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Aqua Farming: Fish for thought

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I would love to turn back the clocks and see the underwater world through Jacques Cousteau’s eyes. What an enviable experience – sailing the oceans, exploring pristine reefs thriving with marine life. But alas this is 2015, and as a globe-trotting scuba diver-come-photographer I am acutely aware of the problems facing our planet. Fish provide us with a vital food source but natural stocks are dwindling fast, in some cases so fast that a number of species including tuna are already on the IUCN critically endangered list. I can understand this is a complex situation, especially when there are mouths to feed and livelihoods at stake. Aqua farming may well be a viable solution.

Malta 7

In the quest to learn more I met up with Jes Brinch-Iverson, marine biologist and production manager for Pisciculture Marine De Malte (P2M) Limited. Jes, who has been associated with the company for the past 20 years, agreed to talk to me about the whole ‘farming’ process from its fingerling beginnings right through to serving up on a plate. The Maltese climate (water temp between 14-28 degrees) is ideal for cultivating sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax), gilt-head sea bream (Sparus aurata) and meagre (Argyrosomus regius). Jes said they are also considering farming amberjacks (Seriola dumerili) sometime in the future.

In all P2M have 19 storage pens at St Pauls Bay and another 5 at Mellieha Bay. Jes said it’s difficult to get permits, especially for the inshore sites. Although the demand for fish farming is increasing there are strict regulations in place dictating depth limitations, environmental issues and proximity to tourism. P2M doesn’t receive any financial help from the Maltese government. Jes said “we do get some European funding for research into new products and improving quality”.

Malta 4We hopped aboard one of P2M’s work boats and sped across to a cluster of small rectangular shaped pens located just a few hundred metres from the coastline. Jes wanted to show me a new batch of sea bream that had just arrived. The fingerlings or juveniles are supplied by companies from Spain, Italy and France. They are transported in trucks or put on cargo ships in large tanks. Oxygen is pumped into the water and the temperature reduced. This slows down the metabolism of the fish. A standard shipment is around 150,000 fingerlings. During the course of the journey there is about a 1% mortality rate.

Jes scooped up a handful of the silvery sea bream fingerlings. He said “only the best quality fish are selected”. The fingerlings are around 100 days old when they arrive at the farm. Each little fish was roughly the size of my little finger and weighed approx 2g. Growth is related to feed and water temperature. Normally the fish are kept inside the holding pens for around 12 – 16 months before harvesting.

The floating pens basically comprise of a large doughnut shaped rubber float with an encompassing net like structure attached below. I watched Jes feeding the hungry hoard. The water surface was literally boiling with activity. The fish are fed twice a day. The fish meal is a mixture of soya, fish oil and vegetable. Proportionately it’s around 50 percent soya. The difference in taste from farmed and naturally wild fish is not significant and the texture is still the same. Jes said “we use high quality feed”. They regularly monitor the health of the fish. Jes said “problems with diseases are very rare. We don’t use any chemicals in the process”. There is also a team of scuba divers on hand to check the nets for holes and do routine maintenance/cleaning tasks. After a particularly bad storm in March 2012 they lost around 8% of the total stock from damaged pens. The local residents had an absolute field day catching all the fish and taking them home for a free bumper supper.

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I wanted to try and get some underwater pictures of the farmed fish, so Jes suggested jumping into a 400 cu metre pen which was about 5 metres in diameter and 5 metres deep. The pen was populated with around 100,000 sea bass of sizes between 30 – 40g, which were roughly the length of my hand. Just to make my pictures a little more interesting I invited along local scuba diver Trudy Kerr. This would also add some perspective of size and scale. Both Trudy and Jes were regulars at Maltaqua dive centre based at St Pauls Bay.

Malta 5Malta 9Just before entering the water we encountered a disastrous show stopper of a problem. Trudy’s semi-dry suit zip had stuck open. Unfortunately the zip in question was located right by Trudy’s cleavage. Trudy asked if we should abort the dive. I looked at Jes and he looked back at me. In about 3 micro seconds we made a joint executive decision to soldier on despite this major setback. So the sea bass ended up getting slightly more of an eyeful than expected. No wonder why they were flying around the pen in a complete frenzy! I really enjoyed being inside the pen surrounded by so many fish. I spent more than 45 minutes taking pictures of the swirling shoal. If I have one complaint to make, the fish could have been a tad bigger. Otherwise the visibility wasn’t too bad, there wasn’t too much detritus (fish poo) floating about and the lighting was okay. Trudy’s zip had by that point miraculously repaired itself.

I had noticed quite a few local fishermen dangling rods close to the holding pens but couldn’t quite fathom out why, unless of course some of the fish managed to escaped from time to time. I heard Trudy shouting through her regulator and pointing outside the pen. I followed her line of sight and saw a giant trevally shaped predatory fish circling us. It was absolutely massive (1.5 metres long) and made me wonder what else might be out there beyond the mesh. Now that really was a scary thought… especially with the tuna pens being so close…

When we were safely back on board Jes took us over to one of the offshore pens full of larger sea bass. Jes said the 3,000 cu metre enclosure was around 15 metres in diameter and 12 metres deep. But the visibility was not so good inside this pen and the skittish fish were not so easy to photograph. We found 100’s of sea hares lying on the bottom which kept Trudy occupied for ages. Sea hares are herbivores so there must have been some kind of algae or plant life growing inside the pens that they liked to eat; or was it the fish poo? After 25 frustrating backscatter filled minutes I gave up taking photographs. I noticed there was a handful of dead fish bobbing about on the surface. Jes said this was the normal fall out rate. I’m not sure what had killed them and should have asked the question.

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Before returning to the jetty Jes showed me the special harvesting boat. It works just like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up the fish and passing them through a fast freeze unit. The cold shock instantly kills the fish. Any delay will affect the quality. They are then transferred to the nearby packing and processing plant. P2M had recently moved to new purpose built premises which also included a storage facility and office space. The company is privately owned and presently employs 51 people. Jes took me on a tour around the new plant. They were in the middle of processing a batch of sea bream. I watched the bream being unloaded and sorted onto a conveyor belt. The fish are rinsed, packaged up into boxes (at around 7kg a box) and transferred to ice trucks ready for delivery. I was impressed. The entire process took no more than 45 minutes.

Malta 2

The fish are not gutted and filleted, they are left whole. Jes said that the ideal ‘portion’ size for consumers weighs between 350 and 450g. On the open market prices are around 4 to 5 euro per kg. There are presently 6 fish farms in Malta exporting around 2,000 tons of cultivated fish each year of which a large percentage is shipped to supermarket chains in Italy. Delivery times from the holding pens to the local Maltese restaurants can be just a few hours. International deliveries usually take up to 24 hours. Jes said the fish have a 12-day shelf life.

I had learnt that Aqua farming doesn’t come cheap and there are many costs to consider. P2M do make a profit but fish are deemed an expensive commodity and demand is not so high. Jes said “the supermarkets dictate the prices and make most of the money”. Malta is planning to expand the aqua farming industry over the coming years. In my mind this is great news. More farmed fish means less fish taken from the sea which gives me a better chance of getting some half decent photographs.

Just to round off my day Jes handed me a sea bream sample for taste testing. I had never eaten sea bream before so was really looking forward to checking it out. The fish didn’t take very long to prepare or cook, especially as I wasn’t cooking it! I thought the roasted sea bream had quite a delicate texture and most of the flavour seemed to come from the herbs and the lemon. There were a few bones to contend with, but what did I expect – this was a fish! I would definitely eat it again and a bottle of chilled Gavi is the perfect accompaniment.

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What are your views on aqua farming? Let us know in the comments section below.

Stuart has spent the past 26 years taking pictures and writing stories for diving magazines and other publications. In fact, this equates to more than a year of his life spent underwater. There have been plenty of exciting moments from close encounters with crocodiles and sharks to exploration of deep wrecks and more recently rebreathers. He lives in Poole, Dorset and is very much an advocate of UK diving.

Dive Training Blogs

Deptherapy returns to its Roots – Part 5

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Join Richard Cullen from Deptherapy for part 5 of his Blog about the charity’s recent expedition to Roots Red Sea, El Quseir, Egypt.

After an evening of chilling out by the pool and in the bar, we are back to the Roots House Reef this morning, with Keiron continuing his RAID Master Rescue Diver Course and enjoying Moudi’s vast experience as he learns more about advanced buoyancy skills.

Not sure where the week has gone; it’s Wednesday already.  A few different things happening today… Oatsie who has just started at Hull University on a Marine Biology Degree Course wants to complete his sidemount course and this afternoon he is out with Guy Henderson to start his learning.  Swars also wants to do the course, as he wants to get into cavern and cave diving.  Swars will start his course tomorrow afternoon and both will spend a day being taught be Steve Rattle on Friday. Hopefully they will both be certified as RAID Sidmount Divers at the end of their training.

Tom putting his sidemount rig together under Guy’s watchful eye

The morning sees Swars and I working with Corey again and taking him through the remainder of skills and OW dives.  He is improving massively but we still have to work on trim and propulsion.

Keiron, unfortunately for him, has Oatsie and Michael for his diver recovery exercises; I am told there may well be an entanglement to deal with!

Conditions are perfect again as we all look forward to three great dives during the day.

90% of those we work with have mental health issues, mainly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of serving in various theatres of war.  If you read some adaptive teaching manuals, they have a task to ‘teach a student with PTSD a skill.’ Hmmmmm how is Oatsie, Swars, Michael or Keiron any different than a student who is free from any mental illness?  The answer is they are not, they are exactly the same. Do you talk to them differently, do you demonstrate skills differently?  The answer is no.

If they have a flashback or a panic attack, then you need to step back and provide whatever assistance is necessary but only if there is a risk of them hurting themselves.  All our team have to undertake and pass the two-day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course so we can intervene appropriately where the circumstances require it.

Do you know what a panic attack looks like?  Do you know how to respond to a panic attack?

Flashbacks most frequently occur at night time but some do experience day time flashbacks.  Flashbacks can lead to the individual feeling physically and mentally drained and can be triggered by anything that reminds them of the traumatic incident(s) they experienced.  Sometimes there might be a need for one of our medical team to be involved. Often a period of quietness, rest and possibly sleep is required.

Keiron and Corey on the House Reef

We have seen lots of our beneficiaries learn to manage their PTSD. As Chris Middleton said on a BBC programme:

“You can’t beat PTSD but you can learn to manage it.”

In addition to the scuba diving, Deptherapy also provides 24/7 support for our beneficiaries.  Beneficiaries are encouraged to attend the MHFA course with their partner, parent, relative or friend.

Many will have read comments from our beneficiaries, that once they put their heads under the water their demons disappear.  There are several factors to this: the peace, the quiet and the tranquillity that occurs underwater, the beauty of the corals and the amazing aquatic life.

Roots is very much like a retreat for us, we are miles away from any towns, there are no distractions, the nearest town is El Quseir, which is orthodox Muslim so there is no alcohol on sale.  The recent bypass of the main Safaga to El Quesir/Marsa Alam road means that at night time there is no noise, just a brilliant star lit sky.

Roots at night from the beach

Beneficiaries are encouraged to talk openly with the team and their fellow beneficiaries about their injuries/illnesses and provide overwhelming support for each other as Corey found on this trip.

Our aim is to create a family atmosphere and Roots very much contributes to the sense of family and wellbeing.

Sadly, we live in a world where those with mental illnesses are largely discriminated against.  Because few understand mental health, they are fearful of it and try to ignore it.  Please look at the Mind website or even better sign up to a Mental Health First Aid Course.  If you run a business then run the course for your staff, the benefits will be massive.

Back to the diving, Michael and Tom under Moudi’s close supervision gave Keiron some very challenging diver recovery exercises.  Poor Keiron, but he responded tremendously.

Swars, is working well with Corey, ensuring horizontal trim and making sure he uses effective arm strokes for his swimming. We are organising an SMB session, so he can work with different types of SMBs.

Although we haven’t told him, he has finished all his skills but we still have work to do on his trim and propulsion.  We want him to go beyond standards, we want him to be a very competent diver, who despite his devastating injuries, can self-rescue and support a buddy if in need.

The afternoon dive sees Michael joining myself and Swars with Corey.  This dive is about buoyancy, trim and propulsion.  Keiron is doing some more advanced buoyancy work with Moudi.

All roads lead to Roots, is this the future of Google maps?

Oatsie had a great dive with Guy using sidemounts and is looking forward to completing the sidemount course with Swars and Steve Rattle on Friday.

In the evening, and before dinner, Moudi runs the RAID O2 Administrator Course for all five beneficiaries. It is a qualifying part of Keiron’s RAID Master Rescue Diver course but we decided it would benefit all of the guys.

Tomorrow we have decided to take Corey to 30 metres and for him to complete a narcosis test. Join us back here tomorrow to find out how we get on…


Find out more about the work of Deptherapy and Deptherapy Education at www.deptherapy.co.uk

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Marine Life & Conservation

Reef-World announces 2020 Green Fins Award Winners

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The Green Fins Award recognises the world’s most environmentally friendly dive centres

The Reef-World Foundation – the international coordinator of the UN Environment Programme’s Green Fins initiative – is delighted to announce the winners of the coveted 2020 Green Fins Award are:

  • Bubbles Dive Centre, Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia
  • Flora Bay Divers, Pulau Perhentian, Malaysia
  • And Tioman Dive Centre, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia

The prestigious annual award recognises the Green Fins member with the lowest environmental impact. This year, competition was so tight there was not one, but three winners all tied in first place. What’s more, all three of the winners and seven of the global top 10 centres are based in Malaysia!

Rosie Cotton, Tioman Dive Centre

The winning dive operators were chosen from the 600-strong network of Green Fins members by a rigorous assessment of business practices. To be eligible for the award, the operator must have had its latest assessment conducted within the last 18 months. In 2019, the proud winner was Tioman Dive Centre: a PADI dive centre which has been a Green Fins member since 2009 and had managed to hold onto the title again in 2020.

As 2020’s Green Fins Award winners, Bubbles Dive Centre, Flora Bay Divers and Tioman Dive Centre are recognised as the world’s most sustainable dive or snorkel operator, as verified by the globally-recognised Green Fins environmental assessment. Their steps to improve sustainability practices, which have resulted in this recognition as the most environmentally friendly Green Fins dive centres in the world, have included:

  • Switching to eco-friendly products and improving waste management practices: Kelvin Lim, Flora Bay Divers, said: “We switched from normal detergents to eco-friendly detergents, we are encouraging divers to bring their own water bottles to reduce plastic and came up with a general waste bin and a bin for plastic bottles in front of our dive centre. This helps tourists and locals to place thrash that’s been found on the beach easily and conveniently since there are no proper bins along the beach.”
  • Training staff in why environmental practices are important: Peisee Hwang, Bubbles Dive Centre, said: “Green Fins has helped my crew understand more about the importance of looking after the environment. Less educated members of staff would throw cigarette butts in the sea without thinking but they are now keeping their trash to dispose in the bin when they are back.”
  • Upgrading boat engines: Rosie Cotton, Tioman Dive Centre, said: “At the beginning of 2020, we upgraded our last remaining boat engine and now we run 100% with 4-stroke models. The benefits are not only to the environment but also a huge reduction in petrol usage. It’s a Win Win situation!”

Alvin Chelliah, Green Fins Assessor Trainer from Reef Check Malaysia, said: ”Most dive centre managers and owners that I have come across in Malaysia care and want to do what they can to help protect coral reefs. I think Green Fins has been the right tool to guide them towards practical actions they can take. Over the years, we have seen these dive centres put in a lot of effort and work hard at following the guidelines and they have improved steadily as a result. We hope others will follow their example.”

Peisee Hwang, Bubbles Dive Centre, said: “We are thrilled to know that we have won and we are glad that our effort is being recognised. We hope that more operators aspire to join us in pledging for the environment.”

Kelvin Lim, Flora Bay Divers, said: “We are proud to be acknowledged for our efforts to inspire sustainable diving. Our focus remains on cultivating informed and conscious divers with good diving skills and habits..”

Rosie Cotton, Tioman Dive Centre, said: “Receiving the news that we have made the top spot of Green Fins members is a fantastic feeling. Thank you so much to the Green Fins team for your ongoing support! This year has obviously been slightly different to previous years. I hope that something we can all take away from this year is that changes in our daily habits can create shockwaves of positive change around the world in a relatively short period of time. From TDC, we hope you are all safe and well at this time and are able to find some positives despite these difficult circumstances.”

Chloe Harvey, Director at The Reef-World Foundation, said: “We’re thrilled to recognise Bubbles Dive Centre, Flora Bay Divers and Tioman Dive Centre as joint winners of the 2020 Green Fins Award. Competition between the Top 10 is always tight but the fact that there are three winners this year, when usually one centre takes the title, shows how much sustainability is being put at the forefront of the agenda across the dive industry. So, we’d like to say a big well done to Bubbles Dive Centre, Flora Bay Divers and Tioman Dive Centre. This win is testament to their hard work and ongoing sustainability efforts and they should be very proud. It’s an incredibly tight race to be named the best of the best!”

The Green Fins Top 10 list is comprised of the world’s most sustainable dive operators, as determined by the Green Fins assessment process. In 2020 they are:

  • Tioman Dive Centre, Flora Bay
  • Divers and Bubbles Dive Centre (all in Malaysia)
  • Ceningan Divers (Indonesia)
  • Scuba Junkie Mabul (Malaysia)
  • Sea Voice Divers (Malaysia)
  • Evolution (Philippines)
  • Orca Nation Rawa (Malaysia)
  • Equation (Philippines)
  • The Barat Perhentian Beach Resort (Malaysia)

In Malaysia, Green Fins is run by Reef Check Malaysia in partnership with the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia (DMPM) on the Peninsula and Sabah Parks in Sabah. Membership is not yet available in Sarawak.

For more information, please visit www.reef-world.org and www.greenfins.net.

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