Posted by E WILSON | 19th March, 2012
As an organisation dedicated to supporting the growth of the English aquaculture industry, Astec submitted its response to Defra’s recent ‘Planning for Sustainable Growth in the English Aquaculture Industry’ consultation document. A summary of our comments is detailed below.
Whilst food production will clearly be a major driver in the development of the English aquaculture industry and a major source of investment and jobs, it is wrong to focus solely on this when developing a comprehensive strategy for growth. Aquaculture; the husbandry of aquatic plants and animals, has a much broader scope and by limiting the focus to only food, we miss opportunities and create divisions. The English aquaculture strategy needs to be inclusive and offer coordinated support and representation to all sectors of the industry, including non-food based aquaculture.
The general public’s lack of understanding about aquaculture stems in part, from a lack of direct interaction with the industry. Few people will come into contact with an aquaculture business in their day-to-day lives or know someone who works in one. By increasing the number of industry SME’s the public’s direct interaction and understanding will increase. A lack of employment opportunities is also preventing young people from training to enter the industry.
Investment barriers exist in terms of the high initial set-up costs, especially for the commercialisation of spin-outs and research. This can dissuade entrepreneurs from setting up innovative SME’s that will help kick-start growth in the industry. Facilities are needed where fledgling businesses can test out ideas and perfect production and where established businesses can pilot techniques and the breeding of new species. At Astec where the infrastructure to conduct small scale production already exists, new businesses can perfect their ideas before embarking on full scale production. This significantly reduces the investment risk factor, encourages entry into the industry and ensures more successful outcomes.
The lack of innovation and trials of new species could stem from a lack of suitable facilities in which to pilot this type of activity. At Astec we provide a flow-through supply of near tropical temperature seawater, enabling tenants to work with a much wider range of species. We reuse seawater warmed by a neighbouring power station, making use of this existing infrastructure dramatically reduces the environmental, legislative and financial implications creating this type of facility elsewhere would incur.
The industry tends to work in sector silos; clearly there is work to be done in encouraging increased interaction and exploration of mutually beneficial practices. At Astec different industry sectors interact on a day-to-day basis, together with industry innovators and researchers. This encourages innovation and inter-sector technology transfer.
At a recent industry conference, Marine Harvest postulated that while fish farms would struggle to grow in size, juvenile fish could be bred in land based recirculating systems for on-growing. Suitable facilities are needed to accommodate this emerging trend. The concept could easily be trialled and developed at Astec, where the access to year round warm seawater can accelerate the breeding patterns of certain species.
Competitiveness on mass production will always be an issue, although by setting high standards for animal welfare and use of medicines on imported products, we can at least reduce some of the worst examples. The English industry needs to focus on the higher-tech end of the market; on new feed solutions, nutrition, bio-fouling, healthcare, algae and juveniles. This will incur lower land / space use cost. It should also focus on developing high-tech solutions to the industry's sustainability needs; this will provide a competitive advantage and help develop a niche reputation.
There is a recognised lack of aquatic R&D facilities in the UK; those that exist are located mainly in Scotland and on the South Coast of England. An English research facility with the capacity to serve the geographical middle ground, located equally close to the important Scottish industry and complementing the more southerly based research facilities is needed.
Land use is major issue and although easier consenting would help, it is likely to remain a time consuming and complex process, particularly for new SME’s. Interim facilities where businesses, especially new start-up’s, can refine production techniques while a permanent site is sought are needed. This allows businesses to develop in an incubator environment and can significantly increase chances of survival. One major land usage issue we identified on behalf of our tenants concerns rates. While agricultural and fish farms are classified rates exempt, the farming of certain species, invertebrates for example is not. A national representative body which can lobby on behalf of its members to address these types of inconsistencies is needed.
Existing funding mechanisms are not straightforward and grant funding is hampered by an unclear definition of the term 'aquaculture’. ERDF specifically excludes aquaculture and therefore any ERDF funded support schemes, such as Proof of Concept funding are unavailable. This hampers innovation and technology development in the sector. The English interpretation of EFF focuses heavily on food, and so there are clear gaps between these two available funding streams. Better support and more flexible interpretation is needed. There should be no benefit to investors to start or grow a business in one of the devolved nations ahead of similarly defined areas in England and training schemes need to be developed geographically to encourage entry into the industry and improve skills and prospects.
Creating research clusters will clearly be beneficial; however the industry requires geographic ease of access. Research clusters need to be located near to university expertise and in areas where there are marine science, renewable energy, offshore and pharmaceutical industries that can benefit from the broader aspects of aquaculture research. In terms of a focus for these research clusters, the development of innovative feed solutions, bio-fouling and bio-fuel are key areas, as is the cultivation of new species for general consumption. In addition to supporting increased R&D, Defra’s support could be vertically integrated by encouraging post graduates into entrepreneurship, supporting university spin-outs and SME’s. This would include supporting the environments where these ventures can become established and grow.
Whilst market development will undoubtedly encourage the growth of English aquaculture, this alone will not achieve the high levels of growth needed. The industry critically requires a coordinated, cohesive approach to marketing, legislative change, R&D and training. As other EU regions increase their focus on aquaculture supported by EU Fisheries policy, the English industry risks being left behind – unless it can act now.