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By Polly Hilder 18 February 2021 4 min read

A growing population is driving demand towards aquaculture to meet the growing gap between demand and supply from traditional fisheries.

The global demand for protein is growing rapidly and predicted to double by 2050. Future demand will continue to be driven by an increasing global population combined with socio-economic changes such as emerging economies with increasing wealth and an associated demand for higher quality proteins.

Aquaculture is the fastest growing food-producing sector globally and currently supplies 50 per cent of all fish. With increasing demand for seafood placing pressure on wild fisheries, aquaculture is expected to become the primary fish source in the future and therefore play a pivotal role in meeting this demand for protein in providing global food security.

To overcome these challenges, CSIRO’s emerging Future Protein Mission has a target to grow Australia's protein industry by $10b by 2025. Within aquaculture, the mission’s vision is to meet the potential of Australian aquaculture, by providing sustainable feed solutions and supporting the growth and diversification of new industries.

To meet consumer demands for fish protein and hence address the immediate need for import substitution the mission is supporting our “White flesh fish project”, which aims to expand existing farmed fish species to produce more sustainable, affordable white fleshed fish for Australia, as well as find a suitable candidate for a new species to appear on household plates.

Growing industries to meet demand

In Australia, aquaculture production of finfish has been highly successful. Most of the current production comes from Atlantic salmon, with 65,000 tonnes of pink flesh available to markets annually. In comparison, white flesh fish production of mainly barramundi and yellowtail kingfish in Australia is less than 11,000 tonnes.

There is currently greater consumer demand for white fleshed fish than there is local supply, which means we import over 100,000 tonnes of low-cost white-flesh fish annually. As well as the potential biosecurity risks associated with imports, the vulnerability of supply chains we witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for an affordable home grown white-flesh fish.

A new local industry producing a white-flesh fish species could provide Australia with additional food sovereignty and meet the growing consumer demand while also replacing the large quantities of imported product.

However, we cannot overlook the industries we already have. Consequently, our aim is to promote additional white flesh fish production through the existing barramundi and yellowtail kingfish industries.

Commercial fisherman Rob Cree assisted CSIRO conduct wild pompano capture in Yeppoon QLD, January 2021.

Finding a species up for the job

Developing a new aquaculture industry is complex and expensive with a high likelihood of failure, as seen in many failed start-up aquaculture companies. That meant we turned our focus towards finding a species with an existing track record in aquaculture, successfully cultured overseas with a known culture technology that we could readily adapt to our Australian conditions.

We looked for a species that would be grown in Australia’s tropics, to support northern Australia’s economic development. In the end we identified one outstanding candidate, pompano Trachinotus blochii.

Pompano is a hardy, beautiful fish with high quality white meat that is firm but finely flaked. It has a sweet mild taste and large bones which makes it very easy to eat. It also has the excellent aquaculture attributes of fast growth, year-round spawning, easy domestication that thrives in captivity and most importantly has proven production technologies, with over 110,000 tonnes annual production overseas in countries such as Vietnam, China, India, Malaysia, and Philippines.

Our strategy for the successful development of a pompano industry in Australia is to work closely with industry in solving the bottlenecks in production and providing scientific input to promote animal production and welfare. We will concentrate on industry development through a multidisciplinary scientific approach with research addressing diet and nutritional requirements, genetics and selective breeding programs, animal health and welfare, and systems productivity.

Pompano at the Bribie Island research centre in their purpose-built recirculating aquaculture system with CSIRO staff David Blyth and Dean Musson.

Making something big

Our goal is to produce scientific proof of concept, with the successful propagation of pompano seedstock at our Bribie Island Research Centre. We will then bring together our capabilities in genetics, nutrition, fish health and production systems to identify and fine-tune critical factors for successful pompano production that can then be disseminated to support a new industry.

CSIRO has a strong history supporting commercial aquaculture, having worked with the Atlantic salmon and barramundi industries and the development of selective breeding programs which have significantly improved growth, product quality and fish health.

Through CSIRO’s work in breeding Atlantic salmon, we have seen the success of efforts to develop a strong industry, and we hope to replicate that success elsewhere.

So, what kind of impact are we hoping to achieve?

By undertaking innovative science and leveraging existing partnerships we plan to increase Australia’s white flesh fish production from 11,000 tonnes to 50,000 tonnes per annum by 2030. Our aim is to help create an Australian white flesh fish industry worth $750 million with a circular aquaculture economy that is building food security and creating jobs with a focus in Northern Australia.

Affordable white fleshed fish also have attractive export opportunities given Australia’s brand of safe, high-quality foods with traceability and quality assurance protocols.

Keep an eye out for more local seafood – coming soon to a plate near you.

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