Più pesce; how an Italian childhood is inspiring Dr Roberta Marcoli’s dive into the vital role of fish - evokeAG.

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Più pesce; how an Italian childhood is inspiring Dr Roberta Marcoli’s dive into the vital role of fish

Dr Roberta Marcoli really loves four things in her life: her husband, her dog, pizza, and the ocean. But she’s especially passionate about how fish impact us, our future, and our planet.

Dr Roberta Marcoli on stage at evokeAG 2024

Dr Roberta Marcoli, 28, was a 2024 evokeAG. Future Young Leader, and is a postdoctoral aquaculture researcher at James Cook University, dedicated to finding sustainable solutions for aquatic farming that benefit both coastal communities and the environment. 

I was born and raised in Italy in a small fishing village. Accompanying my dad to the local fish markets, we would look at the fish, the different colours, the possible recipes.  

My dad would ask the same question every time; “Was it wild caught or farmed?” 

If it was wild caught, he would buy it straightaway, no matter the price. But if it was farmed? No deal. In my dad’s eyes farmed fish wasn’t as good, as healthy, as delicious.  

Fast forward 20 years and I hear his mentality in every Netflix documentary on the topic.  

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My dad would now be 84. In his lifetime he witnessed the decline of the marine life in the Mediterranean Sea. Where I’m from, in only one generation, we lost more than 40% of the marine mammals. More than 35% of the fish are gone.  

I wish I could tell him we can revert history. Things are doing better today. We can still catch fish from the ocean without depleting it. We just need to fish sustainably, and we will feed the planet by farming aquatic animals.  

Understanding aquaculture like we understand cattle

We need to embrace aquaculture but to do so we need to hear about it.  

We know how to look after livestock. We know the physiology; we can see the signs of discomfort. That’s how we’ve been able to build ethical and sustainable farming of chicken, beef, cattle, and sheep.  

Aquatic animals are different.  

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Aquaculture is a very young industry. There was very little until 50 years ago, when it boomed to become the fastest growing food sector globally. But this comes with challenges.  

Dr Roberta Marcoli on stage at evokeAG 2024

Imagine farming 680 different species of cattle, each with a different diet, salinity, temperature, different everything. More simply, fish lives under the water, which makes it complicated to look at.  

To top it off, if a fish is happy, sad, hot, cold, stressed, it always looks the same – except when it’s dead – and then it still looks the same aside from it being upside down, floating.  

Science, not fish psychology

More than 3 billion people – a third of the global population – rely on seafood and proteins that come from water. Aquaculture is not a nice to have; it’s a must.  

And this is where I stand.

I’m not a fish whisperer. I’m not a fish psychologist. I’m a fish scientist.  

In the last nine years I worked in the aquaculture industry in four different countries promoting the use of biotechnology and molecular biology to enhance the productivity and sustainability of this industry. 

Every single day the urgency of my job becomes more and more clear.  

But let me take you back to my dad and I.  

We both grew up by the ocean in the same village 50 years apart. He would tell me so many stories about his childhood; the Bluefin Tuna that surrounded him in his little boat, the big fish he would catch while swimming with dolphins.  

My dad was born in 1940. When he turned 10-years-old, the Bluefin Tuna catch was less than 100,000 tonne per year, equivalent in weight to 40 million tunas. When he turned 20, this number doubled.  

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When he met my mum at age 40, the Bluefin Tuna catch intensified greatly over the world, reaching an equivalent weight harvested of 240 million tunas.  

In 1996, a year after I was born, the Bluefin Tuna population dropped to 15%. When I started high school, the Bluefin Tuna population dropped in certain locations to as low as 1.5%.   

Finally, a strong set of global measurement was put in place in 2007. We were still catching Bluefin Tuna, but we were doing it sustainably.

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It took compromises and commitments from many people, many industries, many countries; from fisheries, retailers, governments, scientists and consumers, awareness campaigns started. People made conscious decisions, and countries collaborated towards a common goal.  

Dr Roberta Marcoli measures a fish

My dad passed away at age 77 in 2017 – the same year the Eastern Bluefin Tuna was finally classified as no longer overfished. The population is still growing with a continuous upwards trend. It worked.  

In my dad’s lifetime this species got decimated, but by giving it a chance to recover, it did.  

Aquaculture more than just sad, sick salmon

The Bluefin Tuna is like the panda of the terrestrial animals. People know about it. They think about it.  

But it’s just one species out of the thousands that are either a risk or at the edge of being over-exploited.  

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But if this species could recover from 1.5%, anything it’s possible.  

We need a social licence where people first look for sustainably caught fish, and secondly, embrace and accept aquaculture.  

But all we see in the media are the same images over and over again. Sick, sad salmon swimming in polluted water in one particular location.

 

It stands to reason this is what the mind goes to when we talk about aquaculture – but that is 0.147% of the reality.  

We need to start showcasing and broadcasting the great work that aquaculture is doing.

We need farmers to share the value, the passion, and the great products.  

We need scientists to keep helping them reach their potential. We need policies that demand the sustainability of seafood. And we need you – the consumers – to understand your responsibilities.  

Ask the question, make the certified and sustainable choice

Like my dad, every time you buy seafood, ask the same question; “was it wild caught or farmed?”  

Either way, just choose certified and sustainable.  

As an emerging researcher, I don’t want to research for the sake of research. I want to lead programs and projects that aim at bridging between the community, the science, and the industry. 

Why? Because if we work together, share our passion, our concerns, and our research, we can feed this, the next, and the future generations while replenishing our oceans.

Dr Roberta Marcoli was part of the 2024 Future Young Leaders program that saw five emerging leaders in agrifood, innovation and related industries build their capabilities, skills, confidence and networks, to ultimately present their key message, innovations or research project on an AgriFutures evokeAG. 2024 stage. 

Applications for the evokeAG. 2025 Future Young Leaders Program will open later this year.

For more information on how to apply for the Future Young Leaders Program, visit evokeag.com/futureyoungleaders.


Tickets are now on sale for evokeAG. 2025 to be held on 18-19 February 2025 in Brisbane, Queensland. Following a sell-out event in 2024 we are encouraging delegates to secure their tickets, flights and accommodation early.

We look forward to seeing you in Brisbane for evokeAG. 2025. In the meantime, catch up on the other conversations about sustainability, climate resilience and the role of agtech in meeting those challenges from here.

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