The Great Aquaculture Debate

0 Comments Posted by Erika in General on Saturday, February 27th, 2010.

At the recent Seafood Summit in Paris, one of the most contentious issues was that of aquaculture, which is often referred to as fish farming.  Aquaculture facilities raise fish in a tanks or pens, either on land or in water bodies.  To date, over two-thirds of all aquaculture fish are raised in China.  There are a number of conservation concerns about aquaculture facilities, but some argue that if they are done right, the negative impacts can be minimized. One of the reasons that aquaculture is so important is that it is the fastest growing food production system in the world.  While some people believe that farmed fish may help feed the world, others, who believe the impacts are too great, ask at what price.  Hence, the reason this issue is so contentious.  More on that in a bit.

For now, back to the Seafood Summit.  One panel at the Summit discussed several programs that are being developed to certify fish that are raised sustainably.  The Marine Stewardship Council does this with fish caught in the wild, and several companies are trying to develop similar programs for fish produced in aquaculture facilities.  The World Wildlife Fund has organized something called Aquaculture Dialogues.  They are working with many different groups to decide which criteria or best farming practices would qualify farmed fish as sustainable.  Once these criteria and best practices are agreed upon, they plan on working with other companies to certify the fish.  What does this mean for you?  It means that fish that met these standards and were tracked from the fish farm to your grocer or restaurant would have a sticker on its package saying it met the sustainable criteria.  Clearly, knowing more information about where our food is coming from would be a good thing.

Despite these efforts, some people believe that there are some fish species can just not be raised sustainably in captivity.  I’ll use salmon raised in the US Northeast as the example and explain these contentious issues.  Salmon are often raised in bay pens, which means that any salmon that escapes the pen can interact with wild populations; they can spread diseases or outcompete wild populations.  Atlantic salmon are listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act, meaning there is a good chance they will go extinct.  Thus, any negative interactions with farmed salmon could be a big problem for wild populations that are trying to recover.  This should also raise a red flag for you the next time you see Atlantic salmon on a menu.  Because of this listing, wild Atlantic salmon cannot be caught and sold for consumption.  Any Atlantic salmon you have seen on a menu has been raised in an aquaculture facility.

In addition to disease and competition, antibiotics are also often used in aquaculture facilities to prevent disease outbreaks since so many animals live in such close quarters.  These antibiotics can enter the water bodies where the pens are kept, and can also be transferred to you when you eat the fish.

Now, what about the feed, perhaps the most contentious issue of them all?  Salmon are carnivores, meaning they eat other fish.  Prey fish, or fish that are low on the food chain, need to be caught and then made into a meal for the farmed salmon.  Scientists still don’t know the extent of the impacts of taking large amounts of prey species out of the environment, but they know it can’t be good, especially for wild populations that eat those same species.  One of the other arguments against farming salmon that came up at the Seafood Summit was an ethical one.  The argument was that salmon, for those of us in developed countries, is a luxury item.  We don’t need salmon to survive.  Much of the prey species that we are feeding the salmon is coming from the waters of developing countries, and they do need those fish for protein.

Other talks at the Summit focused on some of the efforts of aquaculture researchers and facilities to decrease the amount of fish that are being fed to farmed salmon to lessen these environmental and ethical impacts.  They are trying other food sources such as soy.  To determine if farmed fish are sustainable, we still need to ask how much oil went into growing or catching feed for the fish.  And for ethical concerns, we need to know if anyone was eating that food before we decided to feed it to fish.  We also have to ask if the salmon will still taste like salmon after we change its diet.

There are lots of questions that still need to be answered.  I am glad the dialogue has started, though we still have more work to do.