Project Management Institute

Fishy Business

Aquaculture Projects Are Making a Splash—But Experienced Talent Is in Short Supply


Workers feed caged barramundi fish in Vietnam's Van Phong Bay. Below, an aquaculture project site in New Caledonia



Wild fish are getting harder to find. Ninety percent of the ocean's fish stocks are now fully fished or overfished, and continuing human population growth will only exacerbate the problem. But organizations see a solution to sate the world's seafood appetite: ramp up projects in aquaculture, the world's fastest-growing food-producing sector.

Aquaculture, also known as fish farming, already provides about half of all fish consumed globally. Production has tripled in the last 20 years, reaching an output now of more than 70 million tons annually, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Roughly 90 percent of these fish farms are in Asia, National Geographic reports, but the highest growth rates for new projects are in Africa and South and Central America. The US$160 billion industry is expected to be the source of most people's fish by 2021.

That fast growth has created a talent gap. Practitioners with the proper combination of technical aquaculture experience, business acumen and advanced project management skills are in short supply, says Tom Frese, president of AquaSol Inc. in Miami, Florida, USA, which provides project management services to new and existing aquaculture projects worldwide. Specialized knowledge is often required: Project teams might have to contend with challenges such as knowing how to oxygenate the water, prevent disease, control predators, protect against typhoons and hurricanes (if the facility is offshore or near-shore), and develop the infrastructure needed for transportation and fish food storage.

Aquaculture production has tripled in the last 20 years, reaching an output now of more than 70 million tons annually.

“The human resource aspects are a real challenge because qualified people are in short supply,” he says. “Most people are very busy because of the industry's growth. It's frequently a challenge to keep the best people on your particular project due to the sheer number of projects being developed worldwide.”

The first phase of Mr. Frese's US$80 million shrimp farm project in a town near Araya, Venezuela is to develop 122 ponds spread over more than 190 hectares (469.5 acres). The facility will eventually host a shrimp hatchery, grow-out farm, processing plant and feed mill. While this project is land-based, aquaculture projects also exist in oceans, on shorelines and along rivers.

With scarce talent spread all over the world, most aquaculture projects, including Mr. Frese's, involve international collaboration via online tools and weekly conference calls. But having a local partner on the ground to negotiate with external stakeholders and contractors is a must: Local project managers, he says, are crucial when interacting with the government about permitting, zoning and infrastructure matters.


“It's frequently a challenge to keep the best people on your particular project due to the sheer number of projects being developed worldwide.”

—Tom Frese, AquaSol Inc., Miami, Florida, USA

Securing buy-in among local stakeholders is one of the greatest challenges all aquaculture projects face. Local project managers often have to deal with a not-in-my-backyard mentality, says Anton Immink, global aquaculture director for Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, Stirling, Scotland. The nonprofit works to rebuild fish stocks and to improve the environmental and social impacts of aquaculture.

“That mentality is particularly a problem in the coastal areas of developed countries as residents try to protect the perceived beauty or the tourism trade,” Mr. Immink says. “But other parts of the community often see value in farms bringing employment.”

And the stakes are certainly high. If people want to keep eating fish, aquaculture is the only way forward, Mr. Immink says. “Many wild-catch populations have stabilized, but those stocks aren't going to grow. The only way to meet demand is through farming.” —Carol Wolf

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