Despite huge consumer demand, Australian white flesh fish produced by aquaculture has not reached the same levels as salmon. The current industry is considerably smaller, with around 11,000 tonnes of production compared to Tasmanian Atlantic salmon with around 70,000 tonnes. However, the smaller industry size does not reflect consumer demand. Our current demand for white flesh fish far exceeds production. Of the 150,000 tonnes consumed annually across Australia, more than 50 per cent is imported.
Because of this large and increasing demand, there is a huge opportunity for a strong, domestic, white flesh fish aquaculture industry in our country. This opportunity is being recognised by the Australian government as outlined in the national aquaculture strategy. It has an aim to double the current value of our aquaculture industry to $2 billion a year by 2027.
Since 2018 the Australian government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) has provided over $30m to support the development of locally grown barramundi in the Northern Territory, through Australia’s largest barramundi producer. In May 2022, another major barramundi producer announced receiving $30m government grant to invest in the development of a state-of-the-art indoor aquaculture facility to continue their work developing the industry. The corporate sector also has an appetite for white-flesh fish. An ASX-listed company raised $30m in 2021 to support the growth of their Murray cod aquaculture business in inland NSW.
The opportunity for expansion is incredibly exciting for the Australian industry. It also presents the chance to re-evaluate product and industry practices. It may be the ideal time to ask - are current practices going to remain suitable for an expanded and growing industry?
Growing appetite for sustainable fish options
Consumers are becoming far more discerning and demand high standards in product quality. But an even more important trend is the is the concern for sustainable and ethical farming. This is reflected by major retailers setting targets for sustainable seafood sales.
The sustainability plan for Australian supermarket operator Woolworths aims for 100 per cent of their seafood brand to be ecologically responsible or sourced sustainably by 2025. Aquaculture will be instrumental in the supply of sustainably produced seafood.
Like other areas of food production, consumers expect choice and diversity in the seafood they eat. Salmon gives us incredible diversity through its versatile smoked, fresh fillets, ready-to-eat or good old fashioned canned product types. However, the consumption of white flesh fish is likely to satisfy our delectable demands through a diversity of different species, each with its own taste and texture profile.
Barramundi charts a course for white flesh fish industry to follow
Barramundi is the success story for Australian farmed white flesh fish. It comfortably leads the sector’s production totals. However, emerging industries including yellowtail kingfish, grouper, Murray cod and cobia are also contributing to the diversity of Australia’s home-grown product line-up.
While investigating ways to support the existing industry, CSIRO has also identified another local species: pompano. It exhibits very promising aquaculture qualities and could play an important role in the future mix of Australian white flesh fish aquaculture.
Many people know pompano as a prized sport fish, and one that has graced the covers of many fishing magazines. But not many are aware that pompano is also fast growing, with appetising white flesh, and great eating qualities. It is also suited to a wide range of Australian environmental and farming conditions. Importantly, they are successfully farmed overseas, opening a pathway for rapid technology transfer.
Successful development of this new species has the potential to increase diversity and further strengthen Australia's white flesh fish industry.
It is likely as the industry expands to meet future demand, we will see significant changes in how aquaculture businesses operate through new innovations.
In a landscape of new innovations, what could our diverse white flesh fish industries look like in 10 to 20 years?
What does the future look like?
Scientists at CSIRO, in consultation with prominent industry leaders, have identified a number of significant areas that could driver future success in Australian white flesh industries. Here’s what we think the future will look like:
Future industry will need to operate with high fish welfare standards and practices beyond simply identifying and treating disease. Heath care plans will promote fish welfare. These will focus on high performance criteria, resulting in happier, healthier fish that thrive in their production environments.
Whole fish body utilisation will become the norm, a movement currently being led by pioneering Australian chefs such as Josh Niland, where almost every part of the fish is utilised from high quality fillets to value-added products previously considered waste. Costs associated with waste removal will be transformed into economic benefits with valuable protein production and lower carbon footprint. The inclusion of circular economy innovations will be prevalent in all production stages. The development of local supply chains to produce raw ingredients for sustainable feeds that support aquaculture growth will increase food security, boost economic development and increase biosecurity.
Successful industry development will create a consistent supply of high quality Australian white flesh to major retailers. They will be packaged in varied options to meet consumer choices. Transparency in the industry is already important, but this will only further increase with detailed life-cycle assessments. Assessment of environmental impacts associated with culture in addition to documentation of metrics on where the fish was grown, and history of production will allow consumer evaluation of product for purchase.
Automation, machine learning and digital technology will be the fastest growing industry tools. These will guide the industry to reduce labour cost, and increase understanding of systems performance. It will also highlight animal welfare, directly improving social acceptance for farming practices and reducing production costs. Low technology production systems will become increasingly sophisticated. They will have emphasise waste solids removal and improved water quality, with resultant improved animal welfare and productivity. Farm location will be strategic. Site selection will capitalise on the advantages gained from proximity to market, and the opportunity to gain maximum benefit through the synergy of complementary resources.
Finally, applied selective breeding programs will become standard practice. The cumulative genetic gains in productivity achieved from a breeding program in conjunction with the selection of traits to promote fish welfare specific to environmental conditions will generate reduced cost of production, better quality products and improved welfare.
Turning predictions into reality
The opportunities and outcomes identified above are not just pipedreams.
At CSIRO we are bringing a multi-disciplinary science-driven approach to continue strengthening the white flesh fish industry. We want to make these great aspirations become reality. As CSIRO continues its Future Protein Mission, we are working to improve Australia’s domestic white flesh fish industries while adding in capacity through the establishment of new species.
Pompano research aims to build a sustainable farming model focused on biology, circular economy, welfare, production systems, feed, breeding and consumer demand. It is intended that targeted research into these critical aquaculture areas will provide information benefits and strengthens the whole industry.
Our drive is that in the near future, on any day of the week, you can walk into a supermarket and be presented with fantastic choice when it comes to the Australian produced white flesh fish you want to eat. All while knowing that you are supporting Australian farmers, the environment and securing future food security.