At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Farmed Fish Follies - Act I

A Marine Aquaculture Review in Three Acts: 
(1-aquaulture in the news; 2-aquaculture history; 3-aquaculture choices)

By Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA's Science Coordinator

ACT I:  Aquaculture in the News

The ecology, economics, and purpose of modern fish aquaculture have been debated by scientists and policymakers for years. Yet even with numerous pros and cons and a variety of issues surrounding the practices, the singular message that seems to stick in consumers’ heads is that aquaculture is good, because it will feed the world and save the wild fish. It’s an easy message to understand and people would greatly prefer that it not be complicated by facts. But those facts are essential for responsible consumers to consider, and their importance has been raised once again by several recent items in the news.

Recent News:
On Earth Day, Whole Foods announced their new policy of only selling wild caught fish that are not on certain red lists. They pointedly said nothing about their marketing policies regarding aquaculture, and their fish counters now feature many farmed fish:  salmon, tilapia, catfish, trout, Arctic char, sea bream, Atlantic cod, European sea bass, and varieties of shrimp.

Lacey Schmeidler/Marine Photobank                                         
Norwegian Salmon Pen

In May, the Sate Secretary of Norway announced that there would be a review of the impacts of salmon farms and their burden of sea lice upon wild salmon and if the negative impacts are as great as some suspect, it could be a barrier to the growth of the industry.

At beginning of June, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, met with the EU fisheries minister, Maria Damanaki, and they issued a joint statement of cooperation and shared goals.  They identified several tools for rebuilding sustainable fisheries, and among them was to support “sustainable aquaculture to meet the growing demand for seafood….” Along with this they pledged “global leadership and a commitment to implement best practices for using these tools.”

And early this month, a coalition of organizations and businesses in Nova Scotia called for a moratorium on Open Net Pen Finfish Farming as they gathered to protest the Provincial Government’s commitment to expanding open net pen salmon aquaculture.  And earlier this year, wild salmon defender, Don Staniford was kicked out of British Columbia: 

                         B.C. salmon-farming critic vows to keep fighting from Norway
Don Staniford, of The Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture, poses for a
photograph in Vancouver, B.C. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A deeper understanding of the news

Whole Foods news:
While exploration of their website reveals that they have extensive standards for the farms from which they get this seafood, those are an attempt to ensure they have the best available techniques, which does not guarantee sustainability. However, if they enforce and document these standards and make the information for each source available to the customer, it at least offers transparency and traceability. So you can make your own choice based on known farming methods.

Although we don’t believe the aquaculture standards imposed by Whole Foods takes care of the problems associated with the industrial approach to aquaculture, it is somewhat encouraging to see their acknowledgement of the need for better and more innovative aquaculture:
[W]e also acknowledge that further improvement in the industry’s environmental performance is necessary if we are to more fully protect our ecosystems. To promote such progress, Whole Foods Market is establishing a purchasing preference to source from suppliers that develop innovative technologies and practices such as integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (i.e. polyculture) and closed containment systems that substantially reduce their environmental impacts, while at the same time meeting Whole Foods Market’s quality and cost criteria and other standards.
I hope they will take a more active role in driving that agenda. But the one thing we know from the recent shift in their wild caught fish policy is that they have no interest in preferentially supporting local fisheries to get the freshest and best products at a fair price. Thus, I suppose we can expect the same for aquaculture. Their cost and profit criteria may rule out local producers.

Norway’s news:
Norwegian State Secretary Kristine Gramstad said in her statement acknowledging the importance of the impact of sea lice from salmon farms on the wild salmon populations: 
As sea lice now is considered mainly a problem for the wild salmonids our strategy is to shift the focus from considering the sea lice limit in fish farms only, but also taking the sea lice infestations on wild salmonids into account when deciding upon measures in aquaculture.
In 2010, the Norwegian expansion of the huge industry was stopped when pervasive resistance to the drug being used to treat the sea lice was revealed. Now they are finally focusing on the significant spread of the parasite into wild populations.
                                                                                                                                                                         Sea Louse on Salmon
Photo: The Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs

There is serious potential for the catastrophic spread of sea lice in countries with expansive and unrestrained development of aquaculture. Although all fish diseases are of concern in this context, sea lice present a particularly virulent threat. The organism can live independently in the water for 20-50 days during which they drifting along currents and spread along coastlines and out into the open ocean, succeeding generations that spread out with currents along coast and out into the open sea. Other salmonids (e.g. trout), which are often infected at rates even higher than salmon, also assist in rapid spreading of lice and pesticide-resistant lice.

Monitoring wild fish is more important than monitoring salmon in the cages because the former usually carry a larger load of lice, especially if they are living near the cages. Consequently, any treatment zone for this disease must be much larger than for other diseases in order to be effective. Infected free salmon (wild or escapees) become vectors delivering sea lice to salmon very far away from the source of the disease. 
To make things worse, strong resistance to the favored treatment has now developed in the sea lice. It is thought that this arose when because now cages are very large, and the treatment within a cage cannot effectively reach all the salmon inside the cage. Through exposure to low doses, surviving lice become resistant to the chemical treatment.  Genetic resistance is developed and passed through generations. 

In areas where aquaculture pens are many and close together (as in Norway, British Columbia and Bay of Fundy, where cages are densest at the mouths of fjords and salmon rivers), there is an additive effect that causes the zone of high infection outside the pens to be much larger than adding affected areas for number of pens were they widely separated. Salmon smolts migrating out of the rivers must pass through a wall of free sea lice and infected fish, caused by the density of salmon farms at the mouths of rivers and fjords. Monitoring these smolts is critical; an interim monitoring program that introduces test smolts into cages and assesses their infection rates after sufficient exposure could provide useful information. Now finally, Norway is embarking upon improved monitoring and research on wild fish.

US/EU news:
For the most part, the EU/US commitment to aquaculture may belie their commitment to science-based fisheries on which their entire treatise is premised. For science tells us that industrial monoculture fish farming in natural aquatic and marine ecosystems presents a high risk if not certain threat to wild fish and other components of the natural ecosystems in which it is practiced. Dr. Lubchenco knows, because she coauthored a paper on it in the science journal Nature (Naylor, RL, et al. 2000. Effect of aquaculture on world fish supplies. Nature 45:101729). Marine farming of salmon and other predatory fish pollutes; spreads disease; leads to escaped fish that compete with or interbreed with their wild counterparts; and consumes more wild fish protein than it produces.  

Mussels farmed on small scales in coastal areas are one
of the promising sectors of U.S. marine aquaculture.
Pictured above, workers harvest a mussel raft
in Shelton, WA. [photo: NOAA Aquaculture Office]
However, the NOAA aquaculture policy, issued last year, gives the US a statement of policy and guidance goals that could achieve the innovative and sharp change in aquaculture development that is needed. We need to make sure that potential is realized, for the aquaculture industry will resist it.  But that will require that the US not follow the examples set by other countries now leading aquaculture development. It will be harder for the EU, since they are already on a path committed to industrial monoculture fish farming. The NOAA Aquaculture Office webpage promotes an additional priority: “promoting a level playing field for U.S. aquaculture businesses engaged in international trade.”  That is very concerning. Leveling the playing field requires loosening important environmental restrictions and would make it difficult to achieve many of the admirable goals listed in the official policy document. The US should not be leveling the playing field with other aquaculture nations; it should playing an entirely different game and creating enviable models for truly sustainable aquaculture.

Next weekAct II will examine some aquaculture history to see how we got to where we are with the global industry and governmental policies.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful analysis. It's disappointing to see aquaculture pursuing the same monoculture path as land agriculture, which has devastated the environment and caused so many related problems, such as antibiotic resistant pathogens. Single-minded pursuit of profit without a balancing concern for sustainable stewardship leads to disaster. I posted the link on my blog

  2. Thanks to Boyce for this very informative report! I look forward to the two remaining parts.

    However, I am concerned that this report my be misconstrued as giving a thumbs up to shellfish culture, as this too has big problems. The caption on the photo of mussel farming seems to indicate that the report sees shellfish farming as benign in nature, but we are seeing serious ecological issues. The following raises some alarms:

    "Mussels farmed on small scales in coastal areas are one of the promising sectors of U.S. marine aquaculture.
    Pictured above, workers harvest a mussel raft in Shelton, WA. [photo: NOAA Aquaculture Office]"

    I advise readers to contact the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat
    3110 Judson St. Gig Harbor, WA 98335
    (253) 509-4987

    to learn more particulars of why shellfish farming may need our immediate attention as well as fin fish and shrimp farming, which have their grave problems as well.

    Small-scale and closed, recirculating systems are important, but also proper siting is needed. For instance, keeping these aquaculture facilities located in closed containment facilities sited inland and outside the inter-tidal zone is an imperative we should strive for.

    Alfredo Quarto,
    Executive Director
    Mangrove Action Project (MAP)
    PO Box 1854
    Port Angeles, WA 98362-0279 USA

    1. Alfredo,

      Thanks for your valuable comments and I couldn't agree more with your analysis. The caption under the mussel farm was an unfortunate oversight -- it was part of the photo downloaded from NOAA website. However, there is some good mussel, oyster, and other small scale shellfish farming going on along the northeast coast, so the caption isn't totally wrong. Sadly, you live in an area that has some of the least promising shellfish aquaculture methods employed -- Washing State in particular. The issues you raise are very important, and I hope you will feel by the end of the three installments that I have addressed them adequately. (If not, let me know!) Even so, I thank you for raising them now, and I hope they will alert readers of this first piece that there is much more to this story; and I hope they will read all three parts The next part should be posted tomorrow.