Aquaculture: a breeding ground for trouble?

A story about aquaculture on a North Carolina news site gave me food for thought. The journalist visited a research facility which is developing methods of artificially cultivating saltwater fish (aquaculture has been used more for freshwater fish to date).

In many ways, I think aquaculture sounds like a sensible idea.

  • Natural fish stocks around the world are now dangerously low because of overfishing. By farming fish in giant tanks, we can reduce the pressure on natural stocks while ensuring man’s food supply.
  • As the fish nutritionist in this story points out, farmed fish on a controlled diet are free of the mercury and other contaminants found in fish taken from the sea.
  • The story also suggets fish-farmers can charge more for farmed fish as they are more standardised in size, and the fish can reach the plate much faster (catching them really is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel…).
  • Researchers are also trying to make the practise sustainable, by using waste-water to feel algae, which feeds plankton, which in turn feeds the fish.

But I couldn’t help feeling uneasy about aquaculture – or at least, in the form in which it is described here.

  • The description of how the fish eggs are extracted is pretty gross in itself: “Flounder specialist Troy Rezek demonstrated “strip-spawning” on an anesthetized female, harvesting her eggs by pressing them out in a fluid-looking stream.
  • The fish might be free of mercury, but you can bet they require a lot of antibiotics and other medication because they’re kept in such close proximity.
  • The story also says that a local company is now “air-expressing” fillets from North Carolina to other major cities in the US. A model built on air-freighting can hardly be the way forward – we’d certainly need to investigate inland fish farms as opposed to flying it inland from the coast.
  • The journalist says that, because commercial fishmeal is expensive, the research centre has been experimenting with substitute protein sources such as soybeans. Considering the massive Amazon deforestation that is already taking place to make way for soya plantations, developing yet another industry which depends upon it does not sound good.

That said, the fish do have to be fed on something, and soya would be preferable to smaller fish being taken from the ocean to feed them – a practise which Kristian Teleki of SeaWeb mentioned in his lecture in December.

I didn’t have a clue how big the global aquaculture industry is, but when I looked into it, I realised it’s huge:  WWF says almost half the seafood we eat have been artificially farmed, and that aquaculture is the fastest growing food industry in the world.

SeaWeb and WWF are extremely concerned about damaging aquaculture practises – but I see that both organisations are currently helping set up the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) – a new body expected to be in operation by 2011. Furthermore, new global standards for the farming of tilapia were released just a few weeks ago, with several other species guidelines to come, so I’m hopeful that aquaculture will develop in a responsible and sustainable way in the future.

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