By Ret Talbot
Well here’s a headline I never thought I’d write: “Celebrating Previously Frozen Farmed Fish.” But I just did, and now I need to explain myself.
I live in Maine, a state where it’s not infrequent to see the bumper sticker “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon.” While I don’t take part in the categorical demonizing of the fish farming industry, I admit I personally tend to avoid farmed fish when presented with a choice. In part I don’t choose farmed fish because I live within a stone’s throw of the Gulf of Maine. I’m fortunate to have access to incredibly fresh seafood, the purchase of which puts money directly back into my community. For me, that’s an ethos that’s hard to beat.
What can I do for farmed fish?
After attending an aquaculture panel at the Seafood Expo North America (SENA15), however, I feel inspired to do more than simply pride myself on not demonizing farmed fish. In the same way Peter Tyedmers of the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University and Michael Tlusty of the New England Aquarium inspired me last year at SENA14 to celebrate “previously frozen” fish, in the upcoming year, I am now feeling inspired to celebrate finfish aquaculture. In the coming months, I think I need to talk more about why aquaculture is essential to the seafood industry of the future, and I probably need to go so far as actually eating some (previously frozen) farmed fish!
“There has been a concerted campaign for many years to de-market farmed fish,” Neil Sims, co-founder and CEO of Kampachi Farms, said at the pane discussion at SENA15. “I think it’s time to undo it, and we need to consider how to do that.” The session was titled “2 Billion People are Coming to Dinner, Let’s Feed them Fish!” and was moderated by Scott Nichols, director of Verlasso Harmoniously Raised Fish. In addition to Sims, Josh Goldman, co-founder and CEO of Australis Aquacutlure, was also on the panel.
The science behind farmed fish
“There has been an accumulation over the last 10 years of some really compelling science that says that we need to be increasing the amount of aquaculture that we are doing in a significant manner,” Sims told the audience. Sims broke the science into three groups: consumer health, ocean health and global health.
When it comes to consumer health, Sims pointed to a 2006 paper by Mozaffarian and Rimm, which found that eating twice as much oily fish could lead to a 35 percent reduction in death secondary to heart disease in the U.S. Further, Sims said, “If Americans would double their consumption of oily fish, there would be a 17 percent reduction in overall mortality. That’s got to be up there with seat belts and smoking in terms of a public health initiative.” In short, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently advised, Americans should eat more seafood for its health benefits.
When it comes to ocean health, a significantly larger population eating significantly more fish presents a major problem. Sims cited Myers’ and Worm’s landmark 2003 analysis that concluded, “Large predatory fish biomass today is only about 10 percent of pre-industrial levels.” In addition, Sims cited Worm et al’s controversial 2006 paper that projected global fish stock collapse by 2048. Even if we take issue with the projections outlined in these two papers, there is still general consensus that we can’t significantly increase wild fish harvest as a means of meeting a growing global population. In other words, finding another source of fish -– “the best protein we can put into our bodies,” according to Ricard Stavis, president and CEO of Stavis Seafoods -– is essential for ocean health.
Of course these is still the question of whether or not aquaculture itself harms ocean health, but Sims pointed to two recent papers that show minimal to no negative effects when fish farming is done right (Price and Morris, 2013 and Rust et al, 2014). “Price and Morris concluded that if the water is at least twice as deep as your net pen, and you’re in at least a quarter of a knot of current, then you’re going to have no significant impact on the environment 30 meters or more away from your net pen,” said Sims. “Often they’ll be no measurable impact at all.”
Finally, in terms of global health, Sims directed us to the comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of the world’s major aquaculture production systems and species released by WorldFish Center and Conservation International. “Aquaculture,” the 2012 report stated, “is the least impactful of all animal proteins.”
Wrapping it up, Sims said, “The science is very, very compelling. It’s indisputable. We should commit these references, these citations, to memory so that we can roll these out at every dinner party or every conversation that we have about why we need to be expanding aquaculture.”
Of course Sims works in aquaculture, so he has a vested interest in promoting it. Nonetheless the science is compelling. A lot has indeed changed since the early days of the “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon” movement. The data increasingly support Sims’ narrative. Of course not all aquaculture is created equal, and outfits like Kampachi Farms, Verlasso Harmoniously Raised Fish and Australis Aquacutlure represent the gold standard and are not representative of aquaculture as a whole. Nonetheless, the fact that problems with aquaculture remain is not justification for categorically demonizing all farmed fish in the same way that the fact that there are problematic wild harvest fisheries doesn’t justify forsaking all wild fish.
There is much work to be done when it comes to both farmed and wild fishes, and I think the future will rely on a combination of the best of both worlds. I look forward to covering food fish aquaculture more in the coming year, and I’m also committing to supporting sustainable aquaculture with my own purchasing decisions.
Image credit: Kampachi Farms
Ret Talbot is an award-winning freelance science writer and photojournalist with nearly 20 years of experience covering stories from some of the more remote corners of the globe. From the icy summits of the Andes to the reefs of Papua New Guinea, his assignments have taken him off the beaten track and put his readers face-to-face with stories of adventure, new ideas and innovative approaches to commonplace issues. His current work focuses on the intersection of fisheries, science and sustainability.