According to an article in the February 1, 2011 edition of the New York Times written by David Jolly, fish farming is the fastest growing area of animal food production, having increased at a rate of 6.6% per year from 1970 to 2008. Fish products from aquaculture now make up 46% of the world’s supply of consumed fish with China being the largest farm producer, accounting for about 62% of the worldwide production. However, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that the growth in fish farming would slow in the coming years “as space for food farms dwindles and concerns grew about their effects on the environment” (my emphasis added).
A representative of the Fish Farming industry , on the other hand, predicts the continuing strong growth in farmed fisheries into the future, citing the fact that most of the traditional capture fisheries in the world have “more or less peaked”. That means that, as world demand continues to grow, some sort of fish farming will be required to meet increasing demand.
I generally consider the United Nations a fairly reliable source of information on most topics, so I was interested to hear their reasons for thinking that the growth of Fish Farming would slow. According to this article, there are basically three reasons:
1) Environmental concerns: Although this article doesn’t present a list of these concerns, a quick Google search confirms that there is a a veritable shit storm or problems associated with fish farming in open pens or tanks. That is to say, the biggest problem is pollution due to fish waste being released from fish farms into the ocean, lakes or rivers (note: this does not apply to the farming of shellfish such as clams, mussels and oysters; it is my understanding that this sort of aquaculture is not harmful to the environment. As natural filters, they actually remove organic pollutants from the ocean). Couple that with the intensive use of growth hormones, antibiotics and colorants, and it is clear the that pollution associated with this sort of farming is a real concern.
2) Space and Water: Given the pollution of open water farms, it is no surprise that fewer and fewer nations are willing accept them in their waters. And the fresh water supplies necessary to support pond or tank farms are becoming harder to secure and more expensive when available.
3) Feed: According to this UN, of the wild fish caught today, only about 80% is destined for human consumption. The other 20%, which consists mainly of small fish like sardines and anchovies, is used for making fish oil or fish meal to feed farmed carnivorous fish like salmon. Note: I have read other sources that place the percentage used for meal and oil at a much higher level. A 2007 article in Time Magazine placed the figure at 37%! Using wild caught fish to farmed fish is an extremely inefficient operation, requiring as much as 4.5# of wild caught fish meal to produce 1# of farmed fish. Dwindling supplies and increasing cost of wild caught fish for meal will redoubtably have an impact on fish farming.
Other issues aside, however, as a cook and a diner, the most obvious criteria for judging any product is on its eating and health merits. Personally, I find most farm raised fish to be inferior to wild fish in both taste and texture. Although one would think its higher fat content would be a plus to its eating qualities (after all, Copper River salmon is specifically touted for its unusually high fat content, but then I am not a big fan of it either), I find most farmed salmon unpleasantly soft and pasty in texture and bland flavored. If even half of what you read about the healthfulness of farmed fish is true, some of which has very high levels of colorants, antibiotics and hormones, there seems to be ample reason for caution. The only clear advantage to farm raised fish is its price, but I guess you get what you pay for.
I have to ask my self why anyone would choose farm raised fish when the options for sustainable wild caught fish are so plentiful? Here’s an idea that, though it might not solve the problem of the would wide supply of fish, might be a good step…why not try to make better use of that 20% (or 37% depending on who’s figures you believe) of wild catch that is currently turned into oil and meal? Its about time we started to eat more sardines, anchovies, smelts, mackerels and other small fish that are considered by-product of the catch. These fish are cheap, delicious, very healthy and many are caught close to home here in Washington State. The seasons vary, but always good sources in Seattle for unusual small fish are Uwajimaya and Mutual Fish. I will try to get some include some recipes for small fishes in upcoming posts.