There's Something Fishy About Fish Farms

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As consumers become more aware that commercial overfishing threatens to dredge our oceans of marine life, a new report shows that fish farming is not the sustainable, more environmentally-friendly alternative we’ve been led to believe.

The report titled, “Until the Seas Run Dry: How Industrial Aquaculture is Plundering the Oceans”, says that aquaculture is wasteful, inefficient and unsustainable because of the industry’s over-reliance on feeding wild caught fish in fish farming operations. The study, by Changing Markets Foundation and Compassion in World Farming, analyzes the scientific literature on the topic and includes recommendations for change.

The numbers are difficult to comprehend, as between one and three trillion fish (based on weight) are killed for food annually. According to the FAO, one-third of global fish stocks are not sustainable and 60% are fully fished.  Over half of fish consumed globally come from underwater factory farms and this is expected to increase to 60% by 2030.  

What is typically not appreciated is that this rapidly growing industry is putting huge pressure on wild fish stocks and contributing to the global crisis of overfishing because approximately 25% of all wild caught fish are used to make fish food.  This amounts to between 450 billion to 1 trillion fish.  The aquaculture feed industry grinds these fish to produce fish meal and fish oil (FMFO) for feeding farmed fish. This industry is currently valued at $6 billion and is expected to grow to $10 billion by 2027.

“Grinding wild fish into FMFO to feed a growing aquaculture industry raises concerns about overfishing, poor animal welfare and the disruption of aquatic food webs; it also undermines food security as less fish are available for human consumption,” the report said.

The report also says industry claims that aquaculture has a lower carbon footprint and better environmental record than commercially wild caught fish is undermined by the over reliance on wild caught fish.  “Producing FMFO for farmed fish is unsustainable and claims of improving environmental credentials are not warranted”, the report says.

The recently released global assessment report on biodiversity from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), said that: “human activities have had a large and widespread impact on the world’s oceans. These include direct exploitation, in particular overexploitation, of fish, shellfish and other organisms, land- and sea-based pollution, including from river networks, and land/sea-use change, including coastal development for infrastructure and aquaculture”.

This report includes an assessment of progress made towards the UN goals of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity to be reached by 2020. These include targets for the sustainability of fish stock harvesting and aquaculture, and for fisheries to have no adverse impacts. All were given a rating of “Poor” showing little or no progress.

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According to the “Until the Seas Run Dry” report, underwater factory farms are so over crowded that farmed fish live in conditions where they can be afflicted by diseases such as sea lice.  Unsurprisingly, these operations have high attrition rates and are a source of major pollution in local waters.

To make matters worse, the FMFO industry is targeting keystone species such as small forage fish e.g., sardines, anchovies, mackerel and herring, as well as crustaceans like krill, that are critical links in marine food chains.

And in ways that mirror factory farming methods for land animals, fish farming is highly inefficient.  Depending on fish farming methods and conditions, it takes between 50 to 120 wild caught fish to produce one fish in an aquaculture operation.

The report says that FMFO operations, concentrated in West Africa and SE Asia, are leading to overfishing in these waters, are negatively impacting food security and are a significant source of pollution in those countries.

 The report makes the following recommendations:

 1.       Aquaculture feed companies should stop using wild caught fish and switch to genuinely sustainable alternatives.

2.       Aquaculture companies should cultivate more species that require fewer inputs or that can be fed a vegetarian diet.

3.       Policymakers should stop supporting aquaculture that relies on wild-caught fish and support the phase out of FMFO for fish farms.

4.       Stronger certification systems to reduce reliance on wild caught fish feed and more transparent labelling standards so that consumers can understand how their seafood was produced and make more informed choices.

5.       Consumers can reduce consumption of seafood especially carnivorous farmed species such as salmon and shrimp.


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