoption of area-based management.
The project, called “Supermarket supported area-based management and certification of aquaculture in Southeast Asia” (SUPERSEAS), will be carried out over four years (2016-2020) in Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam.
A consortium of universities and agencies concerned with food production leads the project. Wageningen University and Research heads the research while other partners like WorldFish and FAO facilitate and advise operation in the respective countries. The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research funds the project.
The liquid nature of aquaculture where pollution and diseases spread in the water makes risk management untenable at the farm-level, says Simon Bush, Professor and Chair of the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University and Research. Bush also leads SUPERSEAS.
“Our previous research on shrimp production (in Southeast Asia) found that various factors like deforestation, salinity, and water temperature affect disease incidence,” says Bush. “But these are not factors you can manage at the farm level. A farmer has little control because these risks go beyond the farm.”
Sustainability could never be achieved by using the farmer as an individual unit of management, says Bush. “You have to look beyond the farm in order to create truly sustainable production systems.”
Switching from farm-based to area-based management should help manage risks in aquaculture, but “we haven’t got the proof of concept,” says Bush. “We don’t have an ideal model (for Southeast Asia) yet.”
Striving to understand how area-based management might work for Southeast Asia aquaculture, SUPERSEAS starts by examining the different forms of existing cooperation among fish farmers. The project will also study how area-based approaches can help fish farmers manage risk via financial mechanisms.
Although small-scale fish farms could access higher value retail markets through certification, the required financial costs and efforts prohibits farm-based certification. Addressing this, SUPERSEAS will also examine the use of area-based approaches to help small-scale fish farms obtain certifications.
“An aggregated approach will tackle some of the environmental challenges as well as level the playing field for poorer farmers,” says Chadag Vishnumurthy Mohan, senior scientist from WorldFish. Furthermore, small-scale fish farmers working together could better negotiate trade and financing deals.
SUPERSEAS “could lead to the development of area-based certification being developed on a commercial basis and ultimately improved trade between Asia and the rest of the world,” says Mohan.