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Point of View: Ocean fish farms are a pretty good deal

By Michael A. Rice
July 05, 2011

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following opinion piece was first published in the Providence Journal on May 4, in response to an op-ed in the paper’s May 1 issue by Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

 

I read with interest the May 1 article “Humongous fish farms are industrializing our oceans,” by Wenonah Hauter, and I must disagree with her conclusion that offshore aquaculture is an undesirable activity in our oceans, particularly here in Rhode Island, where our state’s economy has been traditionally tied to the sea. Globally, capture fisheries have maximized their catch of seafood, and few nutritionists would argue that eating less seafood would be bad for people’s health and well-being. Offshore fish farms are an answer to shortages of seafood in the face of growing local and world demand.

It is a well-established fact (see United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization statistics) that globally catches of fish and other seafood products have reached their maximum sustainable catch yield of about 80 million metric tons. The world’s marine capture fishery yields have remained roughly steady at this level since the early 1980s, and yet global demand for seafood has been on the rise.

The rising economies of Asia, which have many fish-eating people, have spurred growth in demand for seafood in that part of the world. Locally as well as in the rest of the industrialized Western world, concerns for greater cardiovascular health and medical admonitions to eat more foods such as fish that are laden with healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids has spurred greater demand for seafood as well.

Since the 1970s, the growing gap in demand for seafood in relationship to its fixed supply has been met by increasing numbers of fish farms around the world. The greatest growth in fish farming has been in Asia, most notably in China, but aquaculture has been growing here in America as well. Much of the nation’s supply of rainbow trout comes from farms in Idaho, and catfish farms located predominately in Southern states. In Rhode Island our coastal farming of oysters is a prime example of sustainable, eco-friendly sea farming that contributes to our local economy.

While there is considerable controversy about how our nation’s fisheries are managed, the major issue is not the shortage of fish per se, but how the fish are being allocated among those catching the fish. As demand for fish grows, the limited supply of fish out in the wild makes those fish more valuable.

We see this in the supermarket. Over the years the price of wild cod and haddock has grown much faster than farmed items in the meat case like beef and poultry. Wild fish in the oceans are publicly held resources, and the politics of the allocation of any scarce (and therefore valuable) public natural resource becomes intense and subject to ideologically driven solutions.

Some stakeholders, such as Ms. Hauter, favor the more traditional complex governmental allocation schemes with shares more equitably distributed among many smaller-scale participants in the fishery for the sake of saving traditional fishing communities.

Others prefer a more market-oriented approach in which catch allocations are granted to those with a greater willingness to bid on larger allotment shares and make larger investments.

No matter how the politics of fishery allocations works out, the planet’s (or even the local fishing grounds’) ability to generate seafood is limited by that natural carrying capacity or global maximum sustainable yield of 80 million metric tons. If we want to get beyond that volume we need to begin farming. We would have never built our human civilizations if we would be reliant on hunters and gatherers to provide all of our animal protein, fruits, vegetables and grains. Seafood should be no different.

However, the establishment of finfish farms in Rhode Island and the vast majority the coasts and estuaries of America have not yet occurred because the economics are not yet favorable. There remains much suspicion about the potential of water pollution from wastes generated from the farms and displacement of other water-dependent economic activities. Many coastal residents feel that coastal tourism or property values might suffer if the coastal waters are “industrialized.” But note that for many people the word “industrialized” evokes much more of a negative reaction than the term “agricultural food production.” The imagery evoked in one’s mind by the two terms is very different.

Our American aversion to fully embrace coastal aquatic farms does not come without a real cost. The shortfall in seafood in our markets caused by increasing market demand is in fact being met by massive importation of seafood from foreign countries. And increasingly the amount of seafood sold is being sourced from fish farms in these countries.

The move to develop fish farms offshore is the response to valid criticism that our coastal waters are already overburdened by human activity and the fish farms small-scale and family-owned or not would be yet one more environmental stressor.

However, if fish farms are to be developed offshore they will be by necessity industrial operations. The engineering of structures to withstand wind and waves and currents in the offshore environment is no trivial task. Seagoing vessels needed to tend the farms would have to be substantial, and the protocols for feeding and tending the fish would have to be largely automated because daily trips to the farm would be out of the question during many winter days and storm days. To meet the up-front costs and high capital requirements, offshore fish farms will require some sort of corporate or other deep-pocket involvement. “Industry” is not necessarily a dirty word.

Offshore fish farming can be done well and it can be an economic and eco-friendly boon to the Ocean State and other states, supporting not only our skilled marine workforce but our seafood wholesale marketers as well.

 

Michael A. Rice is a professor of fisheries and aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island and a former state representative from South Kingstown


 

 

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