A Sustainability Science Approach for the Future of Aquaculture

Barry A. Costa-Pierce

The most popular definition of sustainable development is to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” adopted at a United Nations conference in 1987. Most definitions of sustainability are synonymous with “environmental sustainability” of air, water, and land systems. Sustainability is however a concept broader than examining the site-specific environmental impacts of externalities in planning for site-specific developments; it also accounts for systematic impacts off site, and impacts to combined human-environmental systems for food, water, waste, energy, and shelter. The many definitions of sustainability all embody common the concepts of “stewardship”, “design with nature,” plus incorporate recent concepts of the “precautionary principle”, and “carrying capacity”. Sustainability science uses the wisdom from multiple disciplines in decision-making (e.g. it is “transdisciplinary”).

The most relevant definition of “sustainability” as the concept applies to aquaculture is that a sustainability science approach undertakes a more comprehensive planning for multiple impacts on multiple time and spatial scales to better understand and plan for the consequences of development options. The emerging field of ecological aquaculture and the more established field of agroecology and agroecosystems recognize that the implementation of more sustainable food production systems requires knowledge about how ecosystems are utilized and how conflicts among social groups are addressed. A baseline of response to social-ecological changes is the foundation for the implementation of more sustainable food systems; and the practice of adaptive management must be included as responses to changes in the condition of ecosystems in which new food production is conducted; this requires the incorporation of an iterative learning process.

The use of sustainability science in aquaculture marks the path toward encouraging a long-term perspective and an appreciation of the roles played not only by ecologists, but also by civil societies, markets, and governments in adapting to aquatic food systems and ecosystems changes. The use of sustainability science in aquaculture is an approach that is fundamentally a knowledge-based enterprise that incorporates baseline information on natural and human ecosystems, then develops, evaluates, encourages, and communicates imagination, ingenuity, and innovation at both the individual and institutional levels.

This information is useful for teams of aquaculture professionals working to apply the principles of aquatic ecosystem-based management. Information obtained is typically cross-sectoral as interdisciplinary groups are needed that are educated in such diverse fields as the natural and social sciences, law, and business. Applying the notions of sustainability science in aquaculture is intended to inspire engagement of governmental agencies, businesses, non-governmental groups and academics to achieve the highest form of sustainable development in any known protein production food system by using the concepts of ecological design and through the many forms of stewardship. At present, there is a paucity of information targeted specifically for those engaged in aquaculture programs and projects in places where the ability of government to regulate and direct the processes of ecosystem change is weak or is severely constrained.

The concept of sustainability and the methods to measure the evolutionary progress towards more sustainable systems are limited, but have become a necessity. Wurts stated that “Whether the word sustainability has become overused or not, it has catalyzed a forum for oversight of the growth and development of aquaculture on a global scale.”