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Using Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to assess the sustainability of fish farms

Fish farming is seeing major growth throughout the world. To enable its long-term development, it must be able to assess and control its environmental impacts.  INRA researchers have shown that the LCA method can be used to measure the local and global impacts of fish farming systems and to propose options for changes in practices.

INRA experimental fish farming in Monts d'Arée (PEIMA). © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
Updated on 10/23/2014
Published on 10/17/2014

Since the end of the 20th century, fish farming has become as important as the fishing industry to the global fish trade.  This ancient activity, the first traces of which date back to the 6th century BC in China, has been seeing sustained growth during the past 30 years on all continents, with an average increase in global production of 8% each year.



Needs for environmental assessment and quality standards for production


Like all human activities, and because of the resources it mobilises (water, energy, feed, the surface of ecosystems, etc.) and the waste it generates (organic waste, medicinal products, etc.), fish farming exerts pressures on the environment at both the local and global levels.  Fish farming is strongly criticised by environmental defence organisations, and is distrusted by some consumers, notably in Europe.  It has become necessary to develop assessment tools to support management of the development of fish farming, ensure its sustainability and improve its acceptability to consumers.


An assessment tool from the industrial world


It was in this context of respect for the environment and the need for accreditation that research scientists in the INRA/Agrocampus Ouest Joint Research Unit for Soil, Agro-hydrosystems and Spatial Modelling (UMR 1069, SAS) turned to Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).  This is a standardised method (ISO 14044) developed by industry to assess the potential environmental impacts associated with a product; it can quantify the resources consumed and environmental emissions that occur at all stages in the life of a product, from the raw materials used to the management of waste.  

Scientists in the SAS Unit applied the LCA method to different types of fish farms in Europe, Asia and Africa.  By studying these different production systems - intensive or extensive, in fresh or sea water - the team were able to build up directories of indicators (collection of data on electricity and water consumption by the farm, the volumes and types of feeds used, etc.) and integrate them with predictive models (on the consumption of nutrients by the animals, the emission and fate of certain compounds such as phosphorus and nitrogen in the environment, etc.).


Three factors were identified as having a major influence on the environment at both the local and global levels:

  • fish nutrition and its management,
  • the consumption of energy and its sources,
  • the use of water (or more specifically, dependence on water).


LCA now makes it possible to use these criteria to compare different intensive or extensive fish farms and determine points where improvements are possible in order to optimise their sustainability.  The analysis extends beyond the simple ability of the farm to transform inputs into finished products, by integrating upstream factors and numerous categories of impacts that reflect the economic and environmental performance of the entire system.


Applications for the future of fish farming


The researchers are now using LCA to define new production methods for fish farming, with the dual objectives of competitiveness and protection of the environment, notably in the context of the PISCEnLIT project.  The team is also involved in the ANR DESIRABLE project, which counts among its objectives the development of a sector for the production of insects that could be used as feed resources for fish.

This work was summarised in the context of the thesis project by Joël AUBIN, UMR SAS, Rennes.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Joël AUBIN (+33 (0)2 23 48 70 42 ) INRA/Agrocampus Ouest Joint Research Unit for Soil, Agro-hydrosystems and Spatial Modelling (UMR 1069, SAS)
Associated Division(s):
Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems , Environment and Agronomy
Associated Centre(s):

For further information

  • Aubin, J., 2013. Life Cycle Analysis as applied to environmental choices regarding farmed or wildcaught fish. CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources. 8, N°11.
  • Aubin, J., Donnars, C., Supkova, M., Dorin, B., 2013. A critical panorama of methods used to assess food sustainability. In: Esnouf, C., Russel, M., Bricas, N. (Eds.), Food system sustainability: Insights from duALIne. Cambridge University Press, New York, 198-232.
  • Aubin, J., Tocqueville, A., Kaushik, S.J., 2011. Characterisation of waste output from flow-through trout farms in France: comparison of nutrient mass-balance modelling and hydrological methods Aquatic Living Resources 24, 63-70.