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Beyond Salmon

March 18, 2009

ResearchBlogging.orgsouthernfriedsquareI 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.


Collapsed taxa (population decline to 10% pre-fishing population) are circles. Extinct taxa are triangles.

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.

kb_logoNow 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.

You can go here and find all of Kona Blues water quality monitoring data, site descriptions, nitrogen, ammonia, nitrate measurements, going all the way back to 2005. I like to see that. I really do.

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

14 Comments leave one →
  1. whysharksmatter permalink*
    March 18, 2009 11:39 pm

    “If we are going to continue to eat fish, and it’s impractical to think that we won’t”

    Clearly you’re not taking into account PETA’s awesome new “Sea Kitten” campaign, which will stop everyone in the world from eating fish.

    Seriously though, you raise a lot of excellent points. Other countries are already using aquaculture. If we don’t, we will be behind. We’re not helping the environment by not farming fish because other people are already doing it.

  2. March 19, 2009 7:12 am

    What about the farming of abalone in SA? That counts as mariculture right? I know of a few farms that are busy with research and trials for farming with fish, but how far along the projects are I can’t say, because I’ve moved out of those circles…

  3. March 19, 2009 12:05 pm

    I actually read something recently about new technology seeking to make efficient self-cycling semi-saltwater systems that could be used to farm species like salmon far from where they can cause this kind of ecological disturbance. Something about the wastes being used as fertilizer, too, so it’s super efficient… it was interesting. It makes me think that in 50 years we’ll be able to farm animals efficiently in tanks in the middle of nowhere, providing affordable and ecologically responsible seafood.

    It might just be hope, though.

    • March 19, 2009 12:54 pm

      They’re doing that kind of work here in Charleston with shrimp aquaculture. The hope is exactly what you’re describing- to be able to grow food far from the oceans in a way that generates no net waste to the oceans. There has been some success but the project is relatively new.

      • March 20, 2009 5:55 am

        There was an operation in Florida, I had high hopes for, not sure what’s happened to it. Growing large shrimp inland with recirculated water and waste reclamation system. I wish I could remember the name of it…

  4. March 19, 2009 12:47 pm

    thanks for the plug, andrew… i did want to relay my impressions of some of the backlash that kona blue is apparently receiving from local kailua-kona folk as a result of their aquaculture venture…

    during a presentation to a roomful of locals, i mentioned how the kona kampachi is a true success story… this went over as well as a fart in a submarine… not a single local would admit any positive aspects of the kona blue efforts… i heard about how the fish pens are changing tiger shark behavior (several pens have been destroyed by overly ambitious tiger’s), or how the pens are a hazard to spinner dolphin populations, or how the nutrients sinking into deep water or possibly affecting nearshore are “absolutely terrible”…

    when i countered that i haven’t actually seen any empirical evidence supporting these claims, the crowd still wouldn’t budge in their sentiments… locals were also quick to point how that kona blue had yet to turn a profit…

    having my own experience base of the challenges and frustrations of bringing a new way of thinking to hawaii, i have my own suspicions as to the origins of this sociological response… but it would be a shame if kona blue failed for no better reasons than lack of local support for a sustainable effort….

    • March 19, 2009 1:09 pm

      Rick, a Native Hawaiian classmate of mine is working on the feasibility of restoring the traditional HI fishponds. Apparently the Polynesians perfected sustainable polyculture thousands of years ago. From your experience, do you think this approach might be more acceptable in modern HI?

      • March 19, 2009 2:17 pm

        the local backlash to kona blue i experienced came from haole locals, so i’m not sure what the indigenous hawaiian perspective is…

        i’m not surprised over the local controversy since probably the most contentious issue in resource management in hawaii has to do with fishing… there’s a lot of tension between traditional fishing rights, uneasy relationships between indigenous hawaiians and non-indig folk, issues over access, and the general lack of management of fishing by the state of hawaii… it’s an extremely volatile issue… i heard word of new regulations in the pipeline (gear limitations, bag limits, etc) but i suspect it will be be met with resistance…

        traditional fishponds may very well be an easier sell, particularly if it supported polyculture… right now, there’s the kona blue kampachi farming separate from the local pâua (abalone) farming separate from the limu (seaweed) farming… sure seems like some of these species can be grown in concert…

      • March 20, 2009 5:52 am

        There was some work in Ensenada to do a similar multi-culture on the Tuna operations there, seaweed on the cages and in the same bays, abalone and using the waste from processed seaweed as feed for small abalone as well. For me, well managed mariculture is a good thing, but even better is to complete the lifecycle and be able to remove the capture of the initial stocks, except small amounts year to year as seeding stock. I would love to see the traditional aquaculture ponds return, just as there has been an effort to return them in parts of SE Asia recently.

  5. March 19, 2009 1:02 pm

    Wow, strange coincidence – I just went to a talk on a proposed open-ocean striped bass mariculture off San Diego last night. Their arguments were near identical to yours – demand for fish is rising and exporting environmental damage to other countries is not the way to go. They claim that a) they can use waste from local fisheries to feed their farmed fish and thus increase efficiency and b) they will be farming offshore at low densities to minimize disease. Striped bass are not a native Pacific species, but they are already introduced here. They also said they would be doing open-source fish farming – like in HI, they’d post their environmental quality data. I think I’m willing to give their pilot project a go and see if it is everything they claim. Cause like you say, the sea kittens have got to come from somewhere.

    Another potential angle that I’d like to see explored is polyculture – where rings of complementary species are raised so that there’s minimal waste export. For example, raising edible seaweed, abalone, and mussels together so that the abalone graze the seaweed and the mussels eat the suspended abalone waste.

  6. March 19, 2009 1:30 pm

    Excellent and incredibly enlightening articles as always, Andrew.

    This is a little off the “marine” subject, but you asked the question whether farm-raised catfish are bad. As an avid catfish consumer, this is a question I’d really like to have answered.

    I grew up eating “farm pond” catfish (i.e. ponds on cattle pastures that naturally harbor catfish – mostly thanks to flooding and runoff, and some stocking) in rural Texas and Arkansas. I’ve also visited and eaten from similar ponds dedicated to mass farming of catfish. My recently decease grandpa raised tons of his own catfish, albeit his pond also had crappie, bluegill, and bass (mmm…giant fish frys all the time).

    I can definitely see that the remoteness and isolation of these farms could be a major advantage. But I don’t know anything about potential contamination issues, fertilizer runoff, components of the catfish feed, etc.

    Does anyone have any informed knowledge of catfish aquaculture as it’s practiced today?

  7. Damien Cie permalink
    March 19, 2009 4:48 pm

    Aloha Rick,

    I am the friend Miriam mentioned and am currently working on the effects of artisanal aquaculture in HI. Native Hawaiians developed the first known mariculture almost 2000 years ago with tremendous success. They approached it in two ways: 1) they established an integrated system “ahuapua” that interconnected ponds from the mountains to the shoreline. This allowed them to raise various types of fish, invertebrates and algae with very little to no external input (i.e. fertilizer/feed). 2) They used species that were low on the trophic scale, for example moi or milkfish which are primarily herbivorous. As you mentioned in you article addressing the trophic issue can have a huge effect on effluent levels. I hope to learn from these historical techniques in order to address current concerns regarding aquaculture. Keep up the great commentary and Mahalo!


  8. Zach permalink
    April 20, 2009 6:18 pm

    I really liked this article. Similar to what Damien Che wrote, I don’t think the answer lies in eliminating fish from our diet altogether, but instead restructuring our current fish production methods to be more in line with the environment and I think research in this area would benefit both our species and others as well.


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    The Southern Fried Scientist

    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


    David is a graduate student in South Carolina studying shark conservation. He is the author of the upcoming book “Why Sharks Matter: Using New Environmentalism to Show The Economic And Ecological Importance of Sharks, The Threats They Face, and How You Can Help”. His time is divided between educating the public about sharks, spending days at a time at sea playing with sharks, and eating horribly unhealthy foods. Follow him on Twitter @WhySharksMatter.

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