News from the sea abound on this National Oceans Month!
First off, you may be pleased to know that the U.S. House of Representatives voted this week to prohibit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from approving genetically modified (GM) salmon for human consumption. The measure was introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, as an amendment to an agriculture-spending bill after FDA scientists determined last September that the GM salmon developed by Waltham, Mass., biotechnology firm AquaBounty Technologies, called AquAdvantage Salmon, is safe for human consumption. (An FDA advisory committee has since determined that more research is needed.)
“Frankenfish is uncertain and unnecessary,” said Young in a press release. “Any approval of genetically modified salmon could seriously threaten wild salmon populations as they grow twice as fast and require much more food. Frankenfish is bad policy all around. I eat Alaskan wild salmon and I support Alaskan wild salmon and I will not allow these fake fish to affect our healthy stocks.” The Senate still has to weigh in.
The latest turn of events in the GM-salmon saga came about less than a week after U.S. aquaculture received an official boost from the Obama Administration. Its new guidelines are designed to stimulate open ocean aquaculture (OOA) or the development of fish farms in federal water–the strip of open ocean that stretches between 3 and 200 miles off the coast of the United States, outside of states’ jurisdictions.
“Encouraging and developing the US ($1-billion) aquaculture industry will result in economic growth and create jobs at home, support exports to global markets, and spur new innovations in technology to support the industry,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.
The zone that is targeted in priority by the new policy? The Gulf of Mexico.
If Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska–him again–gets his way, however, fish farming in U.S. ocean waters will remain under the sole authority of states. “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, neither the Secretary of the Interior nor the Secretary of Commerce may issue any permit or in any other way authorize any person to conduct commercial finfish aquaculture operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the United States (as established by Proclamation Numbered 5030, dated March 10, 1983), except in accordance with a law authorizing such action that is enacted after the date of the enactment of this Act,” states his bill H.R. 574.
“USDA is asking us to eat twice as much seafood. Where is that going to come from?” said Michael Rubino, the director of the aquaculture program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service.
The domestic aquaculture industry (both freshwater and marine) currently supplies about 5 per cent of the seafood consumed in the US (see chart above). Current production takes place on land, in ponds and in states’ coastal waters—within 3 miles of the coast. The U.S., which exported 2.5 billion pounds of seafood in 2009, valued at close to $4 billion, imports 84 percent of its seafood at the cost of a 9-billion-dollar trade deficit. Half of these imports come from fish farms around the world (see table below).
Ironically enough, the plan to expand domestic aquaculture comes in the wake of a Government Accountability Office report released last April that found serious gaps in the government’s oversight of imported seafood. “Seafood containing residues of drugs not approved for use in the United States may be entering U.S. commerce,” states GAO in the report. “FDA’s sampling program is ineffectively implemented. For example, for fiscal years 2006 through 2009, FDA missed its assignment plan goal for collecting import samples by about 30 percent.” The report also noted that in 2009 FDA only tested about 0.1 percent of all imported seafood products for drug residues.
Cutting America’s seafood imports and easing fishing pressures on wild stocks have been underlined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service as the driving factors behind the new guidelines.
About 32 percent of world fish stocks are estimated to be overexploited, depleted or recovering and need to be urgently rebuilt, according to the State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture report published last January by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). At the same time, people around the world have never eaten as much seafood as they do today, to the pace of about 17 kg (37.5 pounds) per person per year on average, supplying over three billion people with at least 15 percent of their average animal protein intake, according to the FAO report.
Consequently, aquaculture is one of the fastest growing food production sectors in the world, and accounts today for about half of the seafood consumed worldwide. It has grown at an average annual rate of 8.4 percent since 1970, becoming a $70 billion industry. China and the rest of Asia hold 91 percent of the market while North America accounts for just 1.9 percent, according to “Blue Frontiers: Managing the environmental costs of aquaculture,” a report released this week by WorldFish Center and Conservation International at the ASEAN SEAFDEC Conference (Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center) in Bangkok (see table below).
The new U.S. guidelines have been in the works for 18 months and will take another year to finalize. They include:
developing a National Shellfish Initiative in partnership with the shellfish industry to increase commercial production of shellfish.
implementing the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Plan for Aquaculture, which includes the regulatory infrastructure needed for offshore aquaculture development in the Gulf (the move comes a year after the devastating Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill that severely impacted the local seafood economy).
Already, the guidelines have drawn a stream of criticism from environmental groups. Touted as an alternative to depleting wild fisheries, aquaculture–and open ocean aquaculture especially–comes with its set of challenges. Environmentalists point to inefficiencies (raising 1 kilo of salmon, a carnivorous fish, requires between 2 and 4 kilos of wild-caught fish). They also stress that high density in fish farms is conducive to the spread of diseases (bacterial infections and health problems which prompt the use of antibiotics and other drugs), a problem that is compounded by the frequent occurrence of fish escaping into the wild and potentially contaminating wild stocks.
“Industrial ocean fish farming is a filthy way to produce fish, and contrary to NOAA’s claims, it is not a sustainable means to supplement the U.S. seafood supply, protect ocean resources, or promote a healthy economy in the United States,” wrote Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Washington, DC-based Food & Water Watch, who also criticized the plans to allow “factory fish farms” in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The Gulf has already been battered by the oil industry–the last thing we need is enormous ocean fish farms that can and do spread disease, allow for millions of fish to escape, kill off wild populations, jeopardize the tourism industry, and further destroy the livelihood of local fishermen,” said Hauter. Food & Water watch estimates that as many as 8.6 million farmed fish could escape unreported each year under the new proposal. And if the new development goals are met, the seafood facilities could generate waste “equal to the untreated sewage of about 17.1 million people.”
Aquaculture still remains an attractive option, however, including in the eye of some environmentalists. The key will be to set up the right policies and regulations to mitigate, even eliminate, its damaging impact on the environment.
“There are a number of well-founded concerns about aquaculture, in terms of its impacts on marine ecosystems and wild fisheries,” said Sebastian Troëng, Conservation International’s vice president for marine conservation. “But with global fisheries reaching alarming and unprecedented levels of depletion, fish cultivation versus wild fish capture has to be considered.”
As aquaculture stands now, mussels, oysters, clams and seaweed have the smallest environmental impact, according to the “Blue Frontiers” report. Raising eel, salmon, shrimp and prawns has the biggest impact because of the energy and amount of fish feed required to produce them.
Seemingly, no solution is to be expected (in the U.S. nor Europe where public opinion is staunchly anti-GMO) from GM-salmon–at least not anytime soon. Meanwhile, research on farmed salmon in under way in Norway (where 33 percent of the world’s farmed salmon is produced) to shift fish feed to vegetarian alternatives. Better yet, aquaculturists, business people and policy makers around the world may want to take a page out of the book of Veta la Palma, a fish farm in southern Spain that has been imitating natural processes with commercial success. I leave you with its inspiring story, as told by chef Dan Barber.
Image: Photo by Derek Keats