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July 5, 2017
 
Real aquaculture statistics, real disease problems and the specter of capacity limitations
 
Crustaceans and finfish are in trouble and a new virus that afflicts tilapia could make things worse. The industry needs to stop intensifying Asian production and open new frontier regions in Africa, Latin America, Australia
 
By ERIC J. BROOKS
 
An eFeedLink Hot Topic
 
 
  
Is the crisis in global fish farming spreading from salmon and shrimp into white fish? What does it this mean for world aquaculture and its perennially bright production forecasts?
 
Outwardly, things have never been better. Per capita seafood consumption continues to grow at a healthy rate. From 9.9kg in the 1960s to approximately 14.4kg in the 1990s, the UN FAO states world per capita seafood consumption totaled 20.3kg in 2015 and is expected to exceed 21.0kg this year. It states that farmed fish production now equals 47% of total world fish demand and 53% of world seafood consumption.
 
On the other hand, while the FAO's preliminary forecast projects that 2016 world aquaculture output rose 5% and totaled 81.4 million tonnes, supply side figures should be doubted -as should statistics from the middle of this decade onwards. Despite the bright optimism of such official figures, there is less to these numbers than meets the eye.
 
All evidence suggests that from 2014 through 2016, shrimp output in major producers such as Thailand and China that came 10% to 20% below FAO figures. At GOAL sponsored conferences and similar aquaculture industry events around the world, industry leaders have repeatedly downwardly adjusted shrimp output estimates for these and other countries -and not just for 2015 and 2016 but also the previous two years.
 
For example, CP executives forecast at last year's Q3 Aquaculture Roundtable conference Thai shrimp output of 300,000 tonnes for 2016 and 350,000 tonnes for 2017. At recent industry conferences this year, executives from CP and Thai Union stated that only 250,000 tonnes were produced in 2016 and the same amount is projected for 2017. Downward production revisions for leading shrimp producer China were even more drastic.
 
Moreover, while frontier producers like India, Vietnam and Ecuador continue to expand output, they are collectively growing several hundred thousand tonnes less shrimp than what their five-year forecasts projected for the late 2010s. These emerging producers are finding it impossible to maintain anywhere near the 10% output growth they previously took for granted. Just like China and Thailand did earlier, frontier shrimp producer cannot push output and stocking densities significantly higher without encountering similar disease outbreaks or relying on antibiotics to the point of getting their exports banned.
 
A similar overstatement of official production figures also appears to be happening with salmon. For example, based on FAO figures, recent FAO estimates published by Globefish.org show Chilean salmon production staying constant from 2014 to 2015, then declining by approximately 17% or less than 200,000 tonnes from 2015 to 2016. In truth, it is common industry knowledge that Chile's salmon output fell by more than 45% from its 955,000 tonne peak in 2014. Some Chilean salmon farming stakeholders believe that output will only total 500,000 tonnes this year.
 
With combined world salmon and shrimp output at least a million tonnes below FAO estimates for 2016 and 2017, a case can be made that post all 2014 FAO aquaculture production figures are excessively optimistic.
 
Indeed, Alltech Global Feed Survey's aqua feed production statistics imply at least that much: They show aqua feed output peaking at 40.4 million tonnes in 2013, falling to 35.5 million tonnes by 2015 before making an incomplete rebound to 39.9 million tonnes in 2016.
 
Discovered in Israel in 2009 when it killed 70% of a lake's wild tilapia population, the symptoms of Tilapia Lake Virus (TiLV) include reddened skin and scales, liver damage, inflammation of all organs, the eyes and brain. Distantly related to the Influenza C virus, TiLV infection results in a 80% to 100% mortality rate, as organ failure and death usually occurs within several days.
 
Over the past year, Tilapia Lake Virus (TiLV), has spread its footprint and has now been detected in Israel, Egypt, Columbia, Thailand and Ecuador. While leading producer China has not yet been infected on the mainland, it has already broken out offshore among more than half a dozen ponds in Taiwan.
 
All this matters because if TiLV spreads to China or Indonesia, it would be yet another important, world spanning aquaculture line that succumbs to disease. Disease is the reason why for the last several years, official estimates of shrimp and salmon production have come in below expectations.
 
The impact of diseases such as EMS, EHP and WSSV have kept world shrimp output 15% to 20% below its early 2010s peak. It implies that over the last five years, there has been little or no growth in the volume of crustacean seafood output.
 
Even before TiLV became a threat to world whitefish supplies, the topping out of Norwegian salmon output, a steep decline in Chilean productive capacity has already held back the overall growth of world farmed fin fish output.  This is all compounded by 2016's flood-depressed carp output in China.
 
This may have resulted in China producing at least a million tonnes less carp than what it usually produces annually. Along with declining shrimp out, falling carp production is one reason why China's aqua feed output is an Alltech estimated 31.6% lower in 2016 than it was in 2013.
 
Hence, while FAO statistics paint a rosy picture of ongoing, 5% annual world aquaculture output increases, observers that monitor crustacean and finfish lines are telling another story: A long-term, five year drop in shrimp output and levelling out growth in major finfish lines including salmon, carp and sea bass.
 
With finfish and crustaceans accounting for over 70% of world aquaculture output, it is difficult to imagine how these two major seafood product lines can be in recession and the industry can grow at the FAO estimated 5% annual rate.
 
Should TiLV spread from the current six afflicted countries into a major tilapia producer such as China or Indonesia, there is good news, bad news and a haunting long-term issue.
 
With the UN FAO always prone to exaggeration, it recently stated that a TiLV outbreak, "could impact global food security and nutrition." -Even though tilapia is an important source of both developing country protein and employment, no such thing will happen. Even if TiLV invades Chinse tilapia ponds and devastates its production, tilapia has many whitefish substitutes including pangassius, cod, pollock and various catfish species. It is far easier to find a whitefish substitute for tilapia than it is for Whiteleg Shrimp or Atlantic Salmon.
 
In the worst-case scenario, a handful of suppliers led by Vietnam would take advantage of TiLV dented tilapia output to jack up their exports of pangassius and various catfish species. Hence, the good news is that TiLV will not impact world protein supplies. TiLV will at most have a far smaller impact than the current shrimp and salmon disease outbreaks the industry is experiencing.
 
The bad news is that based on ground level knowledge of ongoing disease issues in shrimp, salmon and aqua feed statistics, the FAO exaggerates aquaculture production as much as it does fish disease threats. The author believes 2016 aquaculture output was probably 80 million tonnes -or possibly slightly less-not the FAO's current 81.5 million tonne estimate.
 

 
While all these problems will not stop aquaculture output from expanding, given the intractable disease issues being faced at this time, it is not unreasonable to venture that the industry has been growing 3% to 4% annually since 2015, or that it may continue to do so through the end of this decade.
 
That's not bad news but it raises one disturbing question. Despite the industry's claim that aquaculture is 'sustainable seafood', the whole production model is becoming increasingly unbalanced an unsustainable.
 
Unbalanced because while Asia contains most of the world's people, there is no reason it should account for over 85% of the world's farmed fish. Whether in Europe or Asia, the problematic, stubborn disease outbreaks holding back production are ultimately the result of constantly rising stocking densities.
 
That raises a serious question: Africa has as much warm water coastline and as many bodies of freshwater as Asia -but only accounts for 2.3% of global farmed fish output. Although it has huge stretches of coastline on two oceans, Latin America only farms 3.4% of the world's fish, Australia 0.5%.
 
Collectively, Africa, Latin America, Australia and North America border on four warm water oceans and hold 30% of the world's people -but only produce 7% of its farmed fish. With aquaculture so heavily weighted in favor of high-density, disease prone Asian production, shouldn't the industry consider opening low density, easily expandable frontier production areas in Africa, Latin America and northern Australia?
 


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