06 July 2011

Junk journalism: New York Times story overlooks fish farming's dark side

A shoddy story in the New York Times extols the wonders of fish farming in the desert, without devoting a single sentence to the other side of this controversial issue.

In what sounds more like a press release for caviar companies than a news article, "journalist" Angela Shah gushes that the fish in question (sturgeon) are "coddled" in "five-star luxury" at a "$120 million indoor farm."

Readers are apparently supposed to be impressed by all the high-tech gadgetry. One facility in Abu Dhabi, we're told, features a state-of-the art computer that monitors water temperature (ooooh), a fancy "triple filtration" recirculating system (aaaah), and even a "food robot" that dispenses meals to the finned clientele (someone restrain me). Evidently, these farms "pamper the fish" in so much luxury that the "conditions" there are "even better" than those in the sturgeons' native home, the Caspian Sea.

Say what?

Not only is it weird to see this kind of anthropomorphic writing in a newspaper's business section, where the article first appeared, but it's not even accurate anthropomorphism. If we're to take Shah's metaphor to its logical conclusion, she's saying that a person living in a bad neighborhood (mine, for instance) would be happier in a clean jail cell, with three square meals a day and a working air conditioner. Oddly enough, there aren't throngs of people from my community clamoring to get into prison. And unless Shah possesses "fish whisperer" powers not indicated on her resume, I doubt she has proof that the sturgeon prefer captivity in Middle Eastern fish tanks to a free life in the world's largest inland body of water. (Maybe the Times' fact-checker called in sick the day this story was submitted?)

Fish farming (also known as aquaculture) follows the same inhumane industrial model that confines land animals like cows, chickens, and pigs in enormous, mechanized feeding operations. The harm factory farming inflicts on the environment, human health, the economy and, of course, the animals is well-documented.

Here are some facts about fish farming that Shah's article conspicuously ignores:

In the case of the sturgeon who are the subject of the story, they are highly migratory animals. For example, Black Sea sturgeon will migrate over 1,200 miles (2,000 kms) to Germany, upstream. A new study of New York Hudson River sturgeon discovered that they move vast distances in the Atlantic Ocean, traveling as far south as Georgia and as far north as Nova Scotia, Canada.

How does it impact an animal whose natural instinct is to annually migrate thousands of miles to be confined in a tank? What does it mean for an animal who's evolved in the rich diversity of the world's seas and oceans to find itself in a sterile environment crammed tail to snout with thousands of others of its own kind?

Sure, it doesn't have to forage for food anymore—but neither do convicts in penitentiaries. And about that food? The New York Times doesn't say a word about the fact that sturgeon are 100% carnivorous. In the wild, they forage for clams, eels, shrimp, and other fish. In the tank, it's a robot dumping dry pellets into the water. Yum.

Even if you aren't bothered by the way farmed fish are denied their most basic natural activities and behaviors, there's a huge environmental cost to fish farming as well. Because in order to create those dry pellets to feed the captive sturgeon, an enormous amount of fish and other marine life must be caught and ground up. Fish farms, regardless of their location, are notorious squanderers of resources—it can take up to 5 pounds of wild-caught fish to produce just 1 pound of farmed fish. Of course in the case of the farms profiled in this article, the sturgeon aren't even being grown primarily for their flesh. (I guess sturgeon fish 'n' chips isn't a popular menu item). Rather, all this effort is being made to produce something the world really needs: caviar. (Which is just a highfalutin name for sturgeon eggs.)

Farmed fish are kept in unnaturally high densities. To keep them from dying, their feed is often laced with powerful chemicals and antibiotics to help them survive the crowding. What's going into the feed of the desert-farmed sturgeon? We don't know, because the New York Times never thought to ask. Studies of farmed fish have found that PCB and dioxin contamination levels may be as much as seven times higher than the already-dangerous levels found in their wild counterparts. Is this the case of the farmed caviar? Again, the Times is mute.

What the Times does address is why people are willing to pay outrageous sums for caviar in the first place. Is it healthy? Nutritious? Does it make you smarter, whiten your teeth, or prevent erectile dysfunction? Not exactly. According to the story, those who purchase the "prized fish eggs" do so as a "symbol of their wealth." As the manager of a sturgeon farm in Saudi Arabia explains, people buy caviar "to show off, as a fancy and expensive food item on their tables."

So, in order to satisfy some people's compulsion to display how loaded they are, this amazing 200-million-year-old species with a 100-year lifespan is now being condemned to the same appalling conditions foisted on factory farmed land animals? Now, that's rich.

Elizabeth Gordon | Facebook
Elizabeth is an Asian-Appalachian writer, activist, and college professor living in north central Massachusetts. Once an avowed carnivore, she was a vegetarian for 15 years before making the conversion to veganism. She is passionate about trying to live a life that lessens, rather than contributes to, the amount of cruelty and suffering in this world. Follow Elizabeth on her Vegosphere blog and Facebook page.

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