Reversing aquaculture’s bad reputation

Date: November 2, 2010

Reversing aquaculture’s bad rap.

02 November, 2010

By Nicki Holmyard, SeafoodSource contributing editor. SeafoodSource's website:

 - What is it about farmed seafood that raises so many irrational judgements? Around half of the world’s seafood supply now comes from aquaculture, yet we are still remarkably ambivalent about it as a source of critically important food and an increasingly important part of the global food trade.

Carnivorous fish such as salmon and a growing list of up-and-coming species account for the brunt of this criticism. But how much of it is fair or rational? Many of the opinions, decisions and regulations are based on woolly thinking, bad science, vested interests and political pressure.

Take the feed issue. The opinion in Western society, led by environmental NGOs, is that it is somehow wrong to feed fishmeal to fish to produce human food, yet it is fine to feed it to pigs, poultry, dairy animals and pets. All of these animals can get by perfectly well without it, but carnivorous fish need it if they are to pass on the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids to humans. Organizations such as Oceans 2012 and the Pew Charitable Trusts say the answer is to eat less fish, but this contradicts the opinion of virtually every nutritionist, which is that the Western diet is too short on seafood.

The perceived environmental impact of fish cages also brings out irrational arguments. Yes, there are local impacts on the seabed beneath and around fish cages due to organic fallout, but a glance at the gateway of a field of cattle will show a similarly anoxic area. If fish cages are removed, the seabed returns to its natural state after a few years, but it takes generations for a field to return to the natural prairie or woodland that it once was. In the United States, there is strong resistance to the creation of fish farms in federal offshore waters. Yet despite recent events in the Gulf of Mexico, there is little concern about the thousands of offshore oil installations.

People are rightfully concerned about the various medicines that have been used in fish culture over the years, which include organophosphates, antihelmitics and synthetic permethrins. However, all of these are routinely used in meat production and also on our children and pets for the treatment of intestinal worms and head lice.

Proposals for genetically modified fish always gain headlines about “Frankenfish,” but a large portion of the world’s maize and soy bean production is genetically modified.

Fingers are pointed at developing countries who convert large coastal areas from mangrove for finfish and shrimp production. Has the developed world not converted nearly all of its own swamp, salt flat, prairie and forest into intensive agriculture and urban sprawl? We are told that we should not import seafood from these countries, yet we are content to buy their coffee, tea, sugar, spices, fruit and palm oil without a thought to the effect they have had on the landscape.

Western consumers could do far more to prevent large-scale coastal degradation by paying a realistic price for goods from the developing world and allowing them to make realistic profits. Instead, we demand cheap commodities and we put up trade barriers that make it more expensive for them to export to us.

We are also quite capable of growing much more of our own sustainable seafood in the form of large-scale integrated multi-trophic aquaculture producing finfish, shellfish and seaweeds. However, this would require public acceptance of a change in visual amenity to the seascape, so instead we remain content to export these decisions abroad — out of sight, out of mind.

I pose these questions and inconsistencies with no answers of my own, other than the fact that opinions and decisions need to be based on more rational thought, good science and realism.

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