Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fishing for Compliments: Smart, Sustainable Fish Farming

In a recent post, I mentioned controversial plans for a genetically modified farmed salmon and alluded to the complexities of these issues, which are not helped by the knee-jerk resistance to such scientific engineering, particularly when it comes (as is often the case) from people whose other statements and life choices reflect a complete absence of scientific understanding.

Obviously, any genetic modification of an organism should be undertaken only with the most careful consideration of ethics and health safety.  Above and beyond that, though, the point, for any objective and rational observer, should be not simply about "natural" versus genetically modified species, as such, and rather, about sustainability.

As chance would have it, recent news stories provide fine evidence of why the genetically modified salmon is unnecessary and undesirable and why there are better alternatives. They were all the more welcome because they involved a local entrepreneur, friend, and Hampshire College alumnus, Josh Goldman. 

As environmentalists have long argued, world fish populations have reached a crisis state, solely because of rapacious, irresponsible human actions. A year ago, writing in The New Republic, Daniel Pauly, Professor at the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia and principal investigator of the Sea Around Us Project, offered a dire warning of "Aquacalypse Now:  The end of fish." The oceans, he said, "have been the victims of a giant Ponzi scheme," as we run through one population after another, pretending that the total supply will not be exhausted.  Industrialized fishing first depleted the great, classic northern fish stocks, which had fed us for centuries, and then moved on to the third world, deeper waters, and species previously regarded as inedible. Nothing a little name change wouldn't fix, in the latter case. Would you still shell out those facny-restaurant prices if you knew that the Orange Roughy and Chilean Sea Bass were originally called the Slimehead and Patagonian Toothfish?  Mmmm.

Large-scale fish farming of the traditionally desirable varieties has proven to be a false solution to the problem.  The negative consequences of much commercial fish farming (familiar in environmental circles for many years) are finally becoming better known among the general public. Now we are beginning to push the questions back one step further, to ask why a given species was selected for farming in the first place.  The answers can be surprising.

Barry Estabrook's recent article in the Atlantic magazine begins:
Our prehistoric ancestors in Southeast Asia had good reason to domesticate the area's wild sheep instead of tigers. Sheep were docile creatures that preferred to live together in flocks and could convert grass and weeds that humans couldn't digest into valuable protein. Tigers were solitary and wide-ranging and needed to be fed many times their weight in perfectly edible animal protein. Early man realized the sheer folly of feeding several sheep to a tiger in order for it to produce a sheep's weight of meat.

In the 1970s, when modern aquaculturists began casting about for fish to tame, they ignored this 10,000-year-old wisdom. Species were chosen on the basis of their value in the marketplace. If not, what logical reason would anyone have for domesticating Atlantic salmon, a carnivorous fish that cruises the open oceans and needs to eat many times its own weight in smaller fish and marine animals? A tiger of the seas. 
I'm puzzled by the reference to southeast Asia (my ancestors first domesticated the sheep in Central Asia some ten millennia ago), but I guess he just had to get the tiger in there somehow.  Anyway, when the issue is framed so strikingly, it's hard to see our current practices as anything but sheer folly.

Enter Josh Goldman, CEO of Australis Aquaculture, based in Turners Falls.  He did his senior thesis at Hampshire College on aquaculture and then set out to become an entrepreneur. After initially working with striped bass, he eventually settled on the Australian barramundi. As Estabrook tells it:
In terms of biological needs, barramundi are the anti-salmon. They are born in the sea and migrate to fresh waters as adults, the reverse of a salmon's lifecycle. The sluggish rivers they call home are subject to frequent droughts, forcing barramundi to form tight schools in tiny pools left in otherwise dry riverbeds. Huge gills enable them to live in oxygen-deficient water. And best of all, they have the rare ability to transform vegetarian feed into sought-after omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon require as much as three pounds of fish-based feed to put on a pound of meat. Goldman's barramundi need only a half pound, the bulk of which is made from scraps from a herring processing plant.
What's more, whereas ocean salmon pens cause a host of environmental problems, the fresh water for the inland barramundi farm is recycled 300 times, and the solid waste "goes to local farms as fertilizer."

This report provides me with a welcome opportunity to catch up on a story about another friend, which I had meant to post earlier (the spring was a hectic time).  My Master Planning Committee and Town Meeting colleague Jim Oldham—another Hampshire College alumnus, I am pleased to add—practices yet another kind of aqualculture. Active for years in environmental and social justice movements in Latin America, he has for more than a decade worked with the indigenous Secoya people of Ecuador. When oil exploration and other forms of economic development threatened both the environment and local land ownership, he introduced fish farms "as a source of food and income." Ever mindful of the need for sustainability, he recommended the use of local species, in small, less intensive, family operations involving a few thousand rather than tens of thousands of fish, each. It has been another success story.

Why should the advantages of such systems over conventional fish farming be so hard to grasp? Congratulations to these local friends for patiently teaching us the simple truth.

Meanwhile, half-way around the world, fish farming offers hope of another kind. A team of Israeli, Turkish, Irish, and American graduate students in Israel is proposing a new start-up, Nets for Peace.  The idea is to develop commercial fish-farming in Gaza as a means of enhancing the food supply and in the process promoting both economic development and cross-border cooperation.
The five graduate students "found commonality in Economic Peace Theory. We felt strongly that reduction in tension would be a product of economic empowerment; that the solution lies within the private sector in Gaza. That being said, it was clear that Gaza has limited natural resources, with the exception of human-power and sea. That fact, coupled with the strong seafaring heritage of the population, along with a drastic reduction in the fishing industry, made fish farms a natural solution," says David Welch, speaking for the Nets of Peace founders.
. . . .
Responding to a question from ISRAEL21c about their goal to supply Gazans with "a healthy protein supply," Welch says, "We have come across significant data stating that the population within Gaza (especially the child population) has been lacking essential parts of a healthy diet. The proteins and fatty acids found in fish could be a great way of bridging this gap. Eventually, we would like to see Gaza become a major Mediterranean exporter of fish products, but our first goal is to meet the demand within Gaza itself. We see this as an attainable goal."
The project "reached the finals in New York at the United Nations' 'Spirit Initiative', a business case competition for actionable solutions to long-standing international conflicts," and was also featured at TEDxTelAviv.

All three of the above undertakings, each in its way, holds the promise of small steps toward a better world.


Seafood Watch pocket guide (from Monterey Bay Aquarium)

[updated links]
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1 comment:

Media Mentions said...

You know, I have to say that I’m actually incredibly relieved that some salmon farms are finally taking an initiative into a more sustainable direction and away from past practices, such as the ones recently outlined online in the press ( Still, with the increasing population and thus demand, it will take more than lukewarm measures to ensure a good, stable source of salmon and other seafood.

Well anyway, some food for thought :]