Change and Resilience: The many roles of aquaculture in climatically vulnerable countries

Reed Ozretich, Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling

In the next instalment in the series created to explore key themes relating to COP26, Reed Ozretich considers the many roles of aquaculture in climatically vulnerable countries. A transcript of the lecture is provided below.

Hello, my name is Reed Ozretich from the University of Stirling here in Scotland, and in honour of COP26 I would like to present to you the many roles that aquaculture, or seafood farming, is playing in the fight against climate change.  

In this unprecedented era, millions of people are changing their lives, their livelihoods and their communities to survive. Droughts are fiercer, floods are more severe, and even some polar regions are experiencing rain instead of snow, with withering heatwaves and devastating wildfires for the first time in millennia. 

And as time and research continue, we are discovering how the ever-increasing amount of emissions in our atmosphere is affecting not just the weather, but every aspect of our lives, from where we live and work, to what we can feed our families.  

This is even more true in regions of the world which are especially vulnerable due to a lack of maintained water infrastructure, like reservoirs and piped irrigation that store captured water and keep it clean until it can be used by communities for drinking, washing or agriculture.  

This infrastructure is expensive, as are flood defence barriers and desalinisation plants.  

And sadly in many regions, the natural aquifers and old reservoirs used by coastal cities are running low while they continually battle rising seawater, pushed even further inland by more powerful but slower-moving storms. 

The reliance of communities on the stagnant remnants of ponds or wells in drought-stricken towns spreads disease, and villages that are dependent upon the sea for their livelihoods catch ever fewer fish.  

Storm surges drive seawater into fertile farmland, destroying crops.  

Logistical infrastructure is also expensive, and often absent in these regions of the world; A lack of refrigerated transport networks mean fresh, nutritious produce is ever more vulnerable to spoilage in hotter weather. Unreliable electrical power makes refrigeration a gamble and freezers impossible to use. 

What is becoming abundantly clear is that, without significant investment in climate resilience infrastructure, a life dependent solely upon natural resources simply isn’t tenable compared with even a generation ago. Yet the most stricken economies have the least money to spend on these projects, even with assistance from other countries. As politicians dither, people are forced to move from their homes, with every climate-driven disaster triggering mass immigration events which create their own problems. So, what can be done? 

Plenty, it turns out! Researchers at the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture have been working with international partners around the world to investigate, plan, and build up resilience to climate change in these vulnerable communities by managing their aquatic resources more intensely, especially through the use of fish farming.  

Unlike the livelihood of a fisherman, who has to go out in all weathers to fish for stocks whose numbers are shrinking year on year, the practice of aquaculture, or fish farming, is far safer and its income much more assured, allowing farmers to plan for the future with more confidence than what is possible with the boom and bust of fishing life.  

Transporting fish from the shoreline to the consumer can easily result in spoilage via heat or time, whereas a fish farmer can often grow a significant crop in a single small pond at a location much closer to their customers. 

It is also clear that the people who eat fish as part of their weekly diet can have a significantly higher intake of essential vitamins and minerals than their non-piscivorous neighbours, but the sources of these fish have completely shifted from fishing to farming over the last 20 years.  

In fact, the year 2018 marked the point at which over half of all the fish we eat is now farmed, either exclusively or as a complementary crop to rice, cocoa or other plants. Individual villagers or farmers may use the fish to supplement the diets of their families, or to sell for money. In fact, farmers who successfully grow fish do enjoy higher and more diversified incomes, which in turn puts them in a much better financial position to survive crop failures, flooding, and other climate-driven agricultural afflictions. Financial resilience is, very often, climate resilience. But what about combining fish farming with water infrastructure? 

These types of climate resilience schemes help communities and farmers to store and use both fresh water and food, and can take many forms. Deep, narrow holes dug near fields trap water and small fish after the monsoon rains end. Reservoirs created by dams create opportunities for cage farming. 

And fish ponds which are protected by dykes that keep the fresh water from the reach of storm surges provide a reliable water supply for nutritious vegetables and other essential plant crops, further increasing their benefit to the community.  

Some of these techniques have been used for generations, and others were developed only recently, but all of them can allow people in different regions to survive the vagaries of an unstable climate while generating health, wealth, and stability in their lives. 

Well-planned farms with the basic infrastructure required to control the temperature and flow of their pond water prove extremely resilient to periods of both extended drought and flood events.  

But farming fish should not be too quick to start. The location, setup, and competent management of these farms are essential to ensure that they can contribute to the resilience of their local communities to the effects of climate change. Farmer networks promoting knowledge transfer, and the sustained communication between these networks and regional government, is essential; otherwise, measures taken to protect communities can create their own problems.  

Without adequate water infrastructure, water-borne diseases caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites entering fresh bodies of water via untreated faecal matter can rapidly spread in newly created reservoirs; salmonella, campylobacter, schistosomiasis, and many other often neglected diseases of poverty can quickly become endemic and even eclipse any beneficial effects such a resilience scheme could give to a community.  

Therefore, knowledge of the latest research, awareness of challenges both past and future, and having an ability to plan in the longer term are all key to achieving significant and lasting climate resilience at a grass-roots level. This is where academia can contribute the most to this challenge, by giving stakeholders at every level the information they need to make informed decisions and the ability to effectively manage problems as they arise.  

But such information should not exist in a vacuum, especially in today’s world of multi-platform social media and instantaneous international knowledge exchange. And so, complementing the continued success of the Big Fish series, the panel-based discussions of aquaculture’s role in enhancing nutrition that are hosted by Professor Dave Little, the University of Stirling’s Institute of Aquaculture has now launched the Hot Fish Series just in time for COP26. The Hot Fish Series is a short-format, interview-based podcast with early career researchers in aquaculture further examining these many roles aquaculture can play in building resiliency in the face of climate change. Check it out on your favourite podcast app, or at the Institute’s dedicated website address shown on your screen. Thank you for your time.  

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