Aquaculture Science Environmental Risk Assessment Initiative

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has launched the Aquaculture Science Environmental Risk Assessment Initiative under the renewed Sustainable Aquaculture Program to support science-based decision-making with regards to aquaculture activities. The Initiative will synthesize data and information, incorporate expert opinion, and provide scientific advice through a series of environmental risk assessments of the potential aquaculture stressors on wild fish and the environment across the country.

The Aquaculture Science Risk Assessment Initiative builds on the 2009 Science Advisory Report  Pathways of Effects for Finfish and Shellfish Aquaculture, which describes the potential linkages between aquaculture activities, environmental stressors and effects. Through this process, seven stressor categories were identified: physical alteration of habitat structure; alteration in light; noise; release of chemicals and litter; release or removal of nutrients, non-cultured organisms, and other organic material; release or removal of fish; and release of pathogens.

To ensure consistency throughout the Initiative, the Department has put in place the Aquaculture Science Environmental Risk Assessment Framework outlining the process and components of each assessment. The Framework (Figure 1) is aligned with international and national standards following a four-step process, and is enhanced by external scientific peer-review. This Framework will advance the delivery of systematic, structured, timely, transparent and comprehensive risk assessments.

Figure 1: Overview of the process to conduct a risk assessment under the Framework.

Step 1: Management Protection Goals

The first step in the process of a risk assessment is to identify the ecosystem component(s) and attribute(s) that are expected to be impacted or that should be protected or managed. For example, the management objective may be to expand or introduce a particular activity (e.g. aquaculture) while protecting a specific ecosystem component (e.g. specific wild fish stocks) and attribute (e.g. abundance). Once the ecosystem component(s) and attribute(s) are identified, the tolerance for risk is determined and can be illustrated on a risk matrix (e.g. heat map).

Step 2: Problem Formulation

This step defines the scope of the risk assessment. This is done by identifying hazards and developing a theoretical model that illustrates the relationships between the ecosystem components needing protection and the possible stressor(s). This model will help to predict how a stressor could affect an ecosystem component and to identify appropriate measurements that could be monitored (e.g. species abundance, contaminant levels, habitat area to be protected, disease rates, etc.). The problem formulation also includes categorization and clear definitions of the likelihood of events, the severity of consequences and uncertainties.

Step 3: Risk Assessment

The estimation of the risk follows the widely used risk equation of Risk = Likelihood X Consequence. To do this, risk assessors first estimate the likelihood of events to take place. Then, the magnitude and severity of the potential impacts on the environment are characterized. The likelihood and consequences are then plotted on a risk matrix to estimate the risk associated to the stressor.

The risk assessment itself can be informed by current scientific literature, scientific expert opinion, and traditional knowledge, when applicable and available, current management practices. An important aspect of the risk assessment is to acknowledge the uncertainties related to every step to ensure the transparency of the process.

Step 4: Scientific Risk Advice and Peer Review

Each risk assessment and scientific analysis generated through this Initiative will be scientifically peer-reviewed through DFO’s Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat (CSAS). The peer-review process will include a face-to-face meeting where scientific experts from governments, academia, industry, First Nations and non-governmental organizations may be invited to participate. All peer-reviewed Research Documents, Science Advisory Reports, and Proceedings of meetings, are published on the CSAS Publications website.

Research document(s) will include the characterization of the species to protect, of the environment and of the stressor being examined, as well as current practices used to mitigate the impacts of the stressor on fish and the environment. The risk assessment analyses, conclusions and recommendations will be published as a Science Advisory Report and will include associated uncertainties, identification of knowledge gaps and proposed mitigation options and subsequent estimated effects on the risk outcome.

Aquaculture environmental risk assessments may be subject to a cyclical review of advice that may be triggered by, for example, a regulatory change, new technologies, new research findings, or environmental changes.