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Eels, pearls and algae: acquaculture in Australia

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RESEARCH NOTE Number 56, 25 June 1996 ISSN 1323-5664 Eels, Pearls and Algae—Aquaculture in Australia Aquaculture is the farming of fish and other aquatic animals (in-cluding pearl oysters) and plants in either a saltwater or freshwater environment. Most of the world aquaculture production (about 60%, excluding plants) is of freshwater fish and originates from inland areas.1 Unlike agri-cultural production, an aquacul-ture 'farm' is not a single type: depending on the species it may be a series of ponds (prawns); a dam (yabbies); ropes suspended in the sea (mussels); or sea cages (salmon, tuna). With the global catch in decline through overfish-ing, pollution and marine habitat destruction2, aquaculture is re-garded as an increasingly impor-tant source of food. In 1993 aq-uaculture produced nearly 16 million tonnes of the total world fish production of 101 million tonnes and contributed 21.8 per-cent of the world food fish sup-ply.3 Asia produced 84 percent of world aquacultural production in 1992, with China alone account-ing for 49 percent (6.8 million tonnes). Australia's production of edible, high-value fish, crusta-ceans and molluscs in 1994-95 was only 23 507 tonnes.4 Size of industry Aquaculture is a rapidly growing industry in Australia, with the value of production more than doubling from $158 million five years ago, to $419 million in 1994-95.5 It now accounts for nearly one quarter of the total value of Australian fish produc-tion. Pearl oysters are the largest earners, earning $206 million in 1994-95 compared to $130 mil-lion the year before, while the value of farmed salmon rose 40

percent in 1994-95 to $67 mil-lion.6

Nature of Australian aquaculture Australian aquaculture is not typical in that most of the opera-tions are on or near the coast,7 characterised by a relatively small volume of high-value species. Overall, more than 60 species are currently being farmed. These include pearl oysters, Pacific and Sydney rock oysters, mussels, prawns, freshwater crayfish, trout, Atlantic salmon, barra-mundi, eels, southern bluefin tuna and algae.

Factors in success Successful aquaculture depends on a range of factors including: site selection; design and con-struction of facilities; biological techniques; water quality and farming practices; feeding con-trols and suitable markets. De-pending on the country and the product different factors may assume importance. Site selection is very important, and there are surprisingly few sites in Australia which meet the specific land and water requirements (and these will vary depending on the spe-cies to be farmed) once cities, National Parks, heritage areas,

fisheries habitat and wetland re-serves and areas reserved for rec-reation, boating and other devel-opments are excluded.

A primary requirement of a site is the availability of sufficient suit-able water (defined not only by quality but also factors such as temperature). Aquaculture is a heavy consumer of water—to support the animals, replenish oxygen and remove wastes. The quantity and requisite quality of the water will vary depending on the species and the size of the operation. Both the ponds and waste water require a higher de-gree of water quality manage-ment in the case of 'intensive' (high stocking density) aquacul-ture, which leads to high concen-trations of uneaten food and metabolic wastes. Each of the States has environmental stan-dards for discharge water, to which the aquaculturists must conform.

Relative ignorance Knowledge of aquaculture has been compared with the state of knowledge of agriculture several thousand years ago.8 A great deal remains to be learned about

breeding, feeding and growing, and biological techniques. Simi-larly, the environmental impact of aquacultural activity is poorly

Australian Fisheries Production 1992-1995 ($)


500 000

1 000 000

1 500 000

2 000 000

1992-93 1993-94 1994-95


Other production

Aquaculture production

understood at present. Concerns include effluent wastes; the im-pact on biodiversity; degradation of land and reduced water quality from acid soils; fishmeal re-quirements for some intensively farmed species—such as salmon, which require about 3.25 tonnes of fishmeal for every tonne pro-duced9—which impact on fisher-ies resources; the introduction of exotic species and diseases not found in Australia; and the possi-ble implications for both the eco-system and human health of the use of chemotheraputants (vac-cines, antibiotics) and other


Positive benefits from aquacul-ture include high production from intensive farming; increased se-lectivity of stock for the market (size of fish, time of harvesting, quantities to harvest); no bycatch of other species (e.g., bycatch can be up to 90% by weight for

prawn trawlers); and breeding of stock can be used to help repopu-late depleted wild fisheries.

Interest in sustainable practices Aquaculture is attracting enthusi-astic and dedicated entrepreneurs, despite the relatively high risks. They are finding innovative solu-tions to the above-mentioned concerns—including practices such as 'polyculture',10 which is the term for an ecologically inte-grated, sustainable farming sys-tem of both flora and fauna; the use of the mineral zeolite, or oys-

ters and algae, as filters for

wastes; and constant improve-ment of pond and water manage-ment. Interest in sustainable aq-uaculture extends beyond Austra-lia. The key session of the World Aquaculture Conference held in Bangkok (January 1996) was "Policy and Management for Sus-tainable Aquaculture".11

Regional development The potential for aquaculture in regional development has been recognised by the states and Northern Territory. Each state government now has an aquacul-ture section with a dedicated manager in the State Department which oversees the fish produc-tion industry. Technical support is also provided, by officers who generally go 'out into the field'. South Australia, e.g., has an Aq-uaculture Industry Development Officer who specifically works as an aquaculture investment advi-sor. The Western Australia State government announced in 1994 a development strategy for the aq-uaculture industry in that state. There is also a National Aquacul-ture Industry Working Group comprising thirteen state and ter-ritory representatives.

Impediments to growth Some of the impediments to cur-rent growth of the industry in Australia are the limited avail-ability of suitable sites, the avail-ability of finance for high risk ventures and state-based regula-tory constraints (which are more

onerous in some states than oth-ers).

Potential for larger industry The future direction for aquacul-ture in Australia is toward a sig-nificantly larger industry than at present, based on sound farming practices developed for sustainabil-ity. Production will be 'niche-specific', high-value and low-volume. The labour force will be increasingly better educated and trained as more graduates with majors in aquaculture from tertiary institutions enter the industry. There will be strong, interdepend-ent links between industry groups and research institutions, State fisheries departments and the mar-kets. World demand for food fish, crustaceans and molluscs will con-tinue to rise.

Georgina McGill Science, Technology, Environ-ment and Resources Group Parliamentary Research Service

Phone: 06 2772424 Fax: 06 2772407

Views expressed in this Research Note are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Parliamentary Research Service and are not to be attributed to the De-partment of the Parliamentary Li-brary. Research Notes provide con-cise analytical briefings on issues of interest to Senators and Members. As such they may not canvass all of the key issues.

© Commonwealth of Australia

1 Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, Rome 1995 p.27 2 Dr Meryl Williams, quoted in The Australian, 8 May 1996 3 FAO, op.cit., p.47 4 ABARE, op.cit., p.22 5 ABARE, Fishery Statistics 1995, AGPS Canberra, 1995 6 ABARE, ibid.. 7 DPIE (Ian Hill, Jayne Gallagher, Gina Newton), "Aquaculture", Internet 8 Dr Meryl Williams, op.cit. 9 Malcolm Beveridge, Lindsay Ross and Liam Kelly, "Aquaculture and Biodiversity", Ambio, Vol.23 No.8 December 1994 10 See O'Sullivan, Dos, "Plant polyculture to boost freshwater production and profits" in Austasia Aquaculture, 9(4), July/August 1995

11 Tim Walker with Philippa Clymo, "Sustainability and family farms: take-home lessons for silver perch", Austasia Aquaculture, Vol.10 No.1, March/April 1996