Forget what you heard: aquaculture isn’t evil

Aquaculture is a vital source of food for much of the developing world, not the evil stepchild of wild caught fish, said a panel of experts at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Food Institute in Monterey, Calif.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago I wrote an article that said aquaculture is a polluting purveyor of luxury food for the rich,” said Dr. Eddie Allison, Professor of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington. “I changed my mind when I saw [aquaculture] in Asia,” where multi-species fish farming has developed over thousands of years to provide the masses with vital calories and micronutrients.

“In rural Bangladesh people get 40 percent of their calcium from eating fish. A lot of people in the developing world are getting their vitamin A from eating fish, and not just fish in general, but [by eating] the eyes,” said Allison. Fish eyes are considered a delicacy in Asia.

Yet, environmentalists and public health advocates have long warned against aquaculture’s abuse of antibiotics, its links to mangrove deforestation, slave labor and use of questionable fertilizers. As panel moderator, Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish and An American Catch, joked, you can tell a farmed fish from a wild one, because the farmed fish is cross-eyed from looking up at the outhouse.

“That used to be true 10 or 20 years ago,” said Dr. Kevin Fitzsimmons, former President of the World Aquaculture Society and a professor at the University of Arizona. “But most of the farmers in Vietnam and China are getting away from using human waste.” Many use rice bran to feed their fish instead. One USAID project is experimenting with placing fish tanks underneath poultry cages. The bird waste fertilizes the algae growing in the fish tank, which in turn nourishes plankton that feed the fish.

Some aquaculture critics wouldn’t like that setup either, though. “In the U.S., if someone puts chicken waste on their garden, they’re an organic farmer. If a fish farmer in China does that, they’re product isn’t safe. It’s embarrassing [that we have this double standard],” he said.

As for mangrove deforestation by fish farms, the panelists said that too has largely disappeared. “It’s illegal in every country I can think of,” said Fitzsimmons, “And those laws are generally enforced.”

The panelists agreed that more work needs to be done, especially around antibiotics, which often end up in the supply chain even when local laws prohibit them. But it’s important, they said, to recognize what’s being done well.

“If we just take the best and leave the crap for the rest of the world, that’s not sustainable. It doesn’t matter if the U.S. and Canada are sustainable. We have a responsibility to work with developing nations,” said Corey Peet, a founding member of the Asian Seafood Improvement Collaborative, which tries to give seafood producers a voice in developing industry solutions. Peet got involved in aquaculture after researching sea lice in British Columbia’s salmon farms, but like Allison, changed his mind about fish farming when he visited Asia.

With so many people around the globe reliant on aquaculture for food, he says, the question isn’t whether aquaculture is good or bad. It’s how to make it better.

To date, the developed world has dominated that answer, handing sustainability standards down to poorer countries.  “People in the production sector want their own say… right now they feel like they’re being forced into international standards that they don’t understand,” said Peet, who warned against depending too much on a third-party certification. “Certification has its place,” he said. But it’s really for buyers who want to buy fish without understanding production practices. “They want to check a box,” he said.

People in Asia understand the value of sustainability, said Fitzsimmons. It’s all the technical, top-down language from outsiders that they don’t appreciate. “Nobody wants someone to come in and say you have to do this and this to meet this standard. If we talk from the beginning about how to recycle waste, and control disease and water pollution, [the fact is] most Asian cultures really get it,” he added.