EU blue economy report marks out seaweed’s “high potential”

Sustainability is crucial to ensure the future of Europe's fishing fleet, while seaweed could be Europe's next "blue biotechnology" boom.
European Union announces new measures for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Photo: Adobe Stock
European Union announces new measures for sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Photo: Adobe Stock

A new European Union (EU) report released this week surveys the performance of Europe's "blue economy", as well as outlining challenges and opportunities for the industries which make up the sector.

According to the EU Blue Economy Report 2023, the EU is the world's sixth-largest producer of "blue food", contributing around 2% of global production from both fishing and aquaculture. The EU fishing fleet is composed of 56,100 active vessels, which land approximately 3.9 million tonnes of seafood annually, valued at €5.8 billion.

Meanwhile, the aquaculture sector in the EU has made notable strides in recent years, reaching a production level of around 1.2 million tonnes, valued at €3.9 billion in the year 2020. Taken as a whole, the EU's maritime "living resources" sector employs more than half a million people, with Spain the top employer, accounting for 22% of the jobs and 18% of the GVA.

Wave after wave of challenges for both fisheries and aquaculture in the EU

However, Europe's marine "living resources" industries continue to face significant challenges, the report warns.

The fishing industry in particular has been negatively impacted by various external factors, both economic and geo-political. First came the UK's tumultuous departure from the EU, which means EU fishing opportunities in UK water stocks are gradually being reduced as part of the post-Brexit trade agreement. The COVID-19 pandemic followed soon afterwards, disrupting supply chains and seafood businesses across the EU, in common with many other industries.

Most recently, the military invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 has led to an unprecedented increase in energy and fuel prices. This situation particularly endangers the viability of the EU fishing fleet, which relies heavily on fuel and is thus highly susceptible to fuel price increases. The report notes this vulnerability, stating "A 10-cent increase in fuel price per litre would lead to a profitability loss of around €185 million."

The high energy prices have also impacted aquaculture, seafood processing, and distribution. The conflict has had a cascading effect, the authors say, raising the prices of raw materials such as soy, fishmeal, and oil, thereby influencing the overall prices within these industries as well.

Sustainable solutions must be found to ensure the long-term viability and resilience of the industry, the EU Blue Economy Report states, noting that collaboration from stakeholders, policymakers and industry players are crucial to mitigate risks posed by fuel and energy costs going forward.

EU aims to harness the potential of algae for a sustainable future

Looking to "non-traditional" marine living resources, the EU authors suggest seaweed could be a star commodity, noting "a high potential for algae to bring benefits to the EU", alleviating environmental pressures from agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries by mitigating nutrient run-offs, controlling algal blooms and enabling a circular approach to reutilize waste products.

At present, 30% of algae-related companies worldwide are located in Europe, but the EU (including EEA countries) accounts for less than 1% of the global algae production. The report notes that according to FAO figures, in 2020 Asia accounted for 35 billion tonnes of biomass (live weight), or  99.4% of global algae production, whereas the EU's 27 member states produced only 0.5 thousand tonnes.

This presents a significant opportunity, the report suggests, both for land-based and sea-based aquaculture: "The practicability of microalgae cultivation on non-arable land and the potentially large areas available for seaweed cultivation in territorial waters and in the open sea make both components of the algae sector currently as the most notable sectors of the EU Blue biotechnology."

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