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Global aquaculture trends: How the right approach helps offshore farms flourish

November 16, 2023

By Glenn Shiell

A multicriteria analysis answers important offshore aquaculture questions: Where to farm? How much should we farm?

As communities grow, so does the need for steady food production. Seafood resources are particularly tight with increasing demand for wild fish stocks, so many look for supply alternatives. Aquaculture development—or the farming of marine animals and plants—is one solution. But to be sustainable, it must be cleverly located and well-managed.

Offshore aquaculture farming also has its challenges—not all locations are the same. This is especially true in arid climates like the Middle East, where a specialist approach is needed. That’s what we found when helping our client in Abu Dhabi who sought to address food security challenges. 

An enclosed offshore aquaculture farm.

On the Abu Dhabi Aquaculture Site Selection Project, we worked to help identify best practices for development. To start, we asked two key questions:

  1. Where to farm?
  2. How much should we farm?

Offshore aquaculture decisions: Where to farm?

The answer isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. For starters, developers must consider many factors that include competing social, economic, and environmental criteria. See the graphic below.

As with any farming, by concentrating livestock in one area you place pressure on the natural environment. So, site selection is critical. It’s important to choose an offshore aquaculture site that’s an appropriate distance from sensitive seagrass and coral habitats. 

Factors influencing where to establish offshore aquaculture farms.

To start building the project framework, we brought together government agencies, consultants, and academics to share expertise and ideas. This is what led to success beyond our initial scope. We realise that early stakeholder engagement is key when developing these kinds of projects.

The result? The lessons learnt, priorities, and relevant data sets were fed into a computer model and analysed using the multicriteria analysis (MCA) we developed. This gave us a shortlist of preferred sites that considered all the relevant competing resource uses. These include shipping, oil and gas, and the conservation of the local dugong (popularly known as sea cows) population. The best part? We can apply this globally.

We tested a range of scenarios using the MCA. This helped us locate and visualise the best location. Together with the feedback from the workshops, we were able to select a shortlist of sites to further investigate.

Now that we knew where to farm, it was time to ascertain just how much to produce.

It’s important to choose an offshore aquaculture site that’s an appropriate distance from sensitive seagrass and coral habitats.

Offshore aquaculture decisions: How much should we farm?

After an aquaculture development site is shortlisted, the next step is to weigh up the different options. This defines the environmental profile and risk for each.

By using an integrated numerical model coupled with hydrodynamics, a branch of physics that looks at the motion of fluids and acting forces, the team estimated the carrying capacity. That is, the volume of fish we can safely farm without harming nearby coral and seagrass communities.

This integrated model takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. Our team physically verified the results and, after inspecting the listed areas, knew the way forward for our client.

A dugong eating seagrass.

Is offshore aquaculture farming financially viable?

With the social and environmental aspects already covered, the next step was to ensure the production limits set for the farm offered a good return on investment. This means meeting the economic criteria of the sustainable development pyramid.

Our goal was to financially prepare for a commercial sea-cage aquaculture venture at Al Sila, United Arab Emirates. We ran a study identifying the most appropriate species and systems suited for the region. We included all associated costs with developing an offshore finfish farm in our model. The results of the study provided confidence to future investors that the site could achieve good returns on investment within an acceptable payback period.

One project site, many lessons for global aquaculture

The MCA in this example uses international best practices to select zones and serves as a good template for application to other parts of the world, particularly those lacking social and environmental governance frameworks. Through this experience, we found engaging stakeholders early on was key to developing a plan that met everyone’s goals.

Now, we can build fish farms that are sustainable and economically viable without compromising the local marine environment. This approach improves food security while meeting all stakeholder objectives. The best part? We can apply this framework globally. 

  • Glenn Shiell

    Passionate about sustainable aquaculture, Glenn is a marine scientist based in Perth. He has over 20 years of experience and leads the Asia-Pacific arm of our marine science and aquaculture teams.

    Contact Glenn
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