Aquaculture is seen as key to mitigating the challenges faced by the traditional fishing sector.
Aquaculture supplies only 20% of the European Union's seafood consumption, much lower than the global average of 50%, which the European Commission and players in the industry hope to turn around.
The sector is being seen as key to mitigating the challenges faced by the traditional fishing industry based on catching wild species.
"We need to look for success stories of alternative economic uses of the sea that we can expand and share in European coastal areas and create new resilience jobs", Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for the Environment, recently told Euronews.
"Being dependent only on fisheries and tourism is very risky for the blue economy. We saw this with the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a big blow for these sectors, which were basically shut down and people were left without income. The same thing happened with the Russian aggression in Ukraine, which had a huge impact on the prices of diesel used by boats. It was again a very difficult period for the fishing sector, which faced increasing operating costs," Sinkevičius said.
The European Commission presented, last February, a package of measures to improve the sustainability and resilience of the EU's fisheries and aquaculture sector and the European Parliament is also preparing a report about the last 10 years of the Common fisheries policy.
Pierre Karleskind, chair of the Fisheries Committee at the European Parliament, defends a balanced approach between economic uses and biodiversity protection.
"We are interested in this idea of maritime planning, where we can say that in that place we can fish, in another we must protect the ecosystems, or that that place we can also develop aquaculture. There's room for everyone, we just need to get around the table, work with the researchers and get everyone, including the fishermen, moving in the right direction," the French liberal MEP told Euronews.
The potential of algae
The EU Blue Economy 2023 Report, launched last week, states that algae are key to this new approach, generating €10 million in turnover in France, Spain and Portugal, where they are developing rapidly.
Worldwide, algae are mainly cultivated and over 97% of all production comes from Asia, with Chinese production accounting for 57% of the total. The EU imports most of what it uses in various industries, from food to pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and now even textiles. There has also been some harvesting of wild stocks and aquaculture systems are becoming more common.
"Europe currently imports around €600 million a year in algae-based products and the aim is to reverse this activity. There are currently around 80 companies engaged in seaweed aquaculture, spread across several European Union countries, with production focused mainly on four types of algae that allow this sector to develop in both northern and southern Europe," Helena Abreu, Vice-president of the International Seaweed Association, told Euronews.
But there is still much to be done in terms of facilitating access to the marine space, in order to identify the best locations for these farms, as well as mechanisms to support technology transfer from research to the market and also raising public awareness by creating information and marketing strategies. The professionals are now calling for better regulation of this low-carbon protein.
"On a regulatory level, we want fair competition, we want the rules to be the same for all. Europe can provide this framework, first of all. We want easy access to sea or seawater, whether on land or at sea, and to encourage the creation of companies," Jean-Baptiste Wallaert, President of the French Union for Algae and Marine Plants told Euronews.
"We want the list of algae that can be used to be a little longer: in Brittany, we have 700 species of algae, but for human consumption, we only have 40 authorised species," he added.
The European Commission has previously promised to put in place actions to support this sector, notably by "funding pilot projects for career reorientation and supporting SMEs and innovative projects in the algae sector" and "conducting studies and debates to better understand the role of algae" in the economic sustainable production and strategies to tackling climate change.