Europe: The need for a strategy on aquaculture

Closing speech by Commissioner Joe Borg at the conference" "European Aquaculture and its Opportunities for Development", Brussels, 16 November 2007
November 19, 2007

Europe: The need for a strategy on aquaculture

Closing speech by Commissioner Joe Borg at the conference" "European Aquaculture and its Opportunities for Development", Brussels, 16 November 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen,

All forecasts regarding global seafood consumption and aquaculture converge around a few simple facts and figures. There is growing demand for seafood worldwide not only due to population growth but also because per capita consumption of seafood is expected to grow between now and 2030 by 50%. With wild fish capture facing a number of severe constraints, aquaculture appears to be the only viable option to meet this growing demand. According to the FAO, global aquaculture production will have to double by 2030 to keep pace with the demand. This represents, in absolute terms, an increase of almost 40 million tons.

Whichever way we look, it is clear that aquaculture production will grow considerably in the coming decades. The challenge will be to ensure that this growth is sustainable both in the EU and in the world, and that it delivers healthy products, meeting consumers’ needs and expectations.

Within this global picture, the EU aquaculture sector is in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, we are world leaders in aquaculture research and technology so that we have a lot to contribute to the sustainable development of aquaculture. On the other, we are net importers of almost 3 million tons of seafood and, according to Eurostat forecasts, this figure is set to increase to 12 million tons by 2025. It is also disturbing to note that our know-how is often transferred to other countries and helps to contribute to the sharp increase of their production, while the growth of our own industry is constrained by several factors.

This brings me to two fundamental observations which I believe must guide our reviewed aquaculture strategy.

First of all, we must think of aquaculture as an industry - involved in producing high quality and healthy food - which is indispensable to feed the EU and world population. In a context of growing agricultural prices and renewed concerns about food sufficiency, the strategic importance of this industry is undisputed.

We must then, as Commission that has put growth and jobs on top of its agenda, seek to have an EU aquaculture strategy that addresses the mismatch between our position, as world technology leaders, and the limited economic impact this seems to be having on our aquaculture industry.

What is the case for an aquaculture strategy at EU level?

First of all, EU legislation in the field of the environment, public health and animal health has a direct impact on aquaculture activities. Legislation at an EU level can also serve to provide a framework that is conducive to the differentiation of aquaculture products through the development of quality and sustainability standards. It can also provide transparency to consumers and a level playing field.

Secondly, research is crucial to the sustainable development of aquaculture. Only the EU can provide the critical mass necessary to achieve certain results or ensure more synergy between the research efforts of Member States.

Thirdly, by providing the framework for a more integrated approach to marine and maritime activities, the new EU maritime policy can help promote science based marine spatial planning. This can help overcome the obstacle of access to coastal and marine space for marine aquaculture. It can also apply to freshwater aquaculture.

Lastly, the European Commission can play an important role in improving the image of the aquaculture industry and its products, with consumers and policy- makers alike. In an industry as young and ever-changing as aquaculture, the European Commission can clarify the challenges of the industry and indicate the way forward.

Before discussing each of these in turn in more detail, allow me to underline that, while the Commission can clarify the global challenges and help create at an EU level a framework conducive to the development of aquaculture, it can never substitute the Member States. In line with the subsidiarity principle, it is up to Member States to take the decisions necessary for the sustainable development of aquaculture in their territory.

Some stakeholders have argued that the Commission should move towards imposing a level playing field between EU and imported products. Current WTO rules do not allow us to impose our environmental standards on our international partners, but we can work in the framework of international bodies like the FAO to promote environmental friendly practices. On the other hand, our veterinary rules and controls ensure that imported products meet the same criteria as those produced within the EU. Having said this, specific issues related in particular to the use of fish feed have been mentioned, which I acknowledge will have to be analysed with a view to finding an appropriate response.

There is also a widely-shared view that the EU aquaculture sector should develop by combining high volume products with niche production to satisfy more specific and high quality market demands. We concur with this view. It is market and local prevailing conditions that will determine which type of production can withstand competition from imported products and can meet the needs of consumers and/or processors. Public authorities can help by providing an effective, fair and transparent legislative framework or guidelines for product differentiation, based on initiatives such as quality assurance schemes, regional branding, sustainability labelling or organic labelling. This can provide the added value that the sector needs. It can also help meet the challenge of competition coming from emerging economies with lower costs and standards.

Community environmental legislation is also of huge importance to aquaculture. Stakeholders recognise its positive effect but they also express concerns about its transposition and application at national and local level, which leads to uneven rules between and even within Member States, and sometimes unnecessary constraints. Our view is that the Community environmental legislative framework is sound, but these differences at local level reflect an insufficient knowledge of the realities of aquaculture because of it being a young industry. This makes it difficult for aquaculture to compete with other well-established industries for space and environmental resources.

As I said earlier, the Community defines and updates the environmental legislative framework, within which Member States make their decisions. We could however better disseminate scientific information to Member States and regions on the actual environmental impact of aquaculture activities.
The Commission could also promote exchanges between Member States and / or regions on the different approaches followed to ensure that aquaculture activities comply with environmental rules, using for instance the European Fisheries Fund or the INTERREG programme.

Public health, as well as fish health and welfare legislation, is also critical. There is a clear recognition that community legislation in this area is largely beneficial to the sector, bringing safety and transparency to the consumers. However concerns have been expressed with respect to the availability of vaccines and medicines, as well as with regard to some specific provisions of public and animal health or welfare. The introduction of a number of new species into European aquaculture necessitates the development of vaccines and medicines. An emerging market often does not provide sufficient incentives for the pharmaceutical industry to undertake such developments. Clearly, working at EU level on these issues makes it more likely to reach the critical mass needed to be able to tackle such issues more effectively. It is important in that regard that the future European Aquaculture Technology Platform liaises with the Global Animal Health Technology Platform, which is pursuing similar objectives. We should also consider the possibility to pool Member States resources within a common research and development agenda with regard to this issue.

There have been requests from stakeholders that the Commission should assess the socio-economic impact of its health related proposals on the sector before adopting them. Let me stress in that regard that the Commission has introduced last year internal rules on the need to carry out impact assessment of its proposals, which should help meet this concern. We have also noted, in particular, strong criticisms from shellfish farmers of the so-called mouse tests used to detect bio-toxins, which they consider to be over-precautionary and therefore insensitive to the economic impacts on the sector. This is a particularly difficult issue since it involves high risks to public health on one hand and enormous costs for the shellfish industry on the other. We recognise that these tests should be avoided where there are reliable alternative methods that offer the same level of public health protection. The Commission has requested the European Food Safety Authority to assess the current limits and methods of analysis for marine bio-toxins and priority has been given to the further development of the chemical methods of analysis in order to replace such mouse tests.

Fish welfare is another important and complex issue. The ethical and economic aspects are converging in this case since fish welfare in fish farming leads to healthier fish and better economic results. Our approach of this issue must be scientific and we need to develop robust welfare indicators based on science.

Divergent opinions have also been expressed on the sustainability of fish feed and fish oil for aquaculture production. This is in part due to the fact that the fish feed and fish oil industry takes a shorter-term perspective of the issue than the longer-term one taken by public authorities. We are of the view that the development of aquaculture production worldwide will challenge the sustainability of the production of fish oil, in particular. More research is necessary to find vegetable substitutes to the proteins or fish oil content in the farmed fish diet; we need to assess and exploit the possibilities offered by proteins from organisms lower in the trophic chain; as well as the possibilities offered by biotechnology. Finally the efficient use of fish feed aiming at maximising absorption and minimising losses by farmed fish should be pursued. I have no doubt that this is high on your agenda.

Apart from legislation, research and technology are another link in the chain supporting a healthy aquaculture sector. The aquaculture sector has already shown its ability to compete for public research funds, in particular in the Community Research Framework Programmes. The setting-up of a European Aquaculture Technology Platform bringing together the industry, the researchers and all stakeholders in the aquaculture sector, can be a formidable vehicle to integrate the aquaculture agenda in the EU research agenda. I am aware of the enormous progress that has already been achieved and I strongly encourage you to continue along these lines. The vision and the research strategy that will emerge from such a platform will provide the basis for future EU aquaculture research efforts.

In the framework of the EU maritime policy, we are also seeking to promote a marine and maritime research strategy to enhance the synergies between marine and maritime research. This will be done by addressing cross-cutting challenges; by fostering cooperation between Member States and the creation of synergies; and by developing marine research infrastructure, particularly data infrastructure. Such a strategy will benefit the aquaculture sector, which in addition to its own research challenges, is also facing cross-cutting challenges related for instance to marine spatial planning, climate change and offshore technologies.

The European Fisheries Fund should be considered as a financial instrument that may be used to further the aims of the EU aquaculture strategy. It already supports innovative aquaculture activities and infrastructure-building that is conducive to good development. We will seek to encourage Member States to allocate a good part of their EFF budget to the aquaculture and processing axis. This will leave the door open for the financing, at a later stage, of measures identified as priorities in the future EU aquaculture strategy. If necessary, new provisions could be introduced in the EFF regulation at a later stage to allow the financing of such new priority actions.

As I mentioned earlier, space limitation and marine spatial planning are regarded by most stakeholders as critical for aquaculture development. Such tools, fed by cross-cutting marine data and research, can also help ensure that fair treatment is given to aquaculture in the allocation of marine space. But they can also help address real issues, like the biological and genetic risks related to the escape of farmed fish into the wild, by a more appropriate location of fish farms.

Spatial planning could also assess the feasibility of locating within the same marine areas, aquaculture and sea-based energy production activities, which can be a way to move from competition for space to synergy in space. Where this is feasible, integrated multi-trophic aquaculture - combining fish and shellfish farming - is another way to create synergy in the use of natural resources and in space occupation, thereby promoting sustainability.

We must also exploit the results of existing research projects or consider financing further research on the design of marine spatial planning tools, with a particular emphasis on aquaculture. The Commission should then promote the use of such tools, cooperate with regions to promote exchanges on marine spatial planning experiences, and disseminate good practices. This could be done through the European Fisheries Fund, preparatory actions under the maritime policy and the INTERREG programme of the European Regional Development Fund. Some Member State and regions have indeed started to develop and apply such tools, but much further can and ought to be done.

Let me also stress that, whenever the aquaculture industry moves in the direction of sustainable production practices, it improves its standing in the competition for marine space. In that regard, the efforts displayed by the aquaculture industry and supported by the Commission, in the “Consensus” project, to define a code of good practices in relation to sustainable aquaculture can only be commended.

The image of the aquaculture industry, particularly its perception by society at large and policy makers, is another important issue raised in the consultation. It is interesting to note, however, that stakeholders expressed divergent views on this issue. I understand that this is partly because of the different perception accorded to shellfish aquaculture, which is a well-established activity and fish aquaculture, which is newer and raises more worries and misconceptions.

The aquaculture industry has made considerable efforts to improve its performance with regard to the impact on the environment, concerning health and on fish welfare. This has resulted in big improvements in the past twenty years. These efforts need to be continued and their results better publicised if we are to lift some of the public's misapprehensions.

On the part of the Commission, one of the first things we need is better information on the exact perception of the aquaculture industry held by consumers. On that basis, we will be able to identify the source of these misconceptions and, where justified, undertake actions to redress the situation. It is essential that any action undertaken by public authorities, to improve the understanding and acceptance of the aquaculture industry and its products by the public at large, is based on indisputable scientific facts. The proposal put forward by the European Aquaculture Society to set up a platform that will bring industry, environmental NGOs and consumers together which I have already mentioned earlier on should be supported. I will ensure that my Services look at ways to actively support this.

As you can see, the program of work I have described involves input from several Commission services. I think that, in line with the principles of the new maritime policy, the Commission should promote a more co-ordinated approach between the different areas affecting the development of aquaculture. As part of this Better Regulation approach, we will propose that all Commission services join us in a truly collaborative effort to together assure the realisation of a coherent EU aquaculture strategy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I know that we are all convinced of the strategic importance of the aquaculture industry for Europe.

The revision of our aquaculture strategy will seek to unlock its potential for growth while continuing to ensure environmental sustainability and the highest health standards. We need to reduce our growing dependence on seafood imports and to turn our technological edge into jobs and growth within the aquaculture market.

A strategy with an Action Plan for this will be completed before the end of 2008.

Your contribution to this process has been crucial. We need to continue to work in co-operation with you.

Thank you for your support.