National Consumers League

Fish farms: Good, bad, or downright ugly?

fishfarms.jpgDid you know fish accounts for 17 percent of the world’s protein intake? That may not seem like a lot, but by 2050, farmed fish production is expected to more than double to meet global demands. Fish are the most environmentally-friendly animal protein to produce, efficiently converting feed into meat while generating a fraction of the greenhouse gasses of livestock production. But as it stands now, our earth’s rivers, lakes, and oceans are fished to their limits.

Aquaculture (neat, huh?) will become vitally important in the near future to keep up with demand. Though industrial farming gets a lot of slack across the board, fish farming may be our answer to fulfilling the animal protein needs of the world’s growing population.

Why do fish farms get such a bad rap? For starters, antibiotics are an ever-growing concern in industrial farming. Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used on livestock. It’s estimated that farmed salmon are fed more antibiotics per pound than any other livestock. Antibiotic resistant bacteria, created as a result of antibiotic overuse, are responsible for the deaths of 23,000 Americans each year.  Cramped underwater pens lead to filth and sickness, raising concerns about the spread of disease. Contention also surrounds what farmed fish are eating. In some cases, farmed fish eat other wild fish, negatively impacting the ocean ecosystems; in other cases they are fed pellets, which may not adequately meet their nutritional needs, and result in fattier, less nutritious, and less flavorful fish.

These problems are undoubtedly challenging, but attempts are being made to overcome them. Fish farmers are starting to open “on land” fish farms that eliminate any chances of diseases spreading in the ocean. Scientists are also finding new ways to filter water and keep farmed fish in a contained, clean environment so antibiotics are not required. These fish are reported to grow twice as fast as their ocean-raised counterparts. Advancements have been made in raising higher-maintenance ocean fish in land bound, sterile environments, making on-land fish farms a viable option for some rarer, more expensive species. Fish farmers are using less fishmeal, or ground wild fish, than they were 20 years ago, further taking pressure off the overfished ocean.

Consumers play a large role in the positive reinforcement of developing and using new sustainable fish farm technologies. The majority of fish we eat, 91 percent, comes from abroad. At home, we ship away third of what we catch. Buying American-grown and processed fish is not only more sustainable because it isn’t shipped as far, but it also supports developing cleaner ways to farm fish in our own country.  At the grocery store, consumers can keep an eye out for seafood that bares a Sustainable Seafood Certification.

Consumers who are concerned about farmed fish and wish to only purchase fish raised in the wild should try to eat fish and shellfish that fall lower down on the food chain. These fish are less likely to negatively impact the environment because they require less feed. Tilapia, catfish, and carp are all good options. Mollusks, like clams, oysters, and scallops, are the most environmentally-friendly source of animal protein, as they don’t use freshwater and they serve to clean the environment around them. Fish play a key role in fulfilling the protein needs of the world population. Now is the time to use purchasing power as a vote to promote positive aquaculture practices and reduce our impact on the ocean.