In today’s world, there is no debate over whether aquaculture production should be managed in an environmentally responsible and sustainable fashion (Engle & D’Abramo, 2016). There is, however, on‐going and considerable debate over what sustainable and responsibly managed aquaculture is, how it should be measured, and which species and/or production systems are “more sustainable.” Some authors view less intensive aquaculture production systems as more sustainable (i.e., semi‐intensive pond production in Belton, Little, and Grady, 2009, and those who advocate for raising only filter‐feeding species, polycultures, and integrated multi‐trophic aquaculture). Others point out that intensifying aquaculture production results in fewer resources used per metric ton of production output (Bosma & Verdegem, 2011; Boyd et al., 2017; Boyd, McNevin, Davis, Godumala, & Mohan, 2018).

Which types of aquaculture production are more sustainable? Many claims are made that one system is “more sustainable” than others, but mostly in the context of justification for various research initiatives. Examples of such statements include: (a) small‐scale, locally produced food is more sustainable because it entails fewer food miles and a lower carbon footprint; (b) recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are more sustainable because they use less water; or (c) polyculture of filter‐feeding fish is more sustainable due to reduced demand for energy used to manufacture feeds. Each of the above statements bases sustainability on effects on a single resource, that is, carbon, water, and energy, respectively. Yet the overall concept of sustainability implies that effects on resources are interconnected in multiple ways. More recent efforts to develop indicators of sustainability incorporate broader considerations that include economic and social sustainability in addition to environmental sustainability (see Valenti, Kimpara, de Preto, & Moraes‐Valenti, 2018 for a recent example). Of these, economic and social sustainability considerations have received far less attention in the research literature than has environmental sustainability.

As recognized half a century ago by Abel (1971) and Swingle (1972), the choice of aquaculture species and production systems will be driven by economic and business realities reflected in the decisions made by individual entrepreneurs who manage the businesses. This is true for both large‐scale producers of commodity aquaculture crops and small‐scale producers who supply niche markets. The environmental effects of decisions made by the owner/manager of each aquaculture business will further depend on that specific farm, its location, the local environment, and other factors specific to that individual business. Broad, generalized statements of whether one species or production system is more or less sustainable than another have little meaning. Perhaps it is time to bring the sustainability discussions down to earth and focus on more pragmatic, empirical, outcomes‐based approaches to choices related to species/production systems, their sustainability, and their contribution to human food security.

There are studies that have taken an empirical approach to evaluating sustainability of aquaculture production, including its economic sustainability. For example, Bosma and Verdegem (2011, p. 65) concluded that “the most sustainable way to increase aquaculture production is through intensification of existing aquaculture systems.” Boyd et al. (2017, 2018) showed that more intensive shrimp production in Vietnam, Thailand, and India required fewer resources per metric ton of production. In the accompanying economic analysis (Engle et al., 2017) showed that costs per metric ton of shrimp produced decreased in Vietnam and Thailand as farming intensity increased, up to a point. Other studies (see Kumar et al., 2018; Kumar & Engle, 2017, for examples) similarly have shown how intensification that reduces the use of land and water per metric ton of production can also reduce production costs of U.S. catfish. Chatvijitkul, Boyd, and Davis (2017) presented a framework to assess the extent of resource use as embodied in feeds for fish and shrimp. More research at the farm level that incorporates economic analyses is needed to fully evaluate and compare which species and production systems enhance sustainability.

While RAS systems are often cited as being “sustainable,” the rate of failure of commercial RAS continues to raise questions of their economic sustainability and also makes it difficult to measure costs and environmental sustainability of commercial‐scale RAS. At the end of the day, the products produced will need to compete in seafood markets with products produced in lower‐cost production systems. One speaker at a recent meeting even suggested that RAS producers should subsidize the prices to be charged for RAS‐produced fish so that consumers would be able to purchase “sustainably raised fish” at the same price as other fish.

In addition to the need for more analyses of farm‐level data that measure sets of environmental, economic, and social sustainability metrics, there are other aspects of global sustainability that require additional research. The emerging research on the relative governance related to sustainability issues around the world suggests that the disparity in stringency of regulations may be driving aquaculture production away from developed countries that have stringent sets of regulations and enforcement to the developing world with less stringent regulatory systems (Abate, Nielsen, & Tveterås, 2016; Engle and Stone, 2013; Engle, van Senten, & Fornshell, 2019; van Senten & Engle, 2017; van Senten, Dey, & Engle, 2018). The effect of the widely disparate levels of regulatory stringency can be seen with regard to the large volumes of low‐priced pangasius sold from Vietnam. While research is underway to attempt to reduce the discharge volumes of untreated wastes into natural rivers and to reduce the use of banned antibiotics in pangasius production in Vietnam (Ngoc et al., 2016a, 2016b), these practices are still a concern. Regulatory discrepancies that result in pushing aquaculture production to developing nations where practices have far greater negative environmental effects may remove aquaculture production from the view of consumers, but the net effects may be far more negative in terms of global environmental quality. Research is needed to explore these issues.

Perhaps in partial response to increased interest in sustainable aquaculture production, various certification programs have been developed to provide assurances that the products sold in markets in developed countries are raised in environmentally and socially sustainable ways. There has been little research conducted to measure the on‐farm costs associated with the set of program fees, expenses to farms of the third‐party auditors who conduct on‐farm evaluations, and the time and other resources spent by farms to maintain records in the form required by such certification programs. These expenses are greater in developed countries that already have stringent state and federal laws in place with effective enforcement systems resulting in reduced economic sustainability. One is almost reminded of the Vonnegut short story, “Harrison Bergeron” (Vonnegut, 1968). Do certification programs result in more environmentally sustainable aquaculture production? Insufficient empirical research data are available to measure the effects of certification programs on economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

The occasion of the 50th‐year celebration of the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society (JWAS) is an appropriate time to recommit our research and extension efforts to address the most critical problems and issues of aquaculture in the context of the global environment, its human population, and what those interactions mean for the coming 50 years. Finding effective, realistic, and pragmatic solutions to these complex, knotty, and wicked problems will require our very best collective efforts. To truly solve these problems will require robust, empirical studies that fully integrate economic and social analysis in a detailed manner with a greater emphasis on farm‐level effects. Heroic assumptions that lead to generic statements and conclusions are of little value. We need answers that are grounded in the realities of the real world in which we live.

JWAS is committed to publishing manuscripts that make substantive contributions to the growth and development of aquaculture through research that breaks through critical bottlenecks and provides workable solutions to problems faced by aquaculture producers worldwide.


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