I just got out of a seminar given by Neil Sims, president and co-founder of Kona Blue Water Farms, a mariculture operation out of Hawaii. I’ve always been torn on aquaculture and mariculture. On one hand, there are many examples of environmental nightmares in aquaculture. Farmed salmon is the most prominent, but this Time article highlights a few other concerns.
Farm raised salmon has been a disaster. Floating cages close to shore release huge amounts of organic waste that foul the surrounding waters. Monoculture stocks lead to rapid increases in disease, which is not contained by the cages and spreads into native populations. Escaped salmon, bred to grow faster and reproduce more, drown out the genetic variability of wild stocks, making entire populations less adaptable to environmental stress – exactly what these salmon cages add to the system.
But there is another story. The story of what happens when a hunter/gatherer system, like fishing, become industrialized. The graph above (from Worm et al.) is the nightmare scenario, in progress. Wild fish stocks dropping to almost nothing. The circles are number of taxa that have collapsed, the y-axis is inverted to make it clear that this a decline. It is not the number of fish, or fish biomass, or catch-per-unit effort. It is the number of fish species that have declined to such a point (10% population at 1900) that the fishery is functionally extinct. Many of these are still being fished. If this trend continues, than 100% of currently active fisheries will have collapsed by 2048.
If we are going to continue to eat fish, and it’s impractical to think that we won’t, we have to start farming fish . There simply isn’t another option.
Currently, the USA imports 80% of the seafood it consumes. Of that 80%, 50% is farmed raised. The question becomes, ‘would you rather import farmed raised fish, often from countries that do not have tight environmental regulations, or raise them here, where we have decent environmental regulations and can reduce the impact of shipping a product halfway around the world’?
For me, obviously, that question became much easier to answer in the last few months, with the confirmation of marine science, policy, and conservation superstar, Jane Lubchenco, as director of NOAA. But that raises an even more interesting side questions: should federal regulation of fish farms occur through NOAA or the Department of Agriculture?
There is currently a stigma, not undeserved, against fish farming in the US. Salmon set the standard, and that standard is not good. Environmentalist shy away from fish farming, because we have seen the harm it can do. It’s a hot button issue and its successes and failures have left the public, and especially the consumer, confused. Farmed salmon or wild caught? Is farmed catfish bad like salmon? What about tilapia? Farm raised shrimp is good, right? Wait, what if it’s from Tailand?
Is aquaculture worse than a total fisheries collapse by 2048?
Neil Sims main point was that we have to move beyond the salmon paradigm. Yes, farmed salmon is bad, but, and this is a major hurdle that has to be overcome when talking about seafood, not all fish are the same. Salmon are anadramous fish with a delicate life history and a rather unique reproductive cycle. To look at marine aquaculture (mariculture) the same way we look at salmon farms is a mistake. That’s not to say you can’t learn from the failures of salmon farms, there just happens to be a bigger story to tell.
Now we get to the point where I talk about a company I think is doing right by the ocean. Kona Blue Water Farms is a mariculture operation based out of Hawaii that rears the kona kampachi, or, in the rebranded language of seafood coniseurs, Hawaiin yellowtail. The fish, itself, is very tasty. Beyond it’s flavor, the kona kampachi (Seriola rivoliana) is a circumtropical deep water Perciforme that is not commercially fished. It is easy to rear and fast growing. Rick MacPherson has an excellent report on the deliciousness of kona kampachi.
Now, if you’ve read this blog for a while, you know the one thing I respect beyond anything else, beyond politics, personal beliefs, commercial appeal, or even good science, is transparency. Because, no matter what your arguments, propaganda, ethics, or actions are, if you’re transparent in what you do, I have the ability to go back and check your process. Being transparent means there’s no wall, no obscure donor list, no backroom politics, to hide behind.
Beyond that, they are working towards more efficient fish rearing. One of the major issues with aquaculture is that you have to put fish in to get fish out. Big fish eat little fish, and really big fish eat way more than their mass in little fish. One of Kona’s goals is to reduce the ratio of fish in to fish out to 1:1. They’re doing this by tailoring specific diets, using soy and corn products, along with waste meat from poultry and other fish species. And eating down the food chain is good. I’d rather put my ecosystem stress on sardines – a much more robust and sustainable population (just watch Taichi’s El Nino videos) – than on mid- and high-trophic level predators.
So, I think aquaculture has a wasys to go. But I think that some companies are getting it right. There’s huge room more improvement and innovation, but nothing will change if you don’t come to the table. In the Q and A, one of the questions ask was “What grade would the US get for aquaculture management?” Neil Sims answer was “I don’t know about the US’s education system, but where I’m from we have the grade DS, for did not show up.”
We have to do better than that.
~Southern Fried Scientist
Other sources to read:
Sibert, J., Hampton, J., Kleiber, P., & Maunder, M. (2006). Biomass, Size, and Trophic Status of Top Predators in the Pacific Ocean Science, 314 (5806), 1773-1776 DOI: 10.1126/science.1135347
Worm, B., Barbier, E., Beaumont, N., Duffy, J., Folke, C., Halpern, B., Jackson, J., Lotze, H., Micheli, F., Palumbi, S., Sala, E., Selkoe, K., Stachowicz, J., & Watson, R. (2006). Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services Science, 314 (5800), 787-790 DOI: 10.1126/science.1132294