The End Of The Line for Fish?

Fish are the last wild food, and we’re just realizing it.

— Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish

Brian Walsh wrote “The End Of The Line” about Turners Falls, Massachusetts fish farm Australis Aquaculture in the July 18,  2011 issue of Time Magazine, discussing the future of fishing and the impact farm fishing could have on saving the last of our wild fish populations. He first reminds us …

Since human beings first took up the plow about 1o,ooo years ago, most of our food has come from the farmer’s hand. We grew fruits, vegetables and grains to feed ourselves and support those domesticated animals we relied on for meat and dairy products. But there was an exception. When humans fished, we still went out into the wild, braved the elements and brought back decidedly undomesticated animals for dinner. There was a romance to fishing that was inseparable from the romance of the sea, a way of life-for all its peril and terror suffused with a freedom that the farmer and rancher would never know. Though the fishermen who roved the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time and the factory trawlers that scrape the ocean floor today couldn’t be more different, they share a common link to our hunter-gatherer past.

At the Australis Aquaculture facility, the barramundi fish are hatched, fed and raised to their market weight of approximately 2 pounds, all within the confines of the fish farms closed system. Sustainably produced farm-raised fish are in high demand, as the per person consumption of seafood continues to grow – almost double what it was in the 1960’s. While the demand for fresh fish has skyrocketed, the stock of wild seafood has been driven to near extinction. “The wild stocks are not going to keep up,” says Stephen Hall, director general of the WorldFish Center. “Something
else has to fill that gap.”

The only plausible answer to this dilemma is aquaculture. Walsh stated that half the seafood produced in 2011 was farm raised, and that aquaculture was the fastest growing form of food production. “It’s no longer a question about whether aquaculture is something we should or shouldn’t embrace,” says Ned Daly, senior projects adviser at the Seafood Choices Alliance. “It’s here. The question is how we’ll do it.”

The cost of rapid growth in the industry has been environmental – including spread of diseases to wild populations and destruction of coastal habitat. Reliance on wild fish is not diminished; in fact,  it takes 2 lbs. of (wild)  ground fish to feed 1 lb. of farmed fish. (in 2011). However there is hope; barramundi and other less know species of fish produce more protein than they need to take in as food. Environmentalists are concerned about fish farmed overseas, where the majority of farm-raised is produced then shipped to the U.S.

And perhaps most of all, we need to accept that on a planet with a population of nearly 7 billion and climbing, we may no longer be able to indulge our taste for the last wild food. We’ve farmed the land. Now we have little choice but to farm the sea as well.

Goldman launched Australis in Turners Falls in 2004 and was producing barramundi commercially by 2005. The fish is rich in omega-3 oils; Dr. Oz named it one of his top superfoods in 2010. Less than 20% of the barramundi’s feed at Australis comes from fish meal and fish oil-a better percentage than for many farmed salmon, which can require as much as50% of their feed from fish meal. The Turners Falls operation is an indoor, closed recirculating system, so there’s little waste, little risk of disease and no threat that the barramundi will escape into the wild. While the closed recirculating system he uses in Turners Falls is an environmentalist’s dream, Goldman eventually wanted to reach a larger market at a lower cost, a step that he decided required an outdoor operation on the central coast of Vietnam. That branch, where barramundi are raised in sea cages in a protected bay, isn’t quite as green as Turners Falls, but it’s cheaper. Land-based systems may work for more premium species, and they offer the chance to raise fish close to cities. In New York State, for instance, a company called Local Ocean produces indoor-farmed sea bass and flounder two hours from Manhattan. But such systems are still more experimental than economical. “As much as the NGOs would have loved it,[Australis] just couldn’t meet the economi s of an expensive indoor environment,” says Goldman.

There’s no doubt that something will be lost in the transition to mass aquaculture, as fish-the last true wild food-are domesticated to support human beings. But if we’re all going to survive and thrive in a crowded world, we’ll need to cultivate the seas just as we do the land. If we do it right, aquaculture can be one more step toward saving ourselves. And if we do it well, we may even enjoy the taste of it.

— Brian Walsh, The Future of Fish: Can farming save the last wild food? Time Magazine, July 18, 2011