(Beyond Pesticides, June 16, 2011) The Department of Commerce, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service, announced late last week a final aquaculture policy which would ease restrictions to make it easier to farm fish in federal waters, drawing criticism from environmental groups due to the harmful environmental impacts of raising fish in pens in open waters.
According to Food and Water Watch, offshore aquaculture follows an industrial agriculture model which grows thousands of animals in a confined environment. For fish, however, this confined space is in the ocean, meaning all of the waste products from the operation flow directly into the ocean. This includes excess feed and chemicals that are used, such as antibiotics and pesticides, to treat or prevent disease that occurs when fish are in confinement. Another major concern is the possibility of escaped farmed fish, which can compete with and interbreed with wild fish.
Though the Department of Commerce and NOAA are pushing these new policies as a way to “meet the growing demand for healthy seafood,” factory fish farming, as Food and Water Watch points out, is primarily focused on carnivorous fish including salmon and tuna. These carnivorous fish require a massive amount of protein, which comes from small wild fish, including anchovies, herring, mackeral and sardines in the form of processed fishmeal, fish oil and feed pellets. It can take over six pounds of wild fish feed to add one pound of weight to farmed carnivorous fish. In 2006, over 90% of the commercially caught small wild fish were consumed by the aquaculture industry, which only exacerbates over-fishing.
The domestic aquaculture industry (both freshwater and marine) currently supplies about five percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. The cultivation of shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels, comprises about two-thirds of U.S. marine aquaculture production. Salmon and shrimp aquaculture contribute about 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Current production takes place mainly on land, in ponds, and in states’ coastal waters.
Currently, there are no organic aquaculture standards other than the National Organic Program (NOP) standards for livestock production which must be followed for any animal or product sold with the USDA organic seal. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) however is working on guidelines for organic aquaculture. An Aquatic Animal Task Force was formed in 2000 in order evaluate both aquaculture and wild caught aquatic animal operations to assess the feasability of developing organic production and handling standards.
Organic aquaculture still has many of the same problems as conventional aquaculture. Depending on the outcome of current NOSB work, there may be fewer synthetic inputs, however fish will still be exposed to pollutants that are present in the water, will still create waste and feeding carnivorous species will still be a problem.
Unfortunately, there aren’t any other environmentally responsible options for aquaculture at this point. Even in a closed, land-based system, such as tanks and ponds which seemingly has fewer problems, there are still many similar issues we need to address. We will still need to figure out where feed for the fish will come from, what to do with the waste products, a way to prevent escape, and how to keep fish healthy in a confined system without the use of toxic chemicals.