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Tasting the future of farmed seafood

From Louise Westlake, for CNN
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The chicken of the sea?
  • Around fifty percent of seafood is produced through aquaculture
  • New fish species like tilapia are being introduced to the UK to relieve pressure on other fish
  • UN believes that aquaculture is essential to meeting the appetite of a growing population

London (CNN) -- If you ate fish for dinner last night, there's a 50% chance it was not caught in the wild.

Aquaculture -- the farming of fish and sea creatures under controlled conditions -- is the fastest growing area of animal food production and now accounts for around half the world's consumed seafood.

According to the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the fish farming industry increased on average at an annual rate of 6.6% between 1970 and 2008.

Dr Matthias Halwart, senior aquatic officer at the FAO, told CNN that globally we're eating more fish than ever before.

A farm on every rooftop
GM bananas in Uganda
The world population on average consumers an all time high of about 17 kilograms of fish per person.
--Dr Matthias Halwart, UN FAO

"The world population on average consumers an all time high of about 17 kilograms of fish per person and with an increasing population it's going to be more in the future," he said.

"So we have a big demand and that demand will have to be met by aquaculture"

It's no secret that marine stocks are over fished and Dr Halwart believes sustainable fish farms are the only way to feed the global appetite for fresh fish:

"I don't think we will see complete stock collapses but at the same time we cannot expect that the growing demand for aquatic products can be met form the sea. On the contrary we have to see that marine fisheries have a chance to recover."

Diet diversification is also being hailed as key to saving our seas. Instead of sticking to over-fished favorites, such as salmon or cod, Dr Halwart suggests we could help by varying our sea food diets.

This month I got to see at first hand some of the new fish species making their way onto the UK market. I took a peek inside a 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit) hothouse at a farm in Lincolnshire, where farmers are growing the next generation of farmed fish - tilapia.

Tilapia farming is already widespread in China and the U.S., but this tropical freshwater fish is still relatively unknown in Europe.

Originating from Africa, the red tilapia we were shown at this Lincolnshire farm, hail from the Nile. According to Dr Adrian Hartley, the farm's Sales and Production Manager, tilapia are used to bunching up in the river during drought season and can tolerate high densities.

That's just as well, because the fish we see are tightly packed at the top of the tank. It's almost hypnotic watching the thousands of tilapia swimming over and under each other.

The warehouse is filled tanks and Dr Hartley tells us that each one holds between 10,000 to 15,000 fish.

Tilapia has been called "the chicken of the water" due to the relative ease and speed with which it can be farmed. They breed quickly, are relatively disease resistant and reach full size at great speed when grown under controlled conditions.

Unlike salmon that needs a fish or meat based diet, tilapia are omnivorous and low in the food chain. They don't need large amounts of fish meal and can even survive on a vegetable based diet. Dr Hartley's tilapia are fed some fishmeal but it only makes up 10 to 15% of their diet.

Tilapia is already being stocked in supermarkets across the UK but for the more adventurous pallets, there's another species of sea food creeping onto the menus of London's most up-market restaurants.

The sea cucumber has long been a delicacy in Asia and I tried it at Michelin-starred restaurant Hakkasan in London. It has a texture that slightly springs under the teeth when chewed; this may just be the reason why it's so popular in Asia where foods are often prized for their texture as much as their taste. The sea cucumber's flavor was masked by the powerful garlic and chili it was fried with and I suspect it's is fairly bland in taste, but it evidently absorbs flavors well.

Researchers at Newcastle University are now promoting these animals as a fish farmer's best friend.

Dr Matt Slater, a marine biologist, told CNN sea cucumbers are a sustainable and profitable addition to an aquaculture farmer's fish tank. When kept with other fish, they help filter the water by eating the waste. Sea cucumbers can also be a lucrative export when sold to Asian countries and are becoming more popular with western pallets.

According to the FAO's Dr Halwart, there are even more new fish species currently being farmed for food purposes and the UN is calling for the aquaculture industry to double again.

"With more affluent societies who want to consume more fish and more seafood, this growing demand will have to come from fish farms given the state of the world's fisheries," he said. "So there is a bright future for fish farming."