Ensuring the competitiveness of Spanish aquaculture

by Thomas Jensen
Javier Ojeda portrait

APROMAR’s research division seeks innovative solutions to challenges facing industry

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 3 2022.

The Spanish aquaculture sector is the biggest in the EU in terms of production and employment. The sector comprises some 5,000 companies producing shellfish in the sea, and fish in marine and freshwater. This industry is represented by the association, APROMAR, which works to increase the competitiveness of its members and promote the development of a sustainable aquaculture industry in Spain. A research division in APROMAR implements projects that seek innovative solutions to challenges faced by the industry. Javier Ojeda González-Posada, the managing director of APROMAR speaks here about the aquaculture sector in Spain and the role of the association.

The impacts of climate change (warmer water, invasive species, extreme weather events, algal blooms etc.) affect the marine aquaculture sector. What steps is the Spanish industry taking to adapt to these new conditions. And what measures are being implemented to mitigate the sector’s own contribution to emissions?

When approaching climate change, APROMAR acts on both sides. On mitigation we have just finalised measurement studies of the carbon footprint for three of the main species that we produce: European seabass, rainbow trout and turbot. We will now work on ways to reduce them even if they are already small when compared to other food products, both animal and vegetal. Benchmarking is essential in this exercise. And on the adaptation side to climate change, we are discussing with the Spanish public authorities how to improve spatial planning in the sea to be able to make use of sites more suitable to extreme weather conditions licenses (mainly through larger sites), to face stronger waves and currents. At the same time, we have developed certifiable standards for more resistant sea pens and moorings, as almost all Spanish sea farms are offshore. And for freshwater fish farming in rivers, we work to prioritise the position of fish farming as a user of water during droughts.

While the influence of climate change on fish farming is generally adverse, there is also some positive fallout—a longer growing season, for example, in temperate countries. Can the marine farming sector in Spain report on encouraging developments attributable to warming weather?

Climate change mainly brings negative consequences. Fish farming is already a very complex business and the uncertainties brought by changes in nature drive that complexity even further. This has no positive side; not even the increase in water temperature. However, it is true that fish farming faces this new global challenge from a much better starting point than land-based livestock production. This is due to the biological characteristics of aquatic species. These are much more efficient and require fewer natural resources than terrestrial species. Another advantage that Spanish fish farming enjoys is that the sector is comprised of modern and innovative companies capable of adapting rapidly. Enterprises are also collaborating as a sector, through associations like APROMAR. Facing climate change is better done at industry level than by individual companies.

Among a small but vocal group of consumers in some countries farmed fish has a poor reputation as they associate it with environmental damage and the use of chemicals, and consider it an inferior product compared with its wild counterpart. Is this also the case in Spain and if so, how can the industry combat this perception?

The majority of consumer and social surveys carried out in Spain conclude that, when compared to wild caught fish, farmed fish are valued positively on some aspects (like food safety and environmental sustainability) and less on others (like organoleptic values). As aquaculture slowly increases its share of the aquatic food market these differences tend to perpetuate, but from APROMAR we are in the third year of powerful communication campaigns to convince Spaniards that farmed fish is as valuable as wild. However, our aim is to increase the reputation of all fish and increase fish consumption in general, or at least the consumption of Spanish produced farmed and wild fish as opposed to imported fish. We work together with fishers, and this is the best way to go.

Spain has the second highest rate of fish consumption in the EU, but the figure has declined over the last decade despite an uptick in the last couple of years. To what do you attribute this diminishing interest in fish and shellfish, products that have so much to offer in terms of health benefits? How is the seafood farming industry responding to this development and what efforts are being made to reverse it?

As mentioned in the previous question, consumers are sensitive and react to positive and negative messages. We need to bring closer to reality the image of fish that Spanish consumers have at their disposal. This is the only way to improve, or at least maintain, the high consumption levels of aquatic products in Spain. Let us keep in mind that fish consumption in Spain is one of the reasons for the longevity and quality of life in this country. It is also tied to a rich gastronomy and cultural traditions. The Spanish Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is again investing in the promotion of fish and this will also help.

Challenges regarding the allocation of zones for aquaculture are among the barriers to the expansion of the sector in Europe. What is the situation in the marine fish farming sector in Spain? Is the country’s highly federal political and administrative structure a help or a hindrance to obtaining the necessary clearances and permits?

Simplification of the administrative framework is one of the challenges for unlocking the potential of fish farming in Spain, just like in all other Member states of the EU. The European Union has a bipolar approach to aquaculture. It delivers positive policies and approaches to it, but at the same time it creates multiple barriers that appear irrelevant seen from Brussels, but that become unbearable when implemented at national or regional level. The highly federal political system in Spain makes the situation easier in some regions of Spain and more complicated in others. It is a matter of political will more than the type of political system in place.

Fisheries in Spain has a long tradition of collaboration between industry and applied research allowing innovative ideas to be tested and deployed. What do you consider are some of the most promising developments within the Spanish marine aquaculture sector and how will they help overcome some of the challenges the sector currently faces?

The fish farming industry in Spain is highly innovative. There is a layer of innovation that happens at company level, but there is another that must be carried out at the sectorial level. And this other side of innovation is already very powerful in Spain. APROMAR has a department, called REMA, that carries out every year numerous innovation projects on issues ranging from animal welfare to fish health, engineering, IT technologies or workers’ safety. Most of these initiatives are financed through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund and other national calls. The involvement of the fish farmers is high and the results encouraging.

The sustainability of the fish farming industry is contingent on finding alternatives to fishmeal and fish oil in fish feed. Plant protein and residues from fish processing are being used as substitutes for these ingredients but if the sector is to grow other sources need to be developed. Which, in your view, are the most promising ingredients in terms of scalability and sustainability?

On sustainability matters, in APROMAR we are currently working on our second environmental and social sustainability report. The first one, that we published last year, is available from our website (https://apromar.es). The sourcing of raw materials for fish feeds plays an important role in it. Marine ingredients continue to be important and can be obtained from sustainable sources. New raw materials are insect meal, yeast, vegetal oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and polychaetes. Production of all of them is being scaled up to reach commercial levels. Combining these into feeds that will deliver the necessary properties to the fish, and at a reasonable price, is the job of feed manufacturers. These are also members in APROMAR so the exchange of experiences and information is fluid. The crisis created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has dramatically complicated the situation of fish feeds with volatility of prices and uncertainty on the availability of some raw materials.

Restrictions introduced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are gradually being lifted in Europe. What was the impact of the pandemic on the marine aquaculture sector in Spain? Has the industry now recovered from the disruption to the market? Did companies explore new ways of interacting with customers (over the internet, for example) and are these changes likely to be permanent?

The coronavirus pandemic has changed many things. During its most acute moments the fish farming sector’s main challenge was to cope with the closure of restaurants. The Horeca channel has been always important for fish farmers. But even then, the appetite for aquatic products was not reduced in Spain. Now that tourists are starting to come back to Spain, and eat fish, perhaps the most important permanent change has been the increased importance that consumer in general confer on food production and national production. Food security is not taken for granted any more. And this has become even more apparent with the Ukrainian crisis.

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