Europe is gradually losing its position as the world’s leading center of aquaculture research to Asia, particularly China, according to Jean Dhont, secretary of the ASEM Aquaculture Platform, an EU funded research program promoting EU-Asia cooperation in aquaculture. Europe badly needs to build research relationships in Asia to secure its relevance as well as future seafood stocks from Asia, says Dhont.
“We need to build partnerships now because in the future Asia will take over the lead in technology and innovation and won’t need us,” says Dhont, a researcher based at the Laboratory of Aquaculture & Artemia Reference Center at Belgium’s Ghent University.
Dhont says China has leaped ahead of Europe in the area of polyculture: simultaneously cultivating multiple species of fish, seaweed and shellfish in giant tracts of coast. “Previously it was tradition, but now they’re approaching these in a more scientific way, for instance documenting the positive environmental effects of the polyculture approach … Imagine what the situation would be with coastal eutrophication if they would not be farming and harvesting millions of tons of seaweed on an annual basis from these coastal lagoons.”
China is keen to develop coastal polyculture as a “strategic alternative to its stagnating fisheries landings,” says Dhont. “Although the West remains focused on monoculture, at least for the time being, there’s particular interest in this more holistic and sustainable approach in using the seas for food and energy production.” Western aquaculture researchers are also keen to study the socio economic aspects of this “to understand who owns what in such large exploitations and who pays for what.”
Dhont believes changing trends in demand offer opportunities for win-win partnerships, and connections with Asia could be vital for Europe. “European producers are often frustrated that they find it hard to get access to the Asian market while cheap Asian product is flooding the European market, allegedly because Asian producers are not burdened by the higher quality and socio economic standards of production Europeans need to cope with … Yet demand in Asia is changing as domestic demand for aquatic products rises … and ultimately we will be seeking production which won’t be adequate to supply our [EU] demand. Hence it’s vital that we establish partnerships in Asia now, so we can jointly tackle the huge challenges and share opportunities for business activities.”
Funded by the EU and Flanders state government in Belgium, the ASEM Aquaculture Platform has been keen to foster partnerships by inviting Chinese academics to participate at European conferences while also bringing EU entrepreneurs and policy makers to China and Vietnam on field trips.
While China is moving ahead in key areas of research it remains keen to learn from Western counterparts. Dhont says Chinese aquaculture and fishery academies are particularly keen to send research students and staff to western universities where scientific methodology and discipline is more established. Even though China has made huge leaps to catch up with Western research efforts, its research institutions remain of hugely varying standards and poorly connected, says Dhont. This is due to the absence of any tradition of collaboration. For instance, the Chinese Aquaculture and Fisheries Network (CAFNET) is “strongly committed to seeking internal cooperation but concrete actions are slow to come about.” Likewise, in Vietnam, Dhont and his colleagues spent five years assisting the Vietnamese Network for Fisheries and Aquaculture Institutes (VIFINET) to set up before it was formally endorsed by the Vietnamese government.