Aquaculture: sustainable, low-impact protein, but cook the fish

It’s one of those restaurant things I have fun with.

Any seafood place will proudly declare their fish is wild, not the farmed stuff.

For 15 years, I’ve asked servers, do you have farmed salmon or whatever aquatic delight awaits my tummy.

steve-gainesThe server will brag and brag about how all the seafood they serve is wild, and not the nasty farmed stuff.

Wrong answer.

Like raw-egg aioli.

Elizabeth Weise of USA Today writes that farmed fish has gotten a bad rap, but it’s the only way the world is going to feed the additional 2.4 billion people expected to be added to the Earth’s population in the next 34 years, experts told a sustainable food conference.

With the world’s arable land maxed out and wild seafood overfished, aquaculture is the one place we can look to produce enough animal protein for all those extra mouths, said Steve Gaines (left, not exactly as shown), a professor of marine biology at the University of California Santa Barbara and lead investigator for the university’s sustainable fisheries group. He spoke at a conference on sustainable food at the Monterey Bay Aquarium earlier this month.

The rising human population isn’t the only issue. As standards of living rise, people eat more protein and especially more meat. In China, for example, annual meat consumption has risen from 28 pounds per person in 1982 to 138 pounds in 2015.

Growing enough crops to feed more pigs, chickens and cows is a challenge. In most of the world, all the land that can be planted already is planted. Plowing under the marginal land that’s left would only lead to deforestation and land degradation, which only contributes to climate change, said Gaines.

Turning to the world’s oceans doesn’t help. Analysis of global fisheries, even if all were sustainably managed for maximum production, would only take care of between 1% and 5% of the coming demand, Gaines said.

The only option, experts at the Monterey conference said, is aquaculture.  Currently just 15% of world animal protein consumption comes from aquaculture but that can quickly be ramped up.

farmed-salmonIt’s a hard sell in the United States. Panelists blamed part of the U.S. prejudice against aquaculture on NIMBYism (i.e. Not In My Backyard.) Americans were content to eat farmed salmon, shrimp, oysters and other species when they were produced far away, but didn’t want to see fish farms and pens in their pristine waters at home.

There’s also an ongoing negative connotation with fish farming among the more eco-conscious in the United States because of early unsustainable fishery examples, especially farmed salmon and shrimp, in South America and Asia.

Asian seafood producers have been cleaning up their acts but damaging stories about aquaculture there continue to make the rounds, said Kevin Fitzsimmons, a professor of aquaculture at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Az.

He says he frequently hears Americans complain about agricultural leavings and animal waste being used in fish ponds in southeast Asia, a practice that’s actually both sustainable and deeply rooted in the culture, he said.

“In the United States, if somebody puts chicken waste in their garden they’re an organic farmer and it’s wonderful. But if they put it in a fish pond in China, we say they’re trying to kill us,” he said.

Today a wave of innovation and investment has meant that aquaculture overall is much more environmentally friendly and efficient than it once was.

Currently 78% of the salmon Americans eat is farmed, according to research by Oai Li Chen at the University of Washington. However, as a whole, salmon makes up just one-fifth of world aquaculture production, said Peet.