December 07, 2023

Editor's Note - What Works

C. Greg Lutz

As I've been reading industry news over the past several months I'm becoming increasingly convinced of the need for all of us to put more focus on "what works." For more than a century in the U.S. and many other countries, agricultural demonstration projects and yield verification evaluations have proven invaluable because they illustrate what works... and what doesn't. While technical advances in the field of aquaculture are increasingly proprietary and not necessarily freely available to just anyone, in the information age there are still opportunities to evaluate the technical and economic feasibility (or uncertainty) of most aquaculture projects.

Promoters of aquaculture ventures generally believe their own projections, but in some instances this optimism is not based on facts. Trivers (2006) argued that self-deception leads to a more positive selfperception and a positive self-perception increases positive outcomes, such as persuading others to invest in an idea or project (Smith et al. 2017). However, if a concept isn't technically feasible it won't matter how sincere one is or how hard they wish for success. Add to that the fact that some of the people pursuing money for aquaculture ventures are, on occasion, not entirely sincere to begin with. Some investors perceive aquaculture as the next big thing and blindly take the bait (pun intended).

One of the most important rules for any potential funding source is "do not invest in what you don't understand" (Tillinghast 2017). Many high-profile aquaculture failures in recent years have been, arguably, ill-advised, poorly conceived, poorly executed and under-capitalized. Many investors have also neglected reasonable due diligence, but as a great philosopher once explained "should" implies "can". The facts suggest most investors don't know where to look for objective information on aquaculture or how to evaluate it. Oftentimes, they simply evaluate the experience of the management team when deciding whether to back a venture.

Failure to focus on "what works" has also been seen countless times in aquaculture development initiatives in many nations, including both public sector projects and those overseen by NGOs. Several decades ago, the familiar pattern was the arrival of wellmeaning outsiders establishing infrastructure for fish farming that was subsequently abandoned when funding ran out, usually due to a lack of feed, fingerlings, or profitable value chains. Today, the problems are often more complex (Garcia and Fold 2021), but there is still a failure to consider or even understand "what works" in many instances (Minard 2015).

In both developed and developing countries around the world, many bureaucrats in government agencies with aquaculture responsibilities also seem to lack an understanding of "what works." A recent report by the European Court of Auditors drives this point home. Agency "plans" for aquaculture are often nothing more than a collection of lofty, poorly defined goals with little incorporation of synergism, accountability or evaluation mechanisms. In its most recent Aquaculture Plan, NOAA lays out a vision for "A thriving, resilient and inclusive U.S. aquaculture industry that supports jobs, expands access to nutritious domestic seafood, and reinforces healthy coastal and ocean ecosystems in a changing environment." Well...; what more could a stakeholder ask for, other than some details as to how the agency will make this happen? The question is vaguely addressed by the mission statement to "Provide science, services and policies that create conditions for opportunity and growth of sustainable U.S. aquaculture." Goals such as "Use world-class science expertise to meet management and industry needs for a thriving seafood production sector and share this knowledge broadly" and "Facilitate a robust aquaculture industry that thrives as a key component of a resilient seafood sector" are highlighted throughout the document but specific strategies, responsibilities and evaluation metrics are not clearly presented. Interestingly, NOAA proposed an aquaculture plan some 46 years ago (to the month), with the stated objective "to provide the scientific, technical, legal, and institutional base needed for the development of aquaculture in cooperation with other agencies and groups, and to facilitate early application of research results by information dissemination and extension activities."

As the character Dr. Leonard McCoy observed in the 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, "the bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe." Lofty goals similar to those of NOAA have been developed by governments in many countries. In an aquaculture plan for Scotland the Scottish government "supports the development of a sustainable aquaculture sector, operating within environmental limits, and recognises the considerable social and economic benefits the sector delivers today and can deliver in the future." A number of aspirations are presented, such as "Continual innovation facilitates opportunities for a highly resource efficient and productive industry to responsibly maximise value from the production process." As in the NOAA document, nebulous narrative about how goals will be met abounds, but no detail is presented as to who, specifically, will do what and who will be accountable for meeting (or at least making progress toward) these goals.

Vietnam's Aquaculture Plan also seems to lack detail for execution of outlined goals, such as "continue to direct the development of effective farming of key species and aquatic species with economic value." Other goals include "Take advantage of the potential of the water surface, develop aquaculture on reservoirs and saltwater intrusion areas newly formed by climate change that cannot continue agricultural production, forming linkage chains, ensuring food quality and safety, and applying advanced science and technology to create quality, value-added products to meet the needs of domestic and international markets." Nonetheless, when considering the question of "what works" Vietnam's meteoric growth in aquaculture production speaks for itself.

From private industry to national aquaculture planning, examples of failure (oftentimes expensive failure) abound. It's time to focus on "what works."
— C. Greg Lutz, Editor-in-Chief

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About C. Greg Lutz

C. Greg Lutz began his career in aquaculture as a Master’s student at Louisiana State University, where he was persuaded to stay on to subsequently earn his Ph.D. From there he went to work in the private sector, planning, constructing, outfitting and operating a 500 ha catfish farm. He eventually returned to the university as an Extension Specialist and Professor, where he currently has responsibility for all aquaculture programming in the state. The total impact of Louisiana’s commercial aquaculture in 2021 was $741 million. Dr. Lutz is the author of Practical Genetics for Aquaculture, as well as a number of refereed publications and book chapters, and over 320 extension/educational articles. To date he has worked in 25 countries.

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