With technological developments in the global aquaculture industry, it would seem that many issues for fish farmers are in the past. However, concerns about antibiotics, dyes and bioaccumulative toxins from fish feed continue to turn potential customers away from purchasing farm-raised fish. Randy Lovell, the state aquaculture coordinator for California Department of Fish and Wildlife, believes their mistrust is misplaced.
“The negative stigma against farmed finfish is outdated and I’m surprised it is perpetuated,” said Lovell. “The technological challenges have largely been overcome, aquaculture has more of a storytelling issue than a sustainability one.”
In the last 30 years, technological innovations have significantly changed the way major aquaculture producers handle their production. In Norway for example, the leading global producer of farmed salmon, farmers have circumnavigated use of antibiotics by switching over to vaccines for their fish.
Antibiotics are used in fish pens to prevent outbreaks of bacterial infections, which can impact the quality of the fish and lead to reductions in harvests. During the switch from antibiotics to vaccines, Norway’s total annual salmon production went from 200,000 tons in 1990 to 1.2 million tons in 2016. The effectiveness of the vaccines allowed production to increase six times while antibiotic use fell by 95 percent.
Reduction in antibiotic use is just one of the ways salmon farming in Norway has improved. Other improvements include: eliminating pesticide use, low levels of pollutants (such as PCBs) when compared to other food items, zero added growth hormones, increased space within pens and treatment processes for built up fish waste.
Yet in the United States, farmed fish still hold a negative stigma with many seafood consumers, some of which refuse farmed fish altogether. Prominent figures within the small inner circle of people pushing for aquaculture in the United States believe that farmed seafood products have been unfairly painted as the villains of seafood sourcing.
Vivian Krause, a former corporate development manager for Nutreco Aquaculture, goes so far as to accuse billionaire American non-profits for the negative perceptions on farmed fish in the United States as well as Canada. In an article published by Aquaculture North America, Krause names several nonprofits including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for funding efforts to sabotage farmed salmon products and promote wild Alaskan salmon instead.
This holds a bit of a conflicting narrative because the David and Lucile Packard Foundation founded the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which promotes and advocates for sustainable aquaculture.
The article does allude to an important question, however: with so much interest and money at play on both sides of marine aquaculture, where can seafood consumers go for reliable information? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. The best we can do as consumers is continue to press industries to deliver environmentally-friendly and sustainable products and services. This can be as simple as asking about how the seafood has been sourced and what ensures it is sustainable.
The collective buying power of consumers has a ton of influence on how a market operates. The push to rebrand aquaculture as sustainable, if anything, is a showcase of how consumer demand has transformed an industry whose future now depends on operating with scientific and environmental integrity.
While there are good examples of aquaculture which demonstrate how it is possible to greatly reduce environmental impacts of farming fish, there are also many other bad examples causing much more harm than good. As long as there continues to be bad examples of aquaculture, then consumers will be reluctant to trust in the product, unlike wild fish products, which people are familiar with and have accepted for thousands of years. If the aquaculture industry wants people to trust their products, what it needs is consistency.
The fact remains that seafood has many advantages over land meat in terms of environmental impact and resource efficiency. Both wild-caught and farmed seafood require zero land or freshwater, and are much higher in protein, vitamins and minerals when compared to land meat. There is no doubt that seafood production will be an essential part in creating a sustainable future for society.
However, the best way to move forward regarding seafood sourcing is still up for debate. In addition to operational considerations and a growing population with a growing middle class, there is the constant threat of a changing marine environment due to climate change. In order to keep a working waterfront where economies built around the marine environment thrive, it is certain that both wild fisheries and fish farms will need to work together to produce food for a world growing in size, appetite and concern for environmental health.