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The International Trade of Fry and PLs


June 23, 2014
By Diogo Thomaz

Industrial aquaculture is a relatively new form of animal production and we are still living through times where, in many countries, new species are being produced or production is moving from a pilot stage to industrial scale.

Hatcheries are usually only established in a new country long after the grow-out phases are tested, established and showing promising performance in terms of production and productivity.

This means that there is a need to traffic fry or PLs between countries where the production of juveniles is established and countries where the new industry is growing.  This requirement, however, carries many risks and is subject to many constraints; the main risk is the horizontal transfer of pathogens across geographical regions and as of today there are no effective international standards that can prevent this from happening.

To some extent linked to this lack of international standards, legislation in each country can make it difficult to import juveniles, even for indigenous species, naturally present in the importing country.

Importation of exotic species is an even more complex problem, especially where fish or shrimp can escape from production tanks or pens into the wild environment.

In the beginning there was salmon…

Earlier in the 20th century, when farming of oysters and rainbow trout was growing and becoming a global industry, biologists and politicians had little say in the global traffic of broodstock and juveniles.  Rainbow trout and the Japanese oyster spread across the planet and, good or bad, became established practically in any location where the environment was suitable for survival of these species.  The same happened with a few other species.  However, these species are not the primary issue today as production of seed and commercial sizes is available almost everywhere.

With the Norwegian successes in industrializing salmon farming during the 1970s and ‘80s there came a desire from other countries to get into that industry as well.  First it was in countries where Atlantic salmon occurred naturally, such as Scotland, Ireland and the East Coast of North America but soon, in the mid 1980s, Atlantic salmon eggs were shipped to other regions where the species was not present, such as Chile, the West Coast of Canada or Tasmania.

This expansion led to a boom in production and since the main hatcheries and genetic selection programs were located in the traditional Atlantic salmon areas (Norway, Scotland, East Coast of North America) traffic of eggs from these countries to the new grounds was accompanied by many of the problems the industry was facing in its established locations.

It was not until the 1990s that countries like Canada and later Chile started to impose tougher control measures and bans on the imports of eggs or smolts into their waters, in an attempt to control the impact of imported diseases on their own industry and on wild populations of other salmonids.

Avoiding disease proliferation

Nowadays many countries require strong veterinary controls for the importation of juveniles or eggs.  The problem is that there are no internationally recognized standards that define what is a disease-free producer of juveniles or eggs.

A few years ago the concept of Specific Pathogen Free (SPF) stock entered the aquaculture industry.  In principle this could have led to an international standard useful for veterinary authorities to authorize, or not, the importation of a stock of live fish or shrimp juveniles.

SPF defined

SPF defines a specific list of pathogens and ensures that throughout the life of an SPF-certified fish or shrimp stock these animals were never in contact with any of the pathogens on the list.  It says nothing of the resistance or tolerance of this stock to the pathogens in the list (there are other concepts such as SPR – Specific Pathogen Resistance – or SPT – Specific Pathogen Tolerance – that deal with the issues of resistance and tolerance).  SPF is thus a useful guideline for veterinary authorities and for producers of species that are much affected by pandemics where disease is present from very early stages of production (many of the viral diseases for example).  It became popular in the shrimp industry and still today new shrimp producing countries will rely on imports from SPF-certified hatcheries to source their PLs.

Being pathogen-free however is not a guarantee of pathogen free productions, especially when the environment is ‘contaminated’ with the pathogens, unless you are able to isolate your production from the environment.  In many shrimp-producing countries where diseases such as the white spot virus are endemic, SPF PLs are not usually the solution for disease-free production.

Technologies such as the biofloc, where water in ponds is not exchanged with new water from the outside are more effective in keeping virus levels low and allowing normal productions.

SPF is, however, still far from being an international standard, clearly defined and controlled, and usable at the industrial scale required for the purposes of the aquaculture industry.  It is used mainly for hatcheries and nurseries producing animals for experimental purposes such as drug testing in mice or chicks.  This is a market that pays well for their animals and thus the hatcheries and nurseries can implement the expensive SPF protocols.

Perhaps we need a mid-way certification protocol, species-specific, that can be verified by a number of reference laboratories in each country, and that could be used to quickly certify each batch of fish or shrimp juveniles before each export.

Legal and Natural barriers

There is no international legally binding framework to regulate trade of live fish or shellfish.  FAO’s document entitled “Law and Sustainable Development since Rio – Legal Trends in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management”, from 2002, describes the current state of affairs as:

………the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) of the WTO recognizes the Office international des epizooties (OIE) as the relevant international organization responsible for the development and promotion of international animal health standards, guidelines and recommendations affecting trade in live animals and animal products. At present the OIE International Aquatic Animal Health Code is the only source of international standards recognized under the SPS Agreement for health certification requirements for international trade in fish and shellfish. Although OIE standards are not binding in themselves, countries that become members of the WTO are bound to follow international standards where they exist.

This means that there is what is called a soft law that countries can abide by, but most legally binding rules are left to each country’s framework.  The result is a lack of standards and the need to deal with juvenile traffic on a case-by-case basis leads to a lack of real control of what goes on.

The consequences are visible in the speed with which new diseases spread over regions where one industry is established (for example the white shrimp) and on the other the extreme difficulty of traffic of exotic species even for highly secure, on-land RAS systems such as the production of tilapia in some European countries or European species of yellowtail in the US.

Strategies for the future

All the above suggests that it is important that an international body such as the FAO quickly put together a set of standards that are industry-realistic, effective in their objectives, controllable and that will allow the current stage of the aquaculture industry to evolve with the least possible negative impact on the environment and on the industry itself.

More specifically, the critical points are:

• Industry-realistic in the sense that the standards must be possible to implement with reasonable costs (we are talking animal production and not pharmaceutical industries…) and verifiable within a time frame that is compatible with the fact that we are working with live animals at stages of development where the windows for action are very short.

• Effective in that they ensure with a very high degree of certainty that the stocks traded will not bring pathogens to the new environments where they will be grown; here it is important that the standards are clearly linked to the potential risks of each species traded.

• Controllable in the sense that the mechanisms to audit the good implementation of the standards and to screen stocks before trading them are objective, standardized and reproducible to the extent that a number of reference laboratories can implement them.

Perhaps inspiration for such standards and the way they are implemented could come from industries such as the animal feeds industry or, the blood donation services that, while working mostly within the borders of one country, are subject to a number of international standards to ensure that blood products are transferable between persons without risk.

In the current state of the aquaculture industry these standards and their implementation will contribute greatly to the spread of technological know-how and would have a key effect on the safe growth of this industry in areas of the globe where it will contribute to healthier and wealthier populations.

— Diogo Thomaz

Diogo Thomaz, PhD, MBA, is a Technical and Business Consultant for the Aquaculture Industry, based in Athens, Greece. After 15 years as R&D project manager and other industry positions he now leads Aquanetix (www.aquanetix.co.uk), a data management and reporting service for the global aquaculture industry.  He also heads RealSales Ltd (www.realsales.eu) a sales consultancy company that helps businesses expand their opportunities in export markets.  He can be contacted by email on diogo@aquanetix.co.uk


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