A Farmed Fish with a Hefty Price Tag

Elissa V.

There's a new tuna on the block, and it's causing quite a stir in culinary circles around the globe. Large, luscious and highly coveted, the Kindai Tuna's going rate is estimated at about $60 a pound. It can currently be found in the best restaurants in America, but its true selling points are its relatively low mercury count and minimal environmental impact. Kindai Tuna, 50 percent more expensive than regular tuna, is being touted as the eco-conscious piscivore's saving grace in a world of depleting wild fish.

But, any true environmentalist knows that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Such is the case with farmed fish, which is exactly what Kindai Tuna is – man-made protein with promises of a better planet. If farmed fish were really the answer to our sustainability problem, this debate would have been settled long ago. Instead, the question of quality inevitably comes into play regardless of where the farmed fish originates. Kindai, the only sustainable and farm-raised bluefin tuna being served in the United States, hails from Japan's Kinki University

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They were also the lifework of the man shoveling mackerel into the pen from the edge of a boat one recent afternoon, Hidemi Kumai, 71, the head of the fisheries laboratory at Kinki University. Mr. Kumai had spent more than three decades trying to farm the bluefin tuna – an unusually delicate fish, both physically and psychologically, prone to everything from restlessness to cannibalism – before succeeding in 2002. Two years later, he began sending it off to sushi counters in Osaka and Tokyo. – New York Times

A popular topic on Celsias, the quality of fish from aquaculture and its perceived environmental friendliness are cause for skepticism for several reasons. From the resources it takes to maintain a fish farm to the lack of biodiversity during growth to the need for antibiotics to curb disease, unnatural farming methods are often rife with quality control problems that are not easily avoided. It many parts of the world – Asia in particular – land is in short supply, and fish farms require vast amounts of space for their product. Natural forests and swamps are being cleared for production, which in coastal areas can result in erosion and flooding. Aquaculture also requires copious quantities of water that are often taken from surrounding ponds and rivers and lead to droughts. When the contaminated water from fish farms is flushed out into natural water sources, high levels of contaminants lead to oxygen depletion that in turn causes damaging growth of algae in other ecosystems. And then there is the issue of feeding the farmed fish.

Close to 40% of the seafood we eat nowadays comes from aquaculture; the $78 billion industry has grown 9% a year since 1975, making it the fastest-growing food group, and global demand has doubled since that time. Here's the catch: It takes a lot of input, in the form of other, lesser fish – also known as "reduction" or "trash" fish – to produce the kind of fish we prefer to eat directly. To create 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) of high-protein fishmeal, which is fed to farmed fish (along with fish oil, which also comes from other fish), it takes 4.5 kg (10 lbs.) of smaller pelagic, or open-ocean, fish. "Aquaculture's current heavy reliance on wild fish for feed carries substantial ecological risks," says Roz Naylor, a leading scholar on the subject at Stanford University's Center for Environmental Science and Policy. Unless the industry finds alternatives to using pelagic fish to sustain fish farms, says Naylor, the aquaculture industry could end up depleting an essential food source for many other species in the marine food chain. – Time

The lack of biodiversity in fish farms is also a concern. Healthy ecosystems require biodiversity to thrive, and frequent nutrient deficiency and/or pollution in fish farms result in the spread of disease among the fish. As a result, antibiotics are often used to curb outbreaks, which then make their way into people's diets. The cycle is continuous and worrisome as aquaculture steadily spreads worldwide. While the Kindai Tuna holds the possibility of hope for overfished and polluted oceans, the aquaculture industry must become more innovative and responsible in order to create a truly eco-friendly product. If fish farms can more accurately mimic natural ecosystems through limited resource consumption, proper waste disposal and expansion of biodiversity, perhaps then eco-conscious piscivores will have a more reliable alternative to what's currently out on the market. Until then, it's best to remain skeptical.

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Harald K. 35°

I went to a university college on the west coast of Norway, where a lot of early research on fish farming was done. I remember walking the library aisles (I worked as a library assistant when studying) and coming across old books about concepts that were rejected, such as "sea grazing" - growing fish, releasing them and relying on the fishing fleet for capturing the naturally fattened fish later.
It was claimed in one of these old books that with farmed fish, you actually got more fish out of it than you put feed in, due to the fish drawing nutrients from plankton etc. as well. This is certainly not true at today's fish densities, but it shows how much promise fish farming holds. If feed becomes a major expense, maybe fish farmers will go back to such earlier ideas.

There was, and is, no shortage of ideas. I remember how small "cleaning" species were introduced in the farms to get rid of the the salmon lice, gyrodactilus salaris, and the use of shellfish to improve conditions. Fish farming, from what I've seen, is wildly innovative, perhaps especially in the multi-species culture departement.

What is needed is funding for research, and tough environmental legislation. This legislation needs to be international as well, otherwise fish grown in recklessly intensive manner in one corner of the globe will out-compete the well-managed ones from others. To the degree that fish farming is an ecological problem today, it's for a large part just because this has happened: there are no shortage of great ideas for polycultures.

I think you are tarring all fish farming with one brush. There are plenty of farms around my hometown. They are not the ecological disasters many vegetarians claim they are, otherwise I assure you we would be complaining. They are not at all comparable to scampi farms on former mangrove forests.

Written in August 2008

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