Legal challenges for blue growth in aquaculture

Niko Soininen,
Assistant Professor in Sustainable Law, Regulation and Governance,
Faculty of Law and Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science,
University of Helsinki,

In 2014, for the first time in history, the aquaculture sector produced more fish for human consumption globally than wild-caught fisheries. With increasing demand on global fisheries and the need to support food security and blue economy in the EU member states, the EU Commission has set a blue growth strategy for increasing aquaculture production significantly. The Finnish Bioeconomy Strategy shares these goals. At the moment, the Finnish aquaculture sector produces annually 14.6 million kilograms of food fish, of which some 85 % is produced in the Baltic Sea.

Blue growth strategies aiming to increase aquaculture production around the Baltic Sea pose a significant environmental challenge: many coastal waters most favourable to fish-aquaculture are in ecologically poor or moderate condition, and the most commonly used open-pen rearing units are harmful point sources of phosphorus and nitrogen. Furthermore, the overall ecological trend of the Baltic Sea is negative. One can argue that the ecological resilience of this brackish, semi-closed sea cannot withstand an industrial scale increase in nutrients without transforming into eutrophic state even further.

The argument for managing the ecological resilience of the Baltic Sea from crossing unwanted thresholds is backed by heavy legal artillery, too. At present, the EU Water Framework Directive sets binding legal obligations for the member states not to authorise projects that may deteriorate the ecological status of coastal waters or jeopardise the achievement of Good Ecological Status in these waters. Original deadline for good status was in 2015, but can be extended up to 2027. Similarly, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive aims at Good Environmental Status of marine waters by 2020. Finally, the Baltic Sea Action Plan devised under the Helsinki Convention aims at Good Ecological Status of the Baltic marine environment by 2021. Is blue growth in fish-aquaculture an ecologically sustainable policy goal? Can the nutrient emissions of a growing industry be mitigated? What are the legal risks attached to these measures?

Opportunities for mitigating nutrients consist of four sequential stages: 1) avoidance; 2) minimisation; 3) remediation and 4) offsetting. The first step of the hierarchy would require locating aquaculture operations inland and utilising recirculation or closed loop systems for mitigating nutrients. This technology escapes most legal-ecological risks but suffers from high production costs.

The second step of the mitigation hierarchy is harm minimisation: locating operations offshore as well as efficient use of fish feed and effective waste-water management in the rearing units. The above measures may also be combined with a flexible farming strategy, in which different life stages of fish are farmed in different locations. So far, the above harm minimisation measures have been considered as meeting the legal requirements of Best Available Technology in Finland. If the scale of aquaculture grows from the current situation significantly as is the current policy goal, these harm minimisation measures will be likely to prove ecologically inadequate, and legally problematic.

Thirdly, the nutrient footprint of aquaculture operations may be remediated within the project impact area. In Integrated Multitrophic Aquaculture different aquatic species are co-cultured in the same system. In such a scenario, algae or shell-fish could be used as biofilters to treat some of the nutrients produced by farming fish in open-pens. Currently, remediation lacks potential mostly for the lack of suitable species for remediation, scientific uncertainties, and significant spatial requirements to match the scale of fish-farms. All these challenges are coupled with legal risks, too.

Finally, nutrient offsetting could neutralise the net environmental impact of a fish farm by measures taken outside the immediate project area. Offsetting measures include using local feedstuff, such as Baltic herring-based feeds for salmonids, restoring and building wetlands to catch nutrients, or reducing agriculture close to the coast. From a legal perspective, the main challenge for offsetting is that the Finnish Environmental Protection Act as well as the Water Framework Directive focus on local negative impacts, and aquaculture operators cannot obtain a permit for a locally harmful project, regardless of the possible positive net impacts on a larger scale.

Overall, the current legal-ecological environment is posing severe challenges for traditional open-pen fish farms. Sustainable fish farming in the Baltic Sea does not currently seem possible without major investment in recirculation aquaculture on land, or without a major decrease in nutrient emissions in other sectors, mainly agriculture and forestry. To achieve sustainable blue growth, the strategy should be coupled with incentives to improve closed loop technologies operating on land, not with measures protecting existing open-pen production. Furthermore, the coastal states should invest in designing policy instruments that would consider nutrient emissions more holistically, integrating the legal requirements from different sectors, mainly agriculture, forestry and aquaculture. Although this was the original idea of the river basin management planning system created by the Water Framework Directive, holistic perspective to regulating the above three sectors has not been forthcoming. The future of the Baltic Sea – as well as the sustainability of blue growth strategies – will likely depend on how well the EU and the coastal member states are able to address this challenge.


The article is based on an article published in Marine Policy: Soininen, Niko – Belinskij, Antti – Similä, Jukka – Kortet, Raine (2019) Too important to fail? Evaluating legal adaptive capacity for increasing coastal and marine aquaculture production in EU-Finland.

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