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Study Reveals a Huge Potential for Aquaculture in the Caribbean

Overfishing is one of the major threats concerning our oceans.

About 3.2 billion people around the world rely on fish to provide them with 20 percent of their protein intake and according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, our oceans contribute approximately $1.5 trillion annually to the world economy. And so, it is essential that we begin to fish sustainably if we are to ensure the health of the oceans in the future as well as continue to feed a rapidly increasing population.

Conscious of this issue, scientists at the University of California Santa Barbara decided to study the feasibility of offshore fish farming or ‘mariculture’ in the Caribbean islands. Their results, published this month in Nature Sustainability, estimate that the region could produce over 34 million metric tons of seafood per year, more than two orders of magnitude larger than the region's current seafood production.

“The Caribbean has a large potential for offshore mariculture," said Lennon Thomas, the study's lead author. "And meeting this potential can be accomplished by developing mariculture in a relatively small amount of ocean space."

Under today’s market conditions, the Caribbean could match its current seafood production by farming in just 179 square kilometers, or a mere 0.006 percent, of its marine space. And with roughly 8,500 and 4,100 square kilometers of suitable area respectively, Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas have the largest potential for profitable farming.

When developing their model, the team decided to focus on cobia, a warm water and high-profit species. As well as assessing the biological elements of production such as species growth and habitat preference, the researchers felt it was important to consider the socioeconomic and political factors to estimate the risk levels associated with investing in mariculture. This set of combined parameters provided them with their production estimates.

However, their study did raise questions as to whether Caribbean nations would have enough capital and economic stability to pay for the implementation costs. But the researchers believed that this could be mitigated through careful planning. "Mariculture is very space efficient. And we have vast expanses of offshore ocean areas," said co-author Sarah Lester, an assistant professor at Florida State University who completed her PhD at UC Santa Barbara. "So, we can be really selective about where we locate fish farms, choosing locations where profitability is high and economic impacts are low."

They also believe that farming offshore will have a less negative impact on the environment. "Offshore mariculture overcomes many of the shortcomings and potential negative impacts that people often associate with coastal or inland aquaculture," said Thomas.

Deeper water and stronger offshore currents can prevent negative water quality impacts from aquaculture, while also avoiding sensitive nearshore habitats like coral reefs and seagrass meadows.

The group now plan to incorporate other species into the model. Lester concluded by saying “In the Caribbean, like we see globally, seafood demand is increasing while many wild fisheries have been overfished. Currently, many Caribbean countries import large amounts of seafood -- aquaculture offers a promising avenue for economic development and tasty, sustainable local seafood production."

Story by Ellis Moloney

Journal Reference:

Thomas, L., Clavelle, T., Klinger, D., & Lester, S. (2019). The ecological and economic potential for offshore mariculture in the Caribbean. Nature Sustainability, 2(1), 62-70. doi: 10.1038/s41893-018-0205-y.

Funding for the project was provided by the Waitt Foundation and the National Science Foundation under grant no. 1759559.

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