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Fish Farming

Story at-a-glance -

  • Global farmed fish production topped beef production in 2011, and in 2012, there were 66 million tons of farmed fish produced globally compared to 63 million tons of beef
  • Like the land-based concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), industrial fish farming leads to overcrowded conditions, disease, pollution and unnatural diets
  • Pathogens from fish farms easily transfer to, and kill, wild species, while waste from the farms generates bacteria that consume oxygen vital to shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures
  • Farmed fish are fed unnatural diets including genetically modified (GM) soy, altering the nutritional content of the fish and allowing GM food to enter the environment and diets of wild marine organisms, permanently contaminating our oceans with completely unknown consequences

Farmed Fish Production Overtakes Beef

July 24, 2013 | 47,702 views

By Dr. Mercola

In 2011, for the first time in modern history, global farmed fish production topped beef production, and the gap widened in 2012 when 66 million tons of farmed fish were produced, compared to 63 million tons of beef.

“And 2013 may well be the first year that people eat more fish raised on farms than caught in the wild. More than just a crossing of lines, these trends illustrate the latest stage in a historic shift in food production,” the Earth Policy Institute reported.1

At first glance this may appear to be a positive shift, as fish is widely regarded as a healthful alternative to beef, not only for human health but also for the environment.

But with industrial fish farming, or aquaculture, now outpacing beef production, we’re seeing many of the same problems of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) now being taken to the seas.

Annual World Fish Consumption Nearly Doubles Since the 1970s

In the 1970s, the average person ate 25 pounds of fish per year. This has now reached 42 pounds per person and is expected to keep rising (for comparison, global beef consumption is less than 20 pounds per person annually).2

Fish as a protein source has been growing in popularity as the health benefits of omega-3 fats EPA and DHA have been more widely publicized. At the same time, beef has gotten a bad rap for its fat content and decimation of the environment due to the intensive farming methods used to grow large amounts of cattle as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, many popular species of wild fish have been over-fished to the point of near extinction. As Greenpeace stated:3

“Our appetite for fish is exceeding the oceans’ ecological limits with devastating impacts – and there is now estimated to be four times more global fishing capacity than there are fish left to catch.”

With wild fish populations dwindling, the additional fish being consumed globally is largely coming from farms rather than from the natural seas, but this is far from the ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ option that it’s largely promoted to be…

Fish Farms Are CAFOs of the Sea

Like the land-based CAFOs, industrial fish farming has had problems from the start, including overcrowded conditions, disease, pollution and unnatural diets. And because farmed fish are often raised in pens in the ocean, pathogens can spread like wildfire and contaminate any wild fish swimming past.

Norway, the world’s top producer of farmed salmon, has recognized this problem, and does not permit fish farms to be located in rivers or streams populated by valuable native species for this reason. But in other areas, such as British Columbia, no such restrictions exist and wild species are being threatened as a result.

Sea lice, a type of crustacean that is easily incubated by captive fish on farms, have also become a significant problem, including in juvenile wild salmon, which do not naturally carry the lice. And other types of lethal viruses spread from fish farms are also now being detected in wild populations, including:

  • Salmon leukemia virus, which attacks the salmon’s immune system so it dies of something else, much like the process of AIDS
  • Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus (ISA), also known as salmon influenza, which is highly lethal
  • Piscine reovirus, which gives salmon a heart attack and prevents them from swimming upriver

It's important to understand that ALL farm-raised fish are fed a concoction of vitamins, antibiotics, and depending on the fish, synthetic pigments to make up for the lack of natural flesh coloration due to their unnatural diet. Without it, the flesh of farmed salmon, for example, would be an unappetizing pale gray. The fish are also fed pesticides, along with compounds, such as highly toxic copper sulfate, which is frequently used to keep nets free of algae.

Not only do you ingest these drugs and chemicals when you eat the fish, but these toxins also build up in sea-floor sediments. In this way, industrial fish farming raises many of the same environmental concerns about chemicals and pollutants that are associated with CAFO cattle, chickens and pigs.

In addition, fish waste and uneaten feed further litter the sea floor beneath these farms, generating bacteria that consume oxygen vital to shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures. Studies have also consistently found levels of PCBs, dioxins, toxaphene and dieldrin, as well as mercury, to be higher in farm-raised fish than wild fish.

Farmed Fish Are Fed Poultry Processing Waste, Byproducts, GM Soy and Other Unnatural ‘Foods’

Feed has long been an area of controversy in aquaculture, as originally wild fish such as anchovies, herrings and sardines were used to prepare the fishmeal fed to farmed fish, depleting the natural fish supply in some areas. For instance, of the global krill catch, about 43 percent is used for aquaculture feed!

As it became clear that feeding fishmeal to the farmed fish was going to become quickly unsustainable, a search began for another food source for the fish, which begets many of the same problems, again, as occurred on CAFOs when cattle were switched from their natural diet of grass to unnatural grains and other waste products. The Earth Policy Institute reported:4

On the fish feed front, fishmeal producers are incorporating more seafood scraps into their products; today roughly a third of fishmeal is made up of food fish trimmings and other by-products. And some fish farmers are substituting livestock and poultry processing wastes and plant-based feeds for fishmeal and oil, which does not sound particularly appetizing, but does reduce pressure on wild stocks.

From a sustainability standpoint, however, it would be preferable to shift the balance back in favor of farmed fish raised without feeds based on food grains, oilseeds, and protein from other animals.”

One of the most concerning feeds now commonplace in aquaculture is soy – soybean meal, soy protein concentrates, soybean oil and other vegetable proteins and oils are said to be able to replace up to half of the fishmeal used in feeds for many farmed-fish species. But fish fed soy produce more waste than other fish, which means more pollution the ocean is not set up to handle. Also, most soy grown in the US is genetically modified (GM), which means GM food is entering the environment and diets of wild marine organisms, permanently contaminating our oceans with completely unknown consequences.

GM soy is also invariably contaminated with residues of potent glyphosate-based herbicide formulations (e.g. Roundup) used to produce them, which a growing body of research clearly shows is extremely toxic to aquatic life.5 This also alters the nutritional content of the fish. Farmed salmon, for instance, contains far more omega-6, courtesy of their grain-based diet. The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fat of wild salmon is far superior; wild salmon typically has 600 percent to 1,000 percent more omega-3s compared to omega-6s.

Fish Farms Are to Mangroves What CAFOs Are to Rainforests…

The devastation of rainforests, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon, is one of the key reasons why CAFO beef is viewed as unsustainable and a threat to the environment. Fish farms, too, are quickly depleting natural habitats, but in a much quieter manner that has received little attention thus far. According to the Earth Policy Institute:6

“As cattle ranches have displaced biologically rich rainforests, fish farms have displaced mangrove forests that provide important fish nursery habitats and protect coasts during storms. Worldwide, aquaculture is thought to be responsible for more than half of all mangrove loss, mostly for shrimp farming. In the Philippines, some two thirds of the country’s mangroves—over 100,000 hectares—have been removed for shrimp farming over the last 40 years.”

Not to mention, large quantities of South American land are already being cleared to make way for soy farms. This could increase even more as more soy is needed for aquaculture feed.

GM Salmon: Coming to a Dinner Plate Near You?

Farmed fish is set to get even more disastrous, as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is getting closer to issuing final approval of the first genetically engineered food animal—a salmon designed to grow up to five times faster than normal. The salmon — which contains a spliced-in growth hormone gene that makes it grow faster, reaching market size in about 18 months instead of three years — poses a significant threat to the environment, including wild fish. According to a Purdue University computer model that tracked the effects of releasing just 60 "Frankenfish" into a population of 60,000, there was a complete extinction of the normal fish in just 40 fish generations. It appears the larger size, which attracted mates more easily, combined with a slight reduction in survival rates, was a killer combination.

Another major area of concern is, if the salmon is approved, whether you will be able to know when you're buying it, since GM foods are still not required to be labeled in the US. Consumer advocates are concerned about how large the no-labeling problem will grow, since GM beef, pork and other fish are next in line behind salmon for FDA consideration.

Salmon Confidential: Why Is the Canadian Government Covering Up for Fish Farms?

Many environmental experts have warned about the unsustainability of fish farms for a decade now, but in Canada the very agency tasked with protecting wild salmon is actually working to protect the commercial aquaculture industry, to devastating effect. Salmon Confidential is a fascinating documentary that provides sobering insight into the inner workings of government agencies, and includes rare footage of the bureaucrats tasked with food and environmental safety. It draws back the curtain to reveal how the Canadian government is covering up the cause behind British Columbia’s rapidly dwindling wild salmon population: fish farms.

Once you understand just how important wild salmon are to the entire ecosystem, you realize that what’s going on here goes far beyond just protecting a fish species. Without these salmon, the entire ecosystem will eventually fail, and in case you’ve temporarily forgotten, you are part of this system, whether you’re a Canadian or not... If you weren’t sure why fish farms are poised to be one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time, you’ll see it very clearly by the end of this film.

Some Fishermen Are Still Doing It Right… Tips for Finding Wild Salmon

Download Interview Transcript

In the video above, I interview Randy Hartnell, founder-president of Vital Choice Wild Seafood and Organics. I'm a huge fan of their sockeye salmon, which cannot be farmed (so if you find sockeye salmon, it's bound to be wild). Hartnell spent more than 20 years as a commercial fisherman before forming his company in 2001, which features sustainably harvested wild salmon that are particularly low in heavy metals.

The reason he switched from being a commercial fisherman to a supplier was because farmed salmon exploded onto world markets, and quite simply crowded out the wild-caught variety. In the video, he shares some valuable tips on how to discern sustainably caught wild salmon from farmed varieties. According to Hartnell, studies have discovered that as much as 70 percent to 80 percent of the fish marked "wild" were actually farmed. This includes restaurants, where 90-95 percent of salmon is farmed, yet may be mis-listed on the menu as "wild." The following tips that can help you determine whether the salmon you’re buying is authentically wild harvested:

  1. Canned salmon labeled "Alaskan Salmon" is a good bet, as Alaskan salmon is not allowed to be farmed.
  2. In restaurants, mislabeled salmon will typically be described as "wild" but not "wild Alaskan." This is because authentic "wild Alaskan" is easier to trace. The term "wild" is more nebulous and therefore more often misused. In many ways it is very similar to the highly abused "natural" designation.
  3. Whether you're in a grocery store or a restaurant, ask the seafood clerk or waiter where the fish is from. If it's wild, they will have paid more for it, so they're likely to understand the value proposition. Since it's a selling point, they will know where it came from. If they don't have an answer for you, it's a red flag that it's farmed.
  4. Avoid Atlantic salmon, as typically salmon labeled "Atlantic Salmon" currently comes from fish farms.
  5. Sockeye salmon cannot be farmed, so if you find sockeye salmon, it's bound to be wild. You can tell sockeye salmon from other salmon by its color. It's bright red as opposed to pale pink because of its superior astaxanthin content. Sockeye salmon has one of the highest concentrations of astaxanthin of any food.

You Can Speak Out Against GM Salmon

I believe the old adage "you are what you eat" is rooted in basic truth, and I, for one, do not think there's any environmentally sound way to achieve the same health benefits from a farmed or genetically altered food source as from "the real deal" produced by nature. These are remarkable times, but it's become quite clear that we must vigorously protect and defend natural foods of all kinds, including fish. Farmed fish is already on its way to causing environmental catastrophe, and GM farmed salmon represents the worst of the worst in this equation.

We cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand and simply hope for the best on this issue. It’s important to take action now.

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