Caution raised on expanding aquaculture on Latin America, Argentina
Amidst a rapidly developing aquaculture industry in Latin America driven by demands of the global market as well as the depleting commercial fisheries, warnings have been raised about the limits of industrial production as well as environmental and social risks.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 45 percent of the fish consumed in the world comes from fish farms. That means 48 million tonnes by today but by 2030 that volume would double because of the decline in commercial fishing and the increasing demands of a growing population.
In Mexico, aquaculture dates back to the pre-Hispanic era. Historians say that several species were raised in ponds and that the Maya Indians controlled fish reproduction in natural pools known as "cenotes".
Currently, fish farms in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru produce volumes that are the envy of producers in Argentina. But in Argentina, the continent's southernmost country, experts and activists say the climate and topographic conditions are not conducive to developing large-scale fish farming.
Environmentalists said the social and environmental harm that can arise from aquaculture do not justify industrial-level promotion, and recommend instead fomenting responsible fishing in seas and rivers that still have a rich biodiversity.
With an output of 710,000 tonnes annually, Chile is the region's leading aquaculture producer and one of the top 10 in the world, alongside China and India. It is also the world's second leading producer of farmed salmon and trout (both of the Salmonidae family), after Norway. But the sector is not without its risks.
In 2007, the outbreak of infectious anaemia in salmon closed down many fish farms in Chile. About a thousand of the 55,000 jobs were lost, according to the government, though the unions say the layoffs affected 3,000 workers.
Argentina has its potential, "but it is not Chile or Brazil," Laura Luchini, Argentina's national director of aquaculture, told TierramÃ©rica.
Some provincial governments are promoting this sector, but Luchini said our "job is to make sure people keep their feet on the ground."
Along Chile's long, southern Pacific coast, there are many fjords, making it "very favourable for this activity," said Luchini.
In contrast, Argentina's southern Atlantic coastline does not have any fjords, which provide protection, except in Tierra del Fuego, the country's southern-most province, where mussels are farmed.
Fish farming in Argentina is being developed on a small scale, with trout, Patagonian flounder and mussels. But production amounts to no more than 3,000 tonnes per year -- an insignificant volume when compared to fishing, which produces between 850,000 and 1.1 million tonnes of fish and shellfish.
Luchini admits that Argentina cannot compare to Brazil, which has tropical waters," said Luchini. South America's giant produces 250,000 tonnes annually of fish and shrimp in freshwater and on its Atlantic coast, in an inlet near the southeastern city of FlorianÃ³polis.
She believes that the enthusiasm of Argentine producers, who see enormous potential in fish farming, is a response to the pace of the sector's growth worldwide. While fishing production has slowed and beef production is growing at a rate of 2.5 percent, Luchini said aquaculture has grown 8.5 percent annually for the last eight years.
Aquaculture has become a booming activity due to the higher global demand for food and the possibility of tracing the history, location and path of a product along the entire supply chain.
By 2045, FAO estimates that fishing and fish farm production will become homologous. Producers in Argentina believe that with credits, subsidies and better technology, they will be able to make the most of the opportunity to do good business, said Luchini.
But there are no magic solutions. Claudio, a biologist who is an expert in freshwater fish resources, agrees that the expectations of the producers do not take into account Argentina's limitations.
They take Chile or Brazil as a guide, but Argentina is different. There are projects to raise pacÃº (Piaractus mesopotamicus) in Rosario (in the eastern province of Santa Fe). But while in Bolivia or Brazil, with their warm waters, the species matures in eight months, in Argentina it takes 18," BaigÃºn told TierramÃ©rica.
Argentina is at the limit in South America for raising warm water species, said BaigÃºn. In any case, he warned that aquaculture is not a panacea. There are fish diseases, high costs of energy and fish food, and also the risks associated with the lack of genetic variation among the fish raised in pools.
BaigÃºn, also a researcher at the Technological Institute of ChascomÃºs said that while fish farming can resolve everything, preserving stocks and promoting responsible management is still the topmost priority.
From the environmental perspective, Jorge Cappato, director of the Proteger (Protect) Foundation, maintains that it is essential to differentiate between community and industrial aquaculture, because the latter could have greater negative social and ecological impacts.
In a conversation with TierramÃ©rica, Cappato, whose foundation works to preserve biodiversity and promote sustainable fishing, remarked that "the chemical products used in fish farming -- antibiotics, pesticides, fertilisers -- have negative effects on the water.
Local communities of artisanal fisherfolk then lose access to sufficient fish stocks and run the risk of being turned into fish farmers, he added.
Colombia produces 70,000 tonnes of farmed fish per year, according to 2006 data from the Colombian Agriculture Institute. With the disappearance of the "bocachico" (Prochilodus magdalenae), the principal freshwater fish species, local small-scale fishermen were turned into fish farmers, Cappato said.
Cappato also mentioned the case of Ecuador, where the intensive production of lobster has been promoted in coastal areas of mangrove forests. The companies "destroyed 60 percent of the mangroves, left jobless the women who caught shrimp, and when a virus appeared they left, leaving behind empty concrete tanks."
The destruction of mangroves is also a problem in Mexico, which in 2007 produced 261,000 tonnes of farmed seafood, with shrimp in first place.
The shrimp industry is responsible for a large part of the disappearance of these important ecosystems, according to the Mangrove Ecology Group. In 2007, according to an official inventory, there was a 27 percent decline of mangrove forests since 2000 along Mexico's Pacific, Gulf and Caribbean coastlines.