Understanding The Aquaculture Landscape In Brazil
Brazil’s ecosystem provides a rich environment for aquatic animals. Yet, Brazil’s industrial aquaculture has only existed professionally since the 1970s, leaving many stakeholders interested in growing this sector. While a bigger aquaculture industry is viewed favorably by those invested in it, such expansions could pose major animal welfare risks.
In this article, the authors use information from industry stakeholders, statistical data, and scientific literature to understand Brazil’s aquaculture industry and provide insights into increasing its growth in a “sustainable” way. Although the authors are pro-fishing, understanding the industry through this lens can help animal advocates respond to an industry that is likely to grow in earnest.
According to the authors, an estimated 800,000 tonnes of aquatic animals were produced within the aquaculture sector in 2019, equaling a gross revenue of $1 billion USD. Most production occurs on small farms (i.e., less than 2 hectares in size) and is often a secondary activity for farmers.
The authors provide a detailed analysis of the species and production methods in five primary sectors. While each sector faces unique production challenges, all are rife with potential environmental and animal welfare harms. For example, farming freshwater fishes represents almost 90% of Brazil’s aquaculture production, with a focus on Tilapias. Tilapia farming has expanded from using traditional ponds to net cages in large reservoirs. As a result, Tilapias face many welfare threats, including low oxygen levels, water toxicity, viruses, and chronic stress. Other freshwater fish farms face problems with parasites and bacteria. While the authors frame these issues as barriers to production, they are also causes of animal suffering.
Freshwater prawn and marine shrimp farming are also well-known industries in Brazil. While the farming of marine shrimps is well-established, occurring primarily on small farms that supply the domestic market, freshwater prawn farming is on the decline. While the authors present several opportunities to increase freshwater prawn production, animal advocates may consider capitalizing on this moment to encourage more farmers to shift away from the practice. Meanwhile, the marine shrimp industry relies largely on semi-intensive rearing systems.
The authors describe Brazil as the world’s second-largest producer of frogs. Despite this, unsanitary farm conditions have led to lethal frog virus outbreaks that have drastically reduced production. To improve sanitation, the authors propose placing surface cages on fish or freshwater prawn ponds and using integrated culture systems. Of particular concern to animal advocates, they also note that there is an intensive frog rearing system available for farmers to improve their production rates.
Finally, mollusk farming largely supplies local markets. Threats to this sector include harmful algae, water pollution, and the need for legalized production areas. These are issues animal advocates may be able to capitalize on when working against the industry. Notably, technology is being developed to cultivate a number of species, including the sand-burrowing and white clam, the native pearl oyster, the mangrove mussel, and the common octopus. More and more researchers are speaking out against the cruelties of rearing octopuses in farming systems, so this is an issue that advocates should address as early as possible.
Advocates should be aware of other emerging sectors. The authors see potential to commercialize marine fish farming given that Brazil has one of the world’s largest offshore areas suitable for aquaculture. There’s also interest in farming Brazilian sardines and ornamental fishes. However, development is limited by economic feasibility, difficulty obtaining native species commercialization permits, and a lack of equipment and materials. Other markets gaining traction are baitfish, pay-to-fish, and the production of juveniles to stock private recreational ponds.
The authors believe that the Brazilian aquaculture sector can grow, particularly by supplying the domestic market. For example, they report that only approximately 30% of Brazil’s 2020 per capita fish consumption came from aquaculture, of which 20% was imported. To meet market demand, they outline challenges and possible solutions for Brazilian aquaculture to increase production and sustainability, and use new technologies and research. Advocates should take note of these challenges, as they may be able to leverage them to work against the harmful aquaculture industry.
For example, challenges to existing aquaculture farmers include complex, confusing governmental regulations that typically do not include the farmers’ perspectives; rampant health and disease issues that are currently mitigated by antibiotic use (which can then pose threats like antibiotic resistance); research institutions that aren’t working together with the aquaculture industry; and the fact that many farmers have ignored marine fishing in favor of freshwater fishing. By working with farmers, researchers, and the government, animal advocates can facilitate more open discussions that push the industry towards humane, environmentally-friendly solutions — such as algae aquaculture, which already has a budding presence in Brazil.
The authors don’t consider Brazil’s current aquaculture industry environmentally, economically, or socially sustainable. For example, many small farmers have inequitable access to funding opportunities, and the industry poses other inequities including injuries, unregulated hours, and low wages. One of the leading environmental concerns is the loss of biodiversity from habitat destruction and the introduction of exotic and hybrid species that increase competition, prey on native species, and spread pathogens. Activists and other stakeholders are pressuring the industry to farm native species, avoid ecologically sensitive areas, and protect the water quality of rivers and lakes. The authors propose using abandoned agricultural land and establishing government campaigns to convince small family farms to recycle and reuse farm by-products.
The authors acknowledge that the future of Brazilian aquaculture will depend on successful collaborations between scientists, farmers, and the government to develop a sustainable and profitable industry. However, with so many roadblocks facing the sector, animal advocates should act now to educate the public on the industry’s challenges and how it affects the animals, environment, and farmers. Advocates should also network with the government, researchers, and funding institutions to make sure that animal welfare is included in their policies and programs, as well as offered equitably to plant-based farmers. Finally, there might be opportunities to work directly with farmers to help them transition to animal-free systems, such as algae aquaculture.