Dealing with the Aquaculture Dilemma

Michael Conathan argues that farmed fish are a fact of life and we should continue efforts that attempt to make the practice safer.

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Margarito Adame unloads California farmed hybrid striped bass into an ice container near Mecca, California, to be shipped for market. As world population and prosperity increases, so too will the demand for fish, and we won’t be able to meet this demand solely with fish caught in the wild. Aquaculture will have to continue to play a role. (AP/Ric Francis)
Margarito Adame unloads California farmed hybrid striped bass into an ice container near Mecca, California, to be shipped for market. As world population and prosperity increases, so too will the demand for fish, and we won’t be able to meet this demand solely with fish caught in the wild. Aquaculture will have to continue to play a role. (AP/Ric Francis)

Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever eaten a wild cow or chicken.

Not sitting in front of your computer screen with your arm in the air, are you? With the exception of the occasional bit of boar or venison, virtually every piece of meat Americans consume is cultivated for the purpose of being devoured.

Fish, of course, are different. When we tuck into a swordfish steak or halibut filet, we generally expect that it was caught in the open ocean. And yet, the efficiencies of aquaculture—or cultivating freshwater and saltwater fish under controlled conditions—are becoming ever more a part of our seafood diet.

Aquaculture is a divisive topic, pitting those who fear its potential to pollute ocean waters and wild fishes’ gene pools against those who see the possibility of alleviating pressure on traditional fisheries and providing an additional source of protein. Commercial fishermen frequently ally with environmental groups, their typical adversaries, to oppose the practice as one that will create additional competition for their product while potentially compromising the habitat and raising the specter of introducing non-native species to the marine environment that could outcompete their native counterparts.

This is a critical debate because seafood is big business. Americans consumed 4.83 billion pounds of fish in 2009—nearly 16 pounds per person. What’s striking is that 84 percent of that fish was imported, and fully half of our imports were farmed, not wild caught. The reality we must face is that as world population and prosperity increases, so too will the demand for fish, and we won’t be able to meet this demand solely with fish caught in the wild. Aquaculture will have to continue to play a role.

So what are our options to balance the demands of rising populations with aversion to aquaculture?

1. Become a nation of vegetarians.

In an ecologically ideal world, perhaps we would all go vegetarian. But let’s be real—that’s never going to happen. Because as Vincent Vega said during his debate with Jules about eating pig in the “Pulp Fiction” diner: “Bacon tastes good. Pork chops taste good.

Rather than reprising Jules’s opinion about the gustatory merits of sewer rat, let’s just move on and say that—at least in the opinion of the hordes trooping into Red Lobster for their “Endless Shrimp” promotion—crustaceans also taste good. Ditto salmon, though comparing a farm-raised Atlantic salmon to a wild-caught Alaskan Chinook is a bit like comparing a Big Mac to Kobe beef.

In the land of the free (to choose our diet as we see fit) and the home of the brave (enough to attempt to eat the 72 oz. Big Texan steak in under an hour), tofu and tempeh, tasty as they may be, are unlikely to become a permanent replacement for surf and turf.

2. Increase wild harvest.

World fish harvest peaked in the mid-1990s at approximately 90 million metric tons per year, according to statistics from the Earth Policy Institute. It has leveled off since then, despite ongoing population growth and increasing fishing effort. More fishermen working harder to catch the same amount of fish is a recipe for disaster.

The United States has done more than any other nation to end overfishing, and those efforts should at some point begin to pay dividends by rebuilding fish populations leading to increased catch limits for fishermen. Still, no one expects that even the most optimistic scenarios will allow us to meet even our domestic demand for seafood exclusively from a sustainable wild harvest.

3. Increase our imports of farmed fish.

Every year the average value of U.S. seafood imports is $9 billion more than the value of our exports, making fish our second-largest natural resource trade deficit behind everyone’s favorite petroleum product, oil. Therefore, it’s a pretty good bet that our overseas suppliers would be only too happy to ratchet up their fish production and send us even more shrimp, salmon, tilapia, and catfish. But what would be the ramifications for the global environment? What about the implications for our own human health?

Foreign fish farms aren’t exactly models of sustainability—they’re often poorly regulated and sited with little or no attention to environmental factors. Shrimp is one of the worst offenders. A National Geographic report published in 2004 found that Southeast Asian shrimp farms accounted for up to 38 percent of the decline in the world’s mangrove areas—fragile coastal wetlands that protect shores from storm surge and serve as vital carbon sinks. The report also referenced a 1995 study by the American Society of Microbiology stipulating that “the use of antibiotics in aquaculture as potentially a leading cause of the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.”

There are also health concerns. The United States suspended imports of some Chinese-farmed seafood in 2007 because samples contained residues of drugs banned from use in U.S. food production, including some that were not even approved under Chinese law. The Washington Post reported that fish had been found that “carried the tell-tale greenish tinge of malachite green, a disinfectant powder that has been banned in China for five years because it is a suspected carcinogen but is still commonly used.”

And The New York Times quoted a professor from Hong Kong who had found “heavy metals, mercury and flame retardants in fish samples we’ve tested.”

Expecting the U.S. government to catch every piece of tainted tilapia entering the U.S. food supply is naïve at best when the Food and Drug Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, have the capacity to inspect less than 2 percent of the seafood we import. So while foreign-farmed fish is clearly here to stay as part of the American diet, I won’t be putting it on my family’s dinner table.

4. Farm more fish domestically.

Last week the NOAA announced a new domestic aquaculture policy intended to support an increase in domestic marine aquaculture. As expected, the move was greeted with largely negative reactions from environmental groups and fishing industry organizations.

But as we’ve just discussed, Americans will continue to consume fish; our wild fisheries are, for the moment, running at capacity; and foreign sources of farmed fish are rife with unsustainable and even unhealthy management practices. So we really have but one alternative remaining: more domestic fish farming.

Aquaculture in U.S. waters allows our regulators to oversee the inputs to the system more stringently. Still, it doesn’t solve many of the broader lingering concerns about fish farming, such as how to reduce the amount of wild fish that must go into feeding domesticated ones, or how to prevent escapes of farmed stock that could then interbreed with or even outcompete their wild counterparts.

NOAA’s policy prioritizes research into alleviating the lingering problems with aquaculture with its goals to “ensure … decisions protect wild species and healthy, productive, and resilient ocean ecosystems,” and “advance scientific knowledge concerning sustainable aquaculture.” But the policy is short on actual concrete steps to achieve the overall objective to “encourage and foster sustainable aquaculture development.”

In a statement about NOAA’s policy announcement, the consumer protection group Food and Water Watch called aquaculture “a filthy way to produce fish.” Perhaps, but is the alternative then to put increased pressure on our already maxed-out wild fisheries? Or is it to stop eating fish and seek other protein sources? If fish farming is “filthy,” then what are we to make of other large-scale livestock operations?

According to a report released last week by Conservation International and the WorldFish Center, fish are more efficient than either cows or pigs at converting feed to protein, and have dramatically lower potential to cause eutrophication from runoff of animal waste and pesticides and fertilizers used to grow the crops that feed the livestock. Not unrelated was another announcement from NOAA that this year’s dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico will be the largest ever—bigger than the state of New Hampshire. Dead zones are areas of the ocean in which nutrient-rich, polluted runoff saps oxygen from the sea and kills anything that can’t swim away from the toxins. Agriculture and livestock operations are major contributors to these phenomena.

As we meet our growing need for affordable sources of protein, NOAA is inevitably correct to begin seeking policies that acknowledge and attempt to solve problems rather than ignoring the reality that fish farming is here to stay. Addressing these needs will require a concerted effort to pursue ecological and sociological solutions to reduce the environmental impact of aquaculture and ensure a safe, sustainable seafood supply.

Read more articles from the “Fish on Fridays” series.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

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