20 June 2011

New report shows half of world's seafood comes from aquatic factory farms

According to a new report, 50 percent of the world's seafood now comes from "aquaculture," the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Compiled by the World Fish Center and Conservation International, the report points out that aquaculture is responsible for producing around 73% of all salmon, and over half of the global supply of crabs and lobsters.

China appears to be leading the way for worldwide aquaculture, evident by this chart showing all the countries drawn proportionally to their level of fish production.

The largest exporter of seafood to the US, China was both mentioned and condemned in a 2008 testimony by Don Kraemer, then-deputy director for the FDA's Office of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, who said that, "[i]n the course of an increased sampling program of imported Chinese aquacultured seafood which ran from October 1, 2006, through May 31, 2007, FDA continued to find residue of unapproved drugs in fish species including catfish, basa, shrimp, dace and eel." Despite these words, the Government Accountability Office revealed that in 2009, only 0.1 percent of all seafood imported from China to the US was tested for drug residue.

U.S. seafood only accounts for 5 percent of all that is consumed domestically. However, on June 13, 2011, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke released the first set of aquaculture policies with the intention of boosting fish production along U.S. shores in a sustainable way while also supporting the economy and innovation within the fishing industry.

Bill Dewey, a shellfish biologist and clam farmer for almost 30 years, believes the focus on domestic aquaculture production can have benefits.

"When done right, aquaculture can improve the environment, provide jobs, and reclaim American dollars that are being spent on imported aquaculture products."

However, not everyone is convinced.

Aside from ethical considerations (most fish have the capacity to experience pain and tend to suffocate to death), Paul Greenberg, author of "Four Fish", writes in his book that today, "every piece of Atlantic salmon you find at your local supermarket or fishmonger, smoked in lox, wrapped around mock crabmeat, or lying flat and orange against crushed ice, is farmed. [...] The amount of wild fish needed to feed farmed salmon, the threat of farmed salmon escaping and crossbreeding with wild salmon stocks, the rise of pollution from the farms themselves -- when it comes to the business of domesticating salmon, we should have chosen something else."

Dr. John Volpe, a marine ecologist at the University of Victoria, assembled a team to study marine fish farming. "Over time," he said, "the industry has made strides in reducing the environmental impact per ton of fish, but this does not give a complete picture. Large scale farming of salmon, for example, even under even the best current practices creates large scale problems." His team found that where production excels, environmental production lags.

Roz Naylor, Oliver Fringer, and Jeffrey Koseff of the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University, published a report in April 2011 suggesting "waste plumes" consisting of feces and undigested foods can amass near farms and travel significant distances, possibly putting coastlines at risk for contamination.

Beyond the scientific studies, aquaculture has also sparked outcries from residents living nearby to proposed fish farms, or farms already in existence.

In Canada, 75 people rallied against the government's decision to approve a large-scale salmon production facility owned by a company that already operates a farm allegedly responsible for polluting the sea floor with pesticides. Protesters said the smell from the farm forces locals to keep their windows shut tightly. Fisherman Sheldon Dixon, a fisherman, said that sludge "collects on the beaches on Brier Island. "It's killed the dulse (algae) - you can't eat it - it's killed the Irish moss and it's killed the periwinkles."

New Zealand recently announced the end of a 10-year moratorium on aquaculture along the shores of Marlborough Sounds, a popular tourist destination. The New Zealand King Salmon Company has since applied to create more fish farms in the area to double its output to 15,000 tons by 2015.

Peter Beech, founder of the environmental group "Guardians of the Sounds", believes New Zealand is set to follow the environmentally damaging footsteps of Chile (more info) and Scotland (more info) if the fish farms are built.

"As soon as they start to farm intensively, they'll get diseased, you mark my words, just like they have in every other country in the world."

Overall, fish farms appear to be different from factory farms only in the sense that one is in the water and the other is on land. Ethics, effects on human health, and damage to the environment, all seem to remain the same.

Jonathan Reynolds
Jonathan is a freelance writer and blogger residing in upstate New York.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/lwr