April 26, 2024

Aquaculture’s potential for our economic future

Aquaculture may be a future pillar of the New Zealand economy, but what are the implications?

Aquaculture, the cultivation of aquatic plants or animals, could be a fundamental in New Zealand’s economic future.

Central government’s strong support is evident, from the ambitious 2019 strategy to the recent 25-year extension of all aquaculture permits. Supporting the national goals, local government, like the Waikato District Council, plan to double regional aquaculture exports in 20 years. The future of New Zealand’s aquaculture industry is a topic of intense discussion, not only for the government but also for economists, environmentalists, iwi, and industry leaders. 

The New Zealand Government Aquaculture Strategy aims to grow the aquaculture industry to $3 billion in annual sales by 2035

As of 2024, the aquaculture industry generated $760 million in annual revenue, therefore, the industry needs to grow by $2.24 billion in the next 10 years to reach the $3 billion target. Overly ambitious, or a feasible goal? To put this in perspective, not a lot of “space” is needed to create a highly profitable venture. For example, the recently approved open-ocean salmon farm in the Cook Straight will be less than 12 hectares in size, but is estimated to generate over $300 million a year in revenue.

Aquaculture holds significant economic promise for New Zealand. Some regions will benefit more than others if aquaculture grows exponentially. For a start, the need for vast, sparsely populated coastlines for large-scale aquaculture presents a unique opportunity for coastal regions. These areas can expect a surge in economic development, driven by the creation of jobs and infrastructure related to this industry. Different regions are suitable for the farming of different species; for example, King Salmon requires the cold waters of the South Island. 

Aquaculture could be a reliable long-term source of fish

One of the major advantages of aquaculture is its ability to meet the secure and consistent demand for seafood. We are all aware that wild-caught fisheries face some significant challenges, including overfishing, environmental pressure with changing weather patterns, pollution, and habitat degradation. In addition, supply can be highly unpredictable, which leads to price volatility. These factors position aquaculture as a reliable solution to fill this market gap. Not to mention that the New Zealand fisheries industry benefits further from its reputation for sustainable practices and high regulatory standards. This “clean green” image commands a premium for our seafood exports. 

But it is not all good news

On the environmental side, aquaculture’s impact on the environment is a complex issue that has been fiercely debated. While some proponents highlight its potential to benefit the environment, undeniable risks need to be addressed. It is highlighted that aquaculture could ease the pressure on wild fish stocks, create novel environments, and use revenue from aquaculture to fund conservation projects. 

Despite the benefits, however, aquaculture faces significant environmental challenges. For example, escapee fish or the possibility that disease could spread from captive to wild populations. There is also concern about the potential for natural habitats to be destroyed to make way for new aquaculture farms. 

This major risk is not too dissimilar from the nutrient runoff into rivers and streams from terrestrial farming. Maintaining high populations of aquaculture species will foul the water due to faeces and excess food, introducing additional nutrients into the water stream. In some locations, these nutrients may build up and cause toxic algal blooms or a mass die-off of wild species

Potential for iwi development and economic growth

While aquaculture opportunities have the potential to contribute positively to the Māori economy, inappropriate development can compromise values and resources important to coastal whānau, hapū, and iwi. The Māori Commercial Aquaculture Claims Settlement Act (2004) provided resources and opportunities for Māori involvement in aquaculture. Many iwi and hapū are in the process of exploring or investing in aquaculture ventures, aiming to create social and economic benefits for their communities. Overall, Māori will play a significant role in shaping the future of New Zealand's aquaculture industry. Their knowledge, values, and aspirations will contribute to a sustainable and prosperous industry that respects the environment and provides economic benefits for all. 

Aquaculture presents a complex web of considerations. On the economic side, it offers a promising solution for meeting growing seafood demands and creating jobs. However, this progress comes with environmental baggage. Concerns include escaped fish disrupting ecosystems, disease transmission to wild populations, and habitat destruction for farm construction. Socially, aquaculture can revitalise coastal communities. Striking a balance between these competing factors (economic benefits, environmental responsibility, and social equity) is crucial for the sustainable development of aquaculture.