Sustainable Seafood: Can Fish Really Be ‘Sustainably Farmed’?

Sustainable Seafood: Can Fish Really Be ‘Sustainably Farmed’?

In July 2016, UK’s giant supermarket chain Tesco announced the removal of at least 20 percent of John West tuna products from their stores. The reason? Unsustainable fishing. Immediately after the announcement, two more British supermarket chains, Waitrose and Sainsbury, also threatened to pull John West products off the shelves for the same reason.

This outcome is considered a victory for the relentless campaigning done by advocacy groups such as Greenpeace. But the fight is far from over. Tuna is considered one of the fish species under extreme pressure from unsustainable fishing practices, along with Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon, swordfish, tropical prawns, marlin, among others. The full list from Greenpeace can be found here.

This issue leads to the question — is there really such a thing as “sustainable fishing”?

According to Greenpeace, there are two methods to determine fishing sustainability:

1) by looking into the health of the population or availability of stock; and

2) by determining the method used to catch fish.

The first method is technically self-explanatory. Only fish that have healthy populations should be caught. Those which are in danger should be protected.

The second, the method of catching fish, must be responsible. In fact, the main complaint against John West was the company’s use of FADs or fish aggregation devices. FADs can take many forms, it can be buoys, or floats, or any structure, that is used with the aim of indiscriminately luring fish, even the fingerlings, endangered turtles, sharks, and such. There are also other unsustainable ways of fishing in the wild such as by bottom trawling or the use of drift nets.

Given all these, should we then stop all forms of fishing in the wild and turn to fish farming? Is fish farming more sustainable?

Fish farming, which the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines as the raising of fish for personal use or profit, is considered to be an alternative to fishing in the wild so as not to negatively impact wild stocks and protect endangered species.

Fish farming commonly referred to as aquaculture or aquafarming, is considered to be essential in meeting the global demands for fish. In fact, data indicate that more than a billion of the world’s people depend on fish for their animal protein requirements. It is estimated that by 2030, fish farming will “contribute 62 percent of all fish for human consumption.”

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of downsides to farming fish. The major ones are:

#1: Aquaculture does not lessen the impact on wild stocks.

Fish farming is presented as an alternative to fishing in the wild so as not to further deplete current fish resources. But the truth is, breeding stocks still come from the wild. Plus, (and this is really devastating) wild fish are actually used as feed in aquaculture. In a report from WWF, it was emphasized that “four kilos of wild-caught fish are needed to produce one kilo of farmed fish.” A 2015 report from The Guardian noted positive developments in the ratio of wild fish used for raising farmed fish, specifically salmon, although of course, this remains a contentious issue. Greenpeace reports that the fish meal and oils added to the feed actually come from sand eels. Their use has already resulted in negative effects on the marine ecosystem.

#2: Farmed fish pose health risks.

According to Modern Farmer, aquaculture uses lots of hormones, aquatic biocides, and antibiotics which impact the health of people who eat the fish. Data show that of all livestock in the United States, cultured salmon are given more antibiotics per pound. Aside from these, fish feed also include ingredients such as GMO soybeans and livestock waste products. Even more disturbing is that aquaculture operated in oceans can result in toxic contamination of mercury, PCBs and dioxins.

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#3: Aquaculture has devastating effects on the environment.

Fish farming is highly destructive. Columbia University reports five major environmental issues. First, it results in a lot of waste and leftover food that causes nutrient pollution. Second, stressed farmed fish are more prone to disease which can spread to those in the wild. Third, farmed fish, which escape into the ocean, can affect genetic diversity. Fourth, shrimp farming has destroyed about 38 percent of the world’s mangroves. Finally, growing feed for fish has resulted in conversions of forest lands in South America and has even impacted water resources.

Are these issues in aquaculture being addressed?

The good news is, yes they are. There are now methods in place to ensure sustainability practices in aquaculture. These include the following:

Relocating fish farms to the open sea.

Instead of confining fish farms relatively near the shore, it is being encouraged to set the farms up out in the open. Doing so will help solve the issue of waste as strong currents will be able to ensure the flushing out of waste matter. At the same time, the fish are also less stressed and grow better.

The use of technology.

There are new technologies being used to raise fish sustainably. Take for example the Aquapod or geodesic dome, which is currently being used by the Kampachi Farms in Hawaii to accommodate and grow fish.

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Adapting the use of the recirculation system.

Recirculation is the process of reusing water and using plants and microbes to remove waste and maintain the ecosystem. An example of a model in the use of a recirculation system is Denmark’s Hallenbaek Dambrug aquaculture farm which is able to recirculate 96 percent of its water. The water is filtered, the sludge is used for biogas or fertilizer, and any discarded water is treated first before it is released. This goes a long way to resolving the stress on water resources.

Of course, at this point, there is no perfect strategy and the debate around fish farming continues. There are those who totally stand against it, those who are for it, as well as those in between. For those who would like to ensure that the fish they eat is sourced from sustainable fisheries, whether from the wild or those that are farmed, it would be best to check out the websites of aquaculture and other certification bodies (who rigorously audit fish farms and other aquaculture enterprises) such as the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices Certification and Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

If you enjoy the tasty morsel of fish goodness, and keen on reducing your impact on the environment, will you make the switch to farmed fish?

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