Wednesday, June 13, 2007
It's been in the news quite a bit in recent weeks: Much of imported farmed seafood is unsafe. And, the skyrocketing demand for fresh seafood has pushed many wild fisheries into crisis mode. And that's especially true for salmon.
It should be the height of the salmon harvest now, but the May catch was desultory, and for the rest of this month, most of the coast of Northern and Central California is closed to salmon fishing.
Last year, I lived in China for six months. The sections of the China coast that I saw were a churned-up dirty brown, likely from overfishing as well as from coastal discharge. Ocean fishing was forbidden for parts of the year.
I also visited many markets in China, where I saw an abundance of live fish and shrimp, all farm-raised. People bought carp, tilapia and a diverse array of other herbivorous fish for everyday consumption. Wild and carnivorous fish were more unusual.
Wild yellowfish (a breed of croaker) in a restaurant accounted for 75 percent of the cost of a meal for four. High prices like this are part of what we can expect when a wild species is on the brink of extinction.
What are we to do for safe, sustainable and affordable seafood?
Many experts say that aquaculture must be part of the answer. While freshwater fish have long been farmed in the United States, the domestic offshore aquaculture industry is still in its infancy, and governmental regulation in a formative stage.
To get a feel for what's going on today in aquaculture, I met with Corey Peet and other scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program. Peet is the program's aquaculture analyst and the conservancy group's most recent hire -- he came on board last year. The move itself by MBA indicates the importance of aquaculture in the big seafood picture.
As he answered my questions, we walked by recent displays in the aquarium, including the "Real Cost Cafe," where a video of a chef, a waitress and waiter talk to you if you order, say, tilapia.
Chef: "Goodbye, my beautiful little tilapia." Waiter: "Excellent choice. So tender. ... And tilapia's a hardy freshwater fish ... you don't have to catch more fish to feed them. Tilapia are fed a vegetarian diet."
In another segment, the chef begins, "Uch. Who ordered the farmed salmon?"
The farmed salmon situation has always been particularly challenging. Almost all farmed salmon are raised in offshore open net pens, where concentrated waste decimates the ecology of the coast. These confined and bred salmon, which come from a tiny genetic pool, can escape and breed with local species, and throw off the wild breed's ability to reproduce. Cramped pens necessitate the use of antibiotics. Red dye is fed to the fish to give the meat an appealing color. All of these are reasons that salmon farming has been considered unsustainable.
Yet, the demand for salmon -- in the United States, it's the second most popular seafood after shrimp -- continues to escalate.
The bottom line, according to Seafood Watch, is that salmon should be the rare treat, "Something you eat for weddings and funerals," says George Leonard, a senior analyst at the aquarium.
Salmon are carnivores. Salmon farmers harvest natural wild fish to feed their caged fish. Unlike any animal that we have domesticated for consumption in human history -- think cows, pigs and chickens -- the farming of salmon means raising meat by feeding it meat.
It takes 2 to 10 pounds of small fish caught wild in the ocean to raise 1 1/2 pounds of farmed salmon meat, according to MBA's calculations. The farmed salmon industry figures it's 1-to-1, still a wasteful ratio if you consider time, labor, land and transportation.
There's a net loss of protein every time you eat a piece of farmed salmon. It takes away food from the wild fish trying to survive in the ocean. As far as I know, we have never raised the likes of tigers, lions and panthers -- carnivores all -- in order to eat them. That would have required so much food that we would've run out of animal protein long ago.
A few so-called "boutique" salmon farms in Europe claim to raise the fish sustainably. Those include Loch Duart salmon from Scotland, which is served at restaurants such as Aqua and Boulevard in San Francisco.
"Loch Duart salmon live a robust life, have plenty of room to grow, and is fed from sustainable sources that mimic the natural diet of the wild," says CleanFish, a sustainable fish wholesaler in San Francisco, on its Web site. CleanFish also markets wild-caught Alaskan salmon and a few other sustainably wild-caught fish. Loch Duart does not raise fish in high-density pens, allows areas to lie fallow in alternate years and does not use antibiotics, the company says.
Yet Monterey Bay Aquarium, as a conservancy organization, draws lines where conscientious fish sellers don't. According to MBA's Seafood Watch criteria, the farming methods and the feed situation of the boutique farms are no different than other high-density farms. Seafood Watch puts all farm-raised salmon in the "avoid" category.
Red is red
"They may be a different shade of red, but they're still in red," Peet says, referring to the Seafood Watch program's ratings: red (avoid); yellow (good alternative); green (best choice). However, some question the ratings. While farmed clams, mussels and oysters are designated "best choice," for example, no differentiation is made between regionally raised shellfish and oysters flown in from France and Australia, which cost much more in dollars and energy. Peet says he hopes the Seafood Watch list will soon factor in transportation as a criterion for sustainability.
In the meantime, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, under the Department of Commerce, is behind the 2007 National Offshore Aquaculture Act (HR 2010). Although environmental checks are included in the proposed bill, it contains provisions to encourage and develop offshore aquaculture to offset the $8 billion seafood trade deficit, which includes a large percentage of foreign aquacultured seafood.
Conservancy organizations such as MBA fear that NOAA is rushing ahead without enough taking enough precautions to make sure that offshore farms raising carnivorous fish such as tuna, cod and halibut do not dot our shorelines, damage ecology and deplete the oceans of wild fish.
"It's a real Catch-22,'' Peet says. To pay for building new offshore facilities, aquaculture entrepreneurs, some of whom are former salmon ranchers, are looking at farming the high-priced carnivorous species, such as tuna, which can require from 10 to 25 pounds of wild-caught small fish to produce 1 pound of edible meat.
Peet points out that tuna ranching in the waters of the Mediterranean is a disaster in the making, because, he says, "They're harvesting juvenile wild tuna for fattening, and now what you have is a fishery where both the juvenile and adult tuna are being taken.''
The problem, he says, is that the perfect fish for farming has yet to be found. "We need more aquaculture because to meet global seafood supplies, and it needs to be species that are farmed in sustainable ways." The rush to put offshore carnivorous fish ranches in should be avoided, he says. "It's better to be precautionary."
While China's ancient tradition of diversified aquaculture and reliance on herbivorous fish is a good model, it is, ironically, the country's industrialized aquaculture that now proves unsustainable or unsafe.
"Most of what we eat that's farmed is coming from China. We have little idea of what's happening in China," said Peet. Food and Water Watch reports that the United States imports 80 percent of the seafood we consume, most of it from Latin America and Asia. The aquaculture practices in many of these countries damage the environment, and many enterprises use additives and antibiotics banned in the United States.
Peet was born and bred on Vancouver Island, Canada, and earned a master's degree in marine conservation ecology from the University of Victoria. He has watched what he says is the selling out of the Canadian Pacific coast by the Canadian government, which emphasized economic sustainability ahead of ecological sustainability.
As a result, the local wild salmon population is now stressed by diseases carried by the farmed fish from Canadian offshore salmon ranches, he says.
Facing a new frontier
Aquaculture in the New World is a new frontier.
"There's mass confusion out there," he says. Good sustainable models, changes in consumer preference, new technology, new certifiers and international regulation of aquaculture -- in other words, a new infrastructure -- must be put in place. The good news is that several entrepreneurs are experimenting with more sustainable closed aquaculture systems and other methods that integrate fish-farming with a diverse system of crops and livestock.
We still have a chance to get it right, he says. "Aquaculture has to play a role -- or we don't eat fish."
Which farmed fish are sustainable?
According to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, five of the 10 most popular types of seafood in the United States are farmed. Here are the aquarium's sustainability ratings for farmed fish: Seafood designated as "good" and "best" are raised by more environmentally sustainable methods, including proceses that use closed recirculating systems and enclosed ponds.
Seafood designated "avoid" generally are raised in open net pens that can impact the environment more severely.
Closed system: Recirculating systems enclose fish in tanks, where water is treated and recirculated through the system. Almost any finfish species such as striped bass, salmon and sturgeon, can be raised in recirculating systems.
Open system: Open net pens and cages enclose fish in offshore coastal areas or freshwater lakes. This system is generally used for salmon and tuna. Fish and waste can escape into the wild, which is a drawback of this system.
Source: Monterey Bay Aquarium