Farmed Fish Follies – Act I

Marine Aquaculture Review in Three Acts: 
(1-aquaulture in the news; 2-aquaculture
history; 3-aquaculture choices)
By Boyce Thorne Miller
NAMA’s Science Coordinator

I:  Aquaculture in the News
The ecology,
economics, and purpose of modern fish aquaculture have been debated by
scientists and policymakers for years. Yet even with numerous pros and cons and a variety of issues surrounding
the practices, the singular message that seems to stick in consumers’ heads is
that aquaculture is good, because it will feed the world and save the wild
fish. It’s an easy message to
understand and people would greatly prefer that it not be complicated by
facts. But those facts are
essential for responsible consumers to consider, and their importance has been
raised once again by several recent items in the news.
Recent News:
On Earth Day,
Whole Foods announced their new policy of only selling wild caught fish that
are not on certain red lists. They pointedly said
nothing about their marketing policies regarding aquaculture, and their fish
counters now feature many farmed fish: 
salmon, tilapia, catfish, trout, Arctic char, sea bream, Atlantic
cod, European sea bass, and varieties of shrimp.

Lacey Schmeidler/Marine Photobank                                         
Norwegian Salmon Pen

In May, the Sate
Secretary of Norway announced that there would be a review
of the impacts
of salmon farms and their burden of sea lice upon wild
salmon and if the negative impacts are as great as some suspect, it could be a
barrier to the growth of the industry.

At beginning of
June, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, met with the EU fisheries
minister, Maria Damanaki, and they issued a joint
of cooperation and shared goals.  They identified several tools for rebuilding sustainable
fisheries, and among them was to support “sustainable aquaculture to meet the
growing demand for seafood….” Along with this they pledged “global leadership
and a commitment to implement best practices for using these tools.”
And early this
month, a coalition of organizations and businesses in Nova Scotia called for a moratorium on Open Net
Pen Finfish Farming as they gathered to protest the Provincial Government’s
commitment to expanding open net pen salmon aquaculture.  And earlier this year, wild salmon defender, Don Staniford was kicked out of British Columbia: 

                         B.C. salmon-farming critic vows to keep fighting from Norway

Don Staniford, of The Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture, poses for a
photograph in Vancouver, B.C. (Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A deeper understanding of the news

Whole Foods news:
While exploration of their website reveals that they have extensive standards
for the farms from which they get this seafood, those are an attempt to ensure
they have the best available techniques, which does not guarantee
sustainability. However, if they enforce and document these
standards and make the information for each source available to the customer,
it at least offers transparency and traceability. So you can make your own choice based on known farming
Although we don’t
believe the aquaculture standards imposed by Whole Foods takes care of the
problems associated with the industrial approach to aquaculture, it is somewhat
encouraging to see their acknowledgement of the need for better and more
innovative aquaculture:

[W]e also
acknowledge that further improvement in the industry’s environmental performance
is necessary if we are to more fully protect our ecosystems. To promote such
progress, Whole Foods Market is establishing a purchasing preference to source
from suppliers that develop innovative technologies and practices such as
integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (i.e. polyculture) and closed containment
systems that substantially reduce their environmental impacts, while at the
same time meeting Whole Foods Market’s quality and cost criteria and other

I hope they will
take a more active role in driving that agenda. But the one thing we know from
the recent shift in their wild caught fish policy is that they have no interest
in preferentially supporting local fisheries to get the freshest and best
products at a fair price. Thus, I
suppose we can expect the same for aquaculture. Their cost and profit criteria may rule out local producers.
Norway’s news:
Norwegian State
Secretary Kristine Gramstad said in her statement acknowledging the importance
of the impact of sea lice from salmon farms on the wild salmon populations: 

As sea lice now is
considered mainly a problem for the wild salmonids our strategy is to shift the
focus from considering the sea lice limit in fish farms only, but also taking
the sea lice infestations on wild salmonids into account when deciding upon
measures in aquaculture.

In 2010, the Norwegian expansion of the huge industry was stopped when
pervasive resistance to the drug being used to treat the sea lice was revealed. Now they are finally focusing on the
significant spread of the parasite into wild populations.

                                                                                                                                                                         Sea Louse on Salmon

Photo: The Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs


There is serious
potential for the catastrophic spread of sea lice in countries with expansive
and unrestrained development of aquaculture. Although all fish diseases are of concern in this context,
sea lice present a particularly virulent threat. The organism can live
independently in the water for 20-50 days during which they drifting along
currents and spread along coastlines and out into the open ocean, succeeding
generations that spread out with currents along coast and out into the open
 Other salmonids (e.g. trout), which
are often infected at rates even higher than salmon, also assist in rapid
spreading of lice and pesticide-resistant lice.

Monitoring wild fish is more important than monitoring
salmon in the cages because the former usually carry a larger load of lice,
especially if they are living near the cages. 
Consequently, any treatment zone for this disease must be much larger than for other diseases in order to be effective. Infected free salmon (wild or escapees) become vectors delivering sea lice to salmon very far away from the source of the disease. 
To make things worse, strong resistance to the favored treatment has now developed in the sea lice. It is thought that this arose when because now cages are very large, and the treatment within a cage cannot effectively reach all the salmon
inside the cage. Through exposure to low doses, surviving lice become resistant to the chemical treatment.  Genetic resistance is developed and passed through generations. 

In areas where aquaculture pens are many and close together
(as in Norway, British Columbia and Bay of Fundy, where cages are densest at
the mouths of fjords and salmon rivers), there is an additive effect that
causes the zone of high infection outside the pens to be much larger than adding affected areas for number of pens were they widely separated. Salmon smolts migrating out of the rivers must pass through a
wall of free sea lice and infected fish, caused by the density of salmon farms
at the mouths of rivers and fjords. Monitoring these smolts is critical; an
interim monitoring program that introduces test smolts into cages and assesses
their infection rates after sufficient exposure could provide useful
information. Now finally, Norway is embarking upon improved monitoring and research on
wild fish.

US/EU news:
For the most
part, the EU/US commitment to aquaculture may belie their commitment to
science-based fisheries on which their entire treatise is premised.
 For science tells us that
industrial monoculture fish farming in natural aquatic and marine ecosystems
presents a high risk if not certain threat to wild fish and other components of
the natural ecosystems in which it is practiced. Dr. Lubchenco knows,
because she coauthored a paper on it in the science journal
Nature (Naylor,
RL, et al. 2000. Effect of aquaculture on world
fish supplies. Nature 45:101729
). Marine farming of salmon and other
predatory fish pollutes; spreads disease; leads to escaped fish that compete
with or interbreed with their wild counterparts; and consumes more wild fish
protein than it produces.

Mussels farmed on small scales in coastal areas are one
of the promising sectors of U.S. marine aquaculture.
Pictured above, workers harvest a mussel raft
in Shelton, WA. [photo: NOAA Aquaculture Office]

However, the NOAA
aquaculture policy
, issued last year, gives the US a statement of policy
and guidance goals that could achieve the innovative and sharp change in
aquaculture development that is needed. We need to make sure that potential is
realized, for the aquaculture industry will resist it.  But that will require that the US not follow the examples set by other countries now leading aquaculture development. It will be harder for the EU, since they are already on a path committed to industrial monoculture fish farming. The NOAA Aquaculture
Office webpage
promotes an additional priority:
a level playing field for U.S. aquaculture businesses engaged in international
trade.”  That is very
concerning. Leveling the playing
field requires loosening important environmental restrictions and would make it
difficult to achieve many of the admirable goals listed in the official policy
document. The US should not be
leveling the playing field with other aquaculture nations; it should playing an
entirely different game and creating enviable models for truly sustainable

Next weekAct II will examine some aquaculture history to see how we got to where we are with the global industry and governmental policies.