It is only in the last few years when the fishing fleet has suffered from a marked scarcity of haddock that the folly of (the) belief in the inexhaustibility of nature has become potentWillliam Herrington
Farmed fish have a bad rep and I’d like to set the record straight, but first, when you think of our subject matter: fish farms — what comes to mind? Do we equate terrestrial farms with being dirty places for the animal meat industry and associate the word “farm” with that same imagery? Or are international fish farms at fault for tarnishing the reputation of our own fish farm communities?
Based on the general public’s attitude toward farmed fish – specifically the belief that farmed fish are less nutritious and unhealthy to consume compared to their wild counterparts – is challenged by modern day science and technology. In hope of shedding more light on why consumers shouldn’t shy away when presented with farmed fish, I have compiled some reliable facts sourced from scientific journals and course lectures from the last decade on farmed fish.
1. Farmed fish receive vaccinations, your steak receives antibiotics
It is true, in some cases, aquaculture farms have been known to administer antibiotics to fish with developing health issues or transfer them to quarantine, but that is not a common procedure. Open-ocean fish farms like the Norwegian aquaculture farm, Sjømat Norge, vaccinate their fish against diseases, similar to the flu vaccination that humans receive. The expansion of land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) eliminate the use of antibiotics, which greatly reduce the risk of contamination and disease in both wild and farmed fish.
Terrestrial factory farms, on the other hand, are notorious for feeding livestock a slurry of grains (primarily corn and soybeans), all of which have been grown in fields contaminated with pesticides, which ultimately aim to protect the plant against insects, but have also been linked to cancer-causing chemicals, which we inherently ingest through the meat. Not to mention, healthy cattle and pork are administered antibiotics for long periods of time.
When it comes to controlling pests in open-water fish farms, hydrogen peroxide (breaks down in seawater) may be used against sea lice. Though small, this crustacean latches onto fish and feeds on the blood and skin, eventually killing the animal and wreaking havoc on the remaining farm population. Recent efforts to incorporate cleaner fish such as the lumpsucker and wrasse as combatants against the pest are being explored as a more sustainable option. So rest easy, fish farms are taking note and evolving to fit the needs of the consumer.
2. Consumer demand is increasing, wild fish stocks are declining
This is an irrefutable fact. Increasing pressure on remaining wild stock populations has enabled the aquaculture business to expand and is considered to be the fastest growing food production sector in the world. So if aquaculture is growing, why are wild fish stocks continuing to crash? We look to history for that answer:
It all began in the early 1900s, when fish populations were plentiful. Fishermen caught cod from schooners and at the time when there was no refrigeration, catches were salted at sea for preservation. Refrigeration changed the game during the 1930s, as the switch from cod to haddock fillets commenced and the development of the fresh fish industry proceeded. Fish were hauled out of the sea, unregulated and unmonitored with no intent of stopping. To make matters worse, the presence of international fishing fleets off U.S. coasts were draining the already taxed fisheries, leading to the Magnuson-Stevens Act (1976), which gave jurisdiction to domestic fisherman in waters out to 200 nautical miles and prevented foreign competition. But this wasn’t enough, overfishing and exploitation of wild fish stocks continues to this day.
Wild catch stocks are and have been for many years, exploited either at their limit or overfished. In fact, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the, “percentage of stocks fished at biologically unsustainable levels increased from 10 percent in 1974 to 33.1 percent in 2015”. With human population steadily climbing, we are estimated to reach 10 billion people by 2050, pushing the world’s carrying capacity and food security to its limits.
Feeding 10 billion people with our current food cultivation and harvest practices is unsustainable and bound to fail. While there are regulations and catch limits, these alone will not be able to protect wild fish, nor keep the diminishing fishermen content. Aquaculture represents an alternative to declining wild fish stocks through sustainable methods using recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).
3. More than 90% of our seafood is imported
No, you’re not seeing that incorrectly. Nearly all of our seafood is imported from international waters, while approximately 1/3 of seafood caught in U.S territories are sold overseas. Why? It’s all about profit. The two-million pounds of Alaskan salmon and half billion pounds of cod, pollock, shellfish and a plethora of other fish species fetch a bigger price in international markets. The FAO has reported that aquaculture provides approximately 53% of fish for human consumption. So, unless you are personally purchasing fresh, local, and sustainably caught fish, it is very likely that you have already consumed farmed fish.
4. Farmed fish are the most efficient animal to produce
Compared to traditional red meat, fish have the lowest feed conversion rate, which is essentially how much feed is required to allow the animal to grow and gain 1 kg of body mass. While the harvest yield (percent of animal left after inedible parts are removed) is the highest of any terrestrial farm animals, as seen below:
5. Sustainable Fish Farm Systems are out there!
Fish farms can be sustainable. One method that has been implemented in open-ocean aquaculture is the integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) system, which cultivates a primary fed species (fish) with a extractive species. In other words: it is a system that produces byproducts, from waste, which another species can utilize as food or fertilizer.
A standard IMTA system incorporates fish, filter-feeders and kelp. The fish and uneaten fish food produce waste that is extracted by the filter-feeder species, while kelp absorbs the dissolved inorganic waste. Essentially, this system is meant to decrease the risk of algal blooms and contaminated water. So what about the cons? The turn-off for farmers is the system’s complexity and monitoring required for each species, which isn’t always beneficial for farmers. Additionally, there is the issue of spatial constraint, farms that have been successful with this system require a certain amount of space, which some locations cannot allot for.
Recirculating aquaculture systems offer an alternative farming method to open ocean aquaculture by removing variables that pose potential damage to marine ecosystems and wild species while reducing competition for ocean space. The reuse of the water initially added to the system decreases pressure the water resources and environment and reduces the need antibiotics and chemical used to combat disease and parasite infestations that are associated with OOA. In addition, this controlled system ranges in size from large to small production and can be located closer to production facilities, minimizing carbon footprint.
I urge anyone with more questions to look further and to use reliable search engines and sources. I understand not everyone will have access to peer-reviewed journals or articles, but it ultimately comes down to being diligent in weeding out bias reports and websites. Reach out to scientists and professors, attend seminars and communicate with experts working in that field.