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Fish Farming: The Debate Swells as Consumer Demand Rages

Posted by Leah Bergman Thursday, February 18, 2010

Whenever you mention the word “fish farming”, people tend to raise a skeptical eyebrow, and usually respond with how they prefer “wild caught”. Even though this is true, there is still a huge movement towards fish farming. Why would this be? Society is trying to bridge the gap between overfishing, fishing until a fish population is depleted, and the ever increasing demand for fish. With this in mind, is fish farming a viable solution?

Fish farming for Salmon begin in Norway in the late 1960’s, and has now becoming a booming industry throughout the world from Norway, Scotland, Chili and British Columbia. Pens are positioned off of the coast and the salmon are placed inside. The benefit of the pens is that the fish are kept in their natural environment. Odd Grydeland, former president of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association and an executive at Heritage Salmon made a strong case for farming , “A fillet of farmed salmon in your supermarket is fresher than a wild fish netted at sea that can take five to six days to get to harbor." 1

With this being said, the disadvantages of this system have come under sever scrutiny in the last few years. One problem attributed to the industry is environmental. The fish waste smothers the seabed below the farm growing bacteria that deprives shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures of oxygen. “They're like floating pig farms," said Daniel Pauly, professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "They consume a tremendous amount of highly concentrated protein pellets and they make a terrific mess." 3 In the wild, the incidents of lice and other disease is relatively small. This is in direct contrast to the pens which suffer terrible plagues of disease outbreaks due to overcrowding. One outbreak in Maine caused the slaughter of 2.5 million fish. It has been reported that the diseases of the fish farms have been affecting local wild salmon which are infected by the endless number of farm fish that escape their pens and by swimming too close to the toxic environment. In order to combat the disease, farmers administer antibiotics to the fish causing even more pollution to the surrounding area. "The more aquaculture there is," warns Callum Roberts, senior lecturer in marine conservation at the University of York in England, "the more disease there will be."1

"The more aquaculture there is the more disease there will be."
With the demand of the fish farms, environmental groups have been concerned that the feeder fish such as: anchovies, sardines, menhaden and other oily fish will themselves become over fished. According to Daniel Pauly, Carnivorous fish such as salmon need 2-5 lbs of feeder fish to produce 1 lb of farmed fish. In contract, James Tidwell, the former president of the World Aquaculture society states that 10lbs of feeder fish are needed for 1lb. "Fish-meal fish are nature's forage," he says. "Cropping them merely increases their productivity. “1 Nevertheless, fisheries have been pressured to move towards a vegetarian solution that decreases the amount of feeder fish given to farmed fish. "It takes a lot of protein to produce protein," explains Mooney, the Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Sciences. "We're calling upon the aquaculture industry to create a better feed, one that uses fewer fish."2 A table from the National Academies Press: Nutritional Requirements of Fish shows that in addition to fish meal the current pellets given to farmed fish contains wheat, corn, soy, and cotton. The pellets have become the solution for overfishing feeder fish, but have created their own controversy. If farmed fish are eating food that is not natural for them, will they really be the best quality fish?


The shrimp industry is plagued with its own history of problems. Waste waters running off from local fish farms combined with the salinity of the water poison land for agriculture, the wastes flush into the sea destroying coast lines and killing wild life, and diseased ridden farms are abandoned and new ones started marring the coast line in its wake. The majority of the industry is in Asia, but there is a new player to the scene who is taking a different approach. U.S. based Marvesta has a new revolutionary facility located in Maryland that is changing the face of the shrimp industry. Their facility is the only 100% indoor, recirculating facility in the world. They claim that their system creates no waste, and their bio-security measures lead to no disease. “We saw an opportunity to approach it (shrimp farming) with a modern, responsible, reputable system,” says Co-Owner Scott Fritz, “We are not trying to compete with foreign companies that are selling frozen. We are trying to differentiate ourselves with fresh, quality shrimp.” Marvesta’s innovation is changing the negative history of shrimp farming and diminishing the negative impact on the environment, apart from its usage of electricity. Scott enthusiastically exclaims, “It’s not every day you get an opportunity to pioneer an industry.”

If farmed fish are eating food that is not natural for them, will they really be the best quality fish?
It appears that they have conquered the waste and disease problems that plague the shrimp industry, but what about the food debate? Because of their bio-security and recirculating system, they do not use chemicals, hormones, or vaccinations which are so common in other fish farming scenarios. Their juvenile shrimp are fed zoo plankton which is naturally acquired in the environment that they have painstakingly created to mirror sea life. This means that the shrimp are eating their native foods and there is no negative impact on the environment. The more mature shrimp are given a soy based protein pellet which satisfies environmentalist, but does not echo nature.

Instead of trying to farm carnivorous fish creating a multiplicity of environmental problems, perhaps lessons should be learned from the ancients who used herbivorous varieties. The Chinese have been farming carp, also known as koi, for 2,000 years using an ecological approach where nothing is wasted. Basically, the farmer digs a pond around rice paddies and feeds the fish with weeds from the rice fields. In turn, the waste from the pond is used as fertilizer for the rice fields, and crabs are used to eat pests, a farming system that creates a perfect harmonious balance. There is evidence that ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome cultures have used tilapia, another herbivorous species, in fish farming.

Dan Butterfield has adapted some of these ancient techniques on his organic fish farm in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he raises bass, carp, and catfish in the same pond. He states that the sun and the catfish feces stimulate the growth of the phytoplankton which feed the other species. The natural balance of nature which he employs also keeps his water clean and leads to no waste issues.

Fishing has become big business with shrimp being the 2nd import only to petroleum. As demand for seafood increases, companies are trying new innovations to meet that demand. As consumer awareness and “food education” increases, companies are also changing their practices to be more environmentally conscious. Some of the modern practices include utilizing technological advances. Others include going back to traditional ways that have worked for thousands of years. In the end, farm fishing is here to stay. It will be up to the consumer to educated themselves and vote with their dollars on how they wish it to affect the environment, their palette, and their health.





Footnotes:

1 McCarthy, Terry and Campell River, “Is Fish Farming Safe?” Time Magazine 17 November 2002: n. pag. Web. 30 November 2009

2 Shwartz, Mark, “Do Fish Farms Really Add to the World’s Supply of Fish?” Standford News 26 June 2000 n. pag. Web 30 November 2009

3 Weiss, Kenneth R., “Fish Farms Become Feedlots of the Sea” Los Angeles Times: 9 December 2002: n. pag Web 30 November 2009

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