Experts say Fish Farming
by Don Thompson, Associated Press
SACRAMENTO -- Thirty years ago, what was thought to be the ocean's inexhaustible bounty was held out as the potential source of cheap protein to feed a growing, hungry world.
The federal government poured subsidies into commercial fleets, which used new boats and technologies to produce record seafood hauls.
But the dream collapsed along with much of the ocean's fish populations. Now fish farming, known as aquaculture, is being presented as a means to replace artificially much of the lost fish and relieve pressure on natural stocks.
That, too, is a fish story, warn both critics and supporters. Like most fish tales, there's something flopping on the end of the line, but the size tends to get exaggerated.
Even a critical report last month from the Washington-based SeaWeb environmental group acknowledges that fish farming "has a pivotal role to play" in feeding the world, so long as it doesn't do more harm than good.
Already, most of the salmon on people's plates is reared in giant ocean net pens, the trademark pink color artificially added. Nearly a third of the world's food fish now are farmed, an industry that quadrupled in size between 1985 and 2000.
Yet, "the only people who ever thought aquaculture was going to be a panacea have a poor understanding of the industry," said Fred Conte, an aquaculture specialist at the University of California, Davis, Department of Animal Science.
"It's never going to replace natural fisheries; it's only going to supplement them," said Conte, a board member of the Western Regional Aquaculture Center that serves 12 Western states. "We hope it never replaces a natural fishery, because that means we lost a battle out there."
California's growing aquaculture industry produces about $10 million worth of abalone, clams, oysters and mussels a year; about $10 million worth of algae; and about $60 million worth of tilapia, catfish, carp, trout, sturgeon and caviar, and various species of bass, estimates the California Aquaculture Association.
Most of the farmed fish are pond-raised vegetarians that generate little controversy and won SeaWeb's tacit support. Not so with salmon farming, which has become the most visible, and the most criticized, example of aquaculture's potential.
The SeaWeb Aquaculture Clearinghouse study is just one of many to question environmental costs that include releasing waste into coastal waters, its extensive use of antibiotics, the impact on wild salmon populations, and using food made from wild fish to feed the captive fish.
The report, "What Price Farmed Fish," warns that similar problems could come as aquaculture expands to other ocean-raised, carnivorous such as like tuna, halibut, cod and grouper. Instead of helping halt overfishing, the report warns aquaculture could add to the problem while creating new ones.
It follows a Pew Ocean Commission report recommending a moratorium on coastal fish farming, and a report by the World Wildlife Fund and Atlantic Salmon Federation that says commercial fish farming operations are failing to protect wild Atlantic salmon.
And last week, the Environmental Working Group reported that 10 farmed salmon it bought in stores in the San Francisco area, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., contained levels of PCBs five times higher than wild salmon. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, once commonly used in electrical transformers, are thought to cause cancer and nervous system damage at high levels.
Seven of the 10 sample farmed salmon had levels high enough to warrant health warnings under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, but met looser Food and Drug Administration standards. The sample salmon were raised in Canada, Chile, Iceland, Maine and Scotland.
Salmon farming isn't practical in California, but halibut is a likely candidate as California competes to help the United States narrow an $8 billion annual trade deficit on seafood, largely in imported salmon, tuna and shrimp, said Justin Malan, executive director of the California Aquaculture Association.
He and aquaculture scientists contend the SeaWeb report breaks down when it projects problems with salmon onto the potential farming of other species. They say it oversimplifies some of the potential solutions, like requiring fish farms to use closed systems that recycle water and wastes. That would also avoid the spread of diseases and parasites, and prevent captive fish from escaping to displace or interbreed with wild populations.
"We do need to be sure we don't pollute, that we don't dabble in exotic fish, that we don't dabble in transgenic species," Malan said.
The industry supports a state ban on gene-altered fish, as well as environmental regulations. That's a blessing and a curse, Malan said: it's tougher to compete with less fastidious nations, but the industry hopes to avoid some of the accompanying criticism.
Perhaps the biggest debate is over simple math that SeaWeb Aquaculture Clearinghouse director Bill Mott says shows farming carnivorous fish "is clearly following an unsustainable path."
It takes three pounds of wild anchovies, sardines and the like to grow a pound of farmed salmon, according to the SeaWeb report. "Clearly, this is not the way for aquaculture to feed the world," said report author Michael Weber, who in the early 1990s was a special assistant to the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
That's outdated, aquaculture scientists said, because the bulk of salmon feed is now plant matter or binder, not fish protein. They argue the feed ratio is better for salmon than for chickens or pigs that also are fed fish meal, and salmon is healthier.
Still, using wild fish to feed captive fish is a problem that's prompted the industry to spend millions of dollars in a search for vegetable substitutes, with varying degrees of success.
"They're saying we've got a problem," said Ronald Hardy, a leading fish nutritionist and director of the Aquaculture Research Institute at the University of Idaho. "We know that.
We've come up with a lot of alternatives," .
Read "What Price Farmed Fish: A Review of the Environmental and Social Costs of Farming Carnivorous Fish" at www.AquacultureClearinghouse.org
Western Regional Aquaculture Center: www.fish.washington.edu/wrac
California aquaculture, University of California, Davis: aqua.ucdavis.edu
California Aquaculture Association: www.caa-aqua.org/home.htm
See the Monterey Bay Aquarium's list of seafood to favor or avoid: www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr-seafoodwatch/sfw-regional.asp
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