Not so long ago Julia Jensen almost had to leave her home in Newfoundland to find work in the fishing industry. Generations of Newfoundlanders could trace their fishing heritage back to the 16th century. It all came crashing down when efficient factory trawlers depleted stocks so quickly the species may never recover.
She might have become one of Canada’s economic migrants, commuting across the continent, between home and oil patch or mine. Instead she found steady work with Cooke Aquaculture. Jensen is employed in an industry that generates nearly $1 billion in the U.S. and over $800 million in Canada.
Time’s Brian Walsh makes compelling case for aquaculture
Aquaculture’s explosive growth comes at a time when the era of wild fish is heading to its end. In “The Future of Fish,” Brian Walsh’s cover story for Time’s July 7, 2011, issue, Brian Walsh says fish farming dates back to Chinese fishponds 4,000 years ago. “But it’s only in the past 50 years that aquaculture has become a true industry. Global aquacultural production increased from less than 1 million tons in 1950 to 52.5 million tons in 2008, and over the past few decades, aquaculture has grown faster than any other form of food production.”
Increased population is only part of the rising demand for fish. People have paid attention to advice to eat more fish, bringing consumption “from 22 lb. per person per year in the 1960s to nearly 38 lb. today.” With half of that already coming from farmed stocks, the pressure to expand aquaculture is increasing.
Environment, health and farmed fish
The downside is the cost to the environment. Walsh cites disease spread into wild salmon stocks by Canada’s fish farms, destruction of Thailand’s mangrove forests, pollution from fish waste and the contents of fish meal. “By one count, about 2 lb. of wild fish ground up to make fish meal is needed on average to produce 1 lb. of farmed fish, which leaves the ocean at a net loss.”
The problems do not stop there. Wild fish are packed with more nutritional value than their farmed cousins. Imported fish may be be contaminated with antibiotics and other drugs needed to keep overcrowded stocks healthy.
The hopeful news is that modern aquaculture is addressing those issues. World Wildlife Foundation is one of the organizations working with the industry to institute standards that will make aquaculture sustainable. Walsh also reports on the integrated multitrophic aquaculture (IMTA) system developed by University of New Brunswick biologist, Thierry Chopin. The closed-loop system results in “more biomass and less waste — just as nature intended.”
Hungry fish and a hungry planet
Unfortunately, as Walsh points out, aquaculture started with the fish people want to eat. Salmon and sea bass “are high on the food chain, and raising them on a farm is a bit like trying to domestic tigers.” Josh Goldman of Australia’s Australis Aquaculture found one good solution: barramundi. Scientists have found others, and that’s run some red flags up the pole.
One of the companies genetically modifying fish is AquaBounty Technologies. Using AquAdvantage® technology developed at the University of Toronto and Memorial University of Newfoundland, they have come up with a genetically modified salmon that grows faster on less feed. Whether the speeded-up fish is a boost to production or a Frankenfish depends on more than viewpoint. Impact on human health and on wild stocks, should the GM salmon escape, are wild cards.
Still, people have to be fed, and that means exploring every possible avenue to supply adequate nutrition to a planet already home to 7 billion people. While warning of the dangers, Walsh builds a compelling and well reasoned case for aquaculture’s role in feeding a hungry planet.
Photo used by permission of Time, Inc.