Organic aquaculture struggles to gain ground in Europe

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Organic aquaculture accounts for less of total seafood production in the European Union than it did in 2015, the result of a range of issues in the industry ranging from its cost to its difficulty.

According to the latest report from the European Fisheries and Aquaculture Market Observatory (EUMOFA), total organic aquaculture production in the European Union reached around 74,032 metric tonnes (MT) in 2020, l Ireland being the largest producer.

The report, “Organic aquaculture in the EU,was presented at a conference on the economic impact of the seafood sector and its environmental sustainability on the occasion of European Maritime Day 2022.

According to the report, total production means that aquaculture accounted for 6.4% of total EU production in 2020. The 74,032 MT produced represents a 60% increase in volume compared to 2015, when it there were 46,341 MT of organic production. Despite the increases, organic production has not kept pace with the overall growth of the EU aquaculture sector – in 2015 seafood produced by organic means accounted for 9.1% of the bloc’s total production.

Much of the increase in total production is due to an expansion of organic mussel farming. EU mussel farmers produced 41,936 tonnes of organic products in 2020, or 10% of all mussels produced in the EU, compared to 18,379 tonnes in 2015. The main producing countries were the Netherlands, Italy , Germany, Ireland, Denmark, France, Spain and Bulgaria.

EU aquaculture companies produced 12,870 MT of organic salmon in 2020, 4,590 MT of organic trout, 3,562 MT of organic carp, 3,228 MT of organic oysters and 2,750 MT of European seabass and gilthead seabream .

The organic oyster sector, mainly based in France, significantly increased its production compared to 2018, when only 900 MT were produced in the EU.

EUMOFA said there is promising development potential for organic shellfish, as there are no significant differences between conventional and organic production methods and there are no technical hurdles to overcome. Denmark was singled out for its collective mussel certification strategy under the EU organic scheme.

The majority of EU organic seaweed production comes from wild stocks, but in 2020 586 MT of organic seaweed was produced from aquaculture, the vast majority being grown in Spain, although Denmark, Portugal and Bulgaria also increased small volumes. Production is expected to increase in coming years as interest in this sector grows, EUMOFA said.

Other species grown organically in small quantities included sturgeon in Spain, Japanese shellfish in Italy, and some species of freshwater fish and shrimp across the continent.

EU organic salmon production fell by 1% between 2018, which EUMOFA attributed to a drop in Irish production and Brexit. Organic trout production fell by 8% over the same period and organic carp production fell by 49% between 2018 and 2020 in Greece.

EUMOFA said a major barrier to increasing the volume of organically farmed finfish in Europe is the added cost of organically farming fish and the difficulty of complying with certain regulations. With organic salmon farming, feed costs are higher, density is lower in fish pens than with conventional production, there is a lack of certified organic juveniles, the use of prophylactic drugs is restricted, and animal welfare requirements are strict, EUMOFA said. The overall result is that organic fish producers must seek a price premium in order to operate profitably.

Nevertheless, consumer demand and awareness of organic systems at EU level is a major driver of consumption of all organic products, which is increasing at an annual rate of 15%. The report found that the EU’s own organic scheme was better known than other schemes such as fair trade, with awareness of 56% of the EU population in 2020.

A major obstacle in some EU member states is the lack of consistency between EU organic regulations and national requirements, which presents certification bodies with an almost impossible task. Another hurdle is the fact that mixing organic and non-organic fish in an extensive polyculture is also not allowed under EU organic regulations. This particularly affects producers in eastern EU member states, which are home to many companies that have traditionally produced organic carp in the same system as other non-organic species.

A potential concern for the emerging land-based aquaculture industry is that closed recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are not permitted for grow-out purposes under EU organic regulations. They are, however, authorized for hatcheries and nurseries.

For shellfish farmers in the EU, a new regulation means that only shellfish grown in rivers and estuaries with the highest level of ecological status are allowed. This has left producers in growing areas with mixed water quality unable to develop a long-term strategy for organic shellfish production, EUMOFA reported.

Finally, the report paints a picture of pessimistic and optimistic growth prospects for EU organic aquaculture. For molluscs, these range from 33,000 MT of mussels and oysters if no national incentives are provided to switch to organic production, up to 120,000 MT if national strategies encourage the growth and development of the organic aquaculture sector.

For finfish, the EUMOFA pessimistic scenario predicts continued low production, at around 15,000 MT – if all technical barriers, high production costs and low demand remain in place. However, EUMOFA’s optimistic forecast foresees a production of 125,000 MT, if technical barriers are removed, price premiums are achieved, retailers start demanding organic seafood as a condition of market access and a increase in consumer demand is achieved.

EUMOFA stressed that the EU organic program is part of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to achieve a significant increase in organic aquaculture by 2030 and a reduction in 50% of antimicrobial use for livestock and fish.

Photo courtesy of Shchipkova Elena/Shutter

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