Preserving aquaculture amidst various barriers and environmental threats

Successfully securing investment in technological advancement will help to develop the aquaculture industry in South Africa

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In turn, it will contribute towards an economy that builds sustainable livelihoods through big business, employment creation and extended nutrition. The Centre Director of the Copper Development Association Africa (CDAA), Levine Warries, elaborates on the use of copper alloy nets to avoid biofouling and create a sustainable fishing ecosystem.

It is estimated that one in four fish eaten today is farmed. This is where the definition of aquaculture is drawn from: it is the process of producing fish for food in freshwater systems such as dams, open and indoor ponds, tanks and recirculation systems. Aquaculture in South Africa is divided into freshwater aquaculture, which cultures species that are native to rivers, lakes and streams, and marine aquaculture, which cultures species that reside in the ocean. Unfortunately, freshwater aquaculture in South Africa is limited by the supply of suitable water, which is why it is mostly done on a smaller scale, in comparison to marine aquaculture, which is predominantly the type of farm fishing done in the country.

With aquaculture becoming the fastest, most rapidly growing agricultural production system and industry in the world, developing fish farming technology that is cost-effective, produces targeted volumes and is easy to manage is paramount. Several other continents have made headway but Africa still has a huge hurdle to overcome in order to level up. One of the main challenges associated with fish farming is the issue of biofouling, according to Warries.

“Biofouling is caused when microscopic organisms attach themselves to the synthetic netting and the apertures soon become completely obstructed, preventing the flow of fresh oxygenated water. This causes diseases, which increase mortality and operating costs due to the need for additional antibiotics and cleaning of the nets. Synthetic nets are also prone to predator attacks and the loss of huge numbers of fish,” she says.

South Africa mainly focuses on marine aquaculture since it takes place in the ocean. This type of fishing makes use of cages suspended on the seafloor or manmade systems, such as ponds or tanks. There is a wide range of global states that prove that fish farming is not only intense but is surrounded by several complications. Constraints, such as access to fresh water, suitable land, access to technology, high transaction costs, lack of supporting policies and legislation make fish farming challenging.

It’s easy to assume that, with the relatively large seafood demand, fish farming is contributing immensely to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in South Africa. Unfortunately, it’s quite the opposite. South Africa’s aquaculture is underwhelmingly underdeveloped and is performing below its potential, mainly because it lacks the necessary technology to address key issues such as diseases and parasites, that result in lower yields and higher production costs, and flexible regulatory policies that are appropriate and organise the sector. Designing suitable technology will create a platform that consolidates South Africa’s wide variety of small-scale farmers to produce commercially viable volumes.

Taking into consideration the above factors, it is interesting to note that, ironically, these circumstances have not stopped people from dramatically farming and consuming fish. National Geographic reports that fishers remove more than 77 billion kilograms of marine life from the sea each year; resulting in many scientists fearing that if we continue to do so at this rate, it will result in a severe collapse of the world’s fish populations.

South Africa consumes 312 million kilograms of fish each year, half of that being locally caught, according to the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI). Seventy per cent of that tonnage is hake and sardines. This is evidence that, despite the many challenges surrounding aquaculture, it is still an in-demand sector. Formulating realistic strategies that take into consideration the environment but at the same time, allow fish farming is crucial. It is when fish farming is done illegally that it poses a serious threat, not just to the environment, but to the people who consume aquaculture produce.

South Africa is lagging behind in commercial production. Aquaculture and Fisheries Specialist, Prof. Peter Britz, believes that, “Regulation and environmental management are crucial in growing the fish farming industry in South Africa.” How can this be achieved? The first step is to take a closer look at and understand the techniques that facilitate aquaculture.

Freshwater fish farming requires the maintenance of ponds solely for the purpose of developing aquatic fauna at a yield that is greater than the one we find in the natural ecosystem.

Here, the fish numbers are kept low and the fish are fed naturally most times. Intensive freshwater aquamarine fish are bred in tanks until they reach marketable size. Marine aquaculture requires that the fish are reared in cages that are anchored to the seabed. This accommodates the more sophisticated techniques, such as the use of submersible cages.

These techniques, shape the systems that govern the sector. Technology influences breeding, feeding, harvesting and vaccines in fish farming. Regulations decide policy frameworks, organisational structures and market standards.

Among the many challenges associated with fishing that should be addressed, biofouling is the most crucial.

Then, there is the distraction and pollution of coastal and aquatic ecosystems. Adding these challenges is social disruption—synthetic nets destroy the habitats of thousands of creatures, affects the salinisation of land and aquifers and introduces exotic species into the ecosystem. Another major problem is bycatch, which are the creatures caught by accident.

These species go to waste as they are regarded as useless, causing them to suffer an unnecessarily painful demise. As long as these challenges are not addressed, fish farming will continue to decline, not just in South Africa, but across the globe.

This leads us to the question of what can be done to preserve fish on a commercial scale. The answer lies in carefully thought-out research and development policies that are accompanied by technological investment and innovative methods that can be used to safely fish. The CDAA is in the process of revolutionising aquaculture in South Africa. They have managed to come up with new technology that addresses the impacts of biofouling.

This new technology substitutes synthetic nets with copper cages, also referred to as copper alloy nets, which facilitate commercial aquaculture operations, something that synthetic nets struggled to achieve. This is mainly because synthetic nets are prone to predator attacks, leading to the loss of large amounts of fish.

Warries adds that, among the many advantages of copper alloy nets, “They are not prone to biofouling and unlike regular nets, they do not have to be removed and cleaned. The fish generally grow faster and bigger as opposed to synthetic cages. Predators are unable to penetrate copper netting. Copper netting will not rust and lasts a long time. Fish farmers can save on operating costs. These results came after we conducted thorough tests that proved the resistance of copper netting to biofouling,” she explains.

It is evident that more focus needs to be placed on exploring some of the most recent technologies that can revolutionise fish farming and contribute to long-term sustainability in the aquaculture sector.

Investing in the necessary research will enable the successful maximisation of the sector’s potential and the role it’s capable of playing in terms of the country’s GDP. Technology and the revision of legislation will improve the fish farming sector in South Africa, and the business opportunities are staring us in the eye. The modern era has granted us massive opportunities to learn, grow and answer questions that we were previously unaware of, we need to utilise everything at our disposal. 

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