No Escape: Fish Farming is Not a Fix

As global fish populations hover around ten percent of historic numbers, consumer demand for premium fish products continues to rise. If oceans can’t sustain further harvests, much of our seafood may be coming from places other than the sea.
Proponents of aquaculture — seafood farming — argue that raising fish in controlled settings would supply the market without impinging on wild populations. Fish farming also eliminates by-catch, which annually accounts for nearly 60 million tons of mistakenly killed and discarded sea life. So why is a California senator trying to pass a law that would ban fish farming before it begins?
Aquaculture comes with its own set of problems. A 200,000-fish salmon farm produces as much fecal waste as the untreated sewage from a town of 65,000 people. When this waste flows unchecked into the ocean, as it does in coastal net-pen farms, it overloads coastal areas with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. You wouldn’t want to swim anywhere near these waters.
Then there’s the challenge of feeding farmed fish: According to a Stanford University-led study, it takes more than 11 pounds of wild fish, ground up into feed, to produce just two pounds of fish species such as tuna, cod, flounder, and seabass. Salmon convert a bit better — over six pounds for two pounds of fresh salmon. Although the poultry and swine industries are the largest consumers of fishmeal, demand for meal is rising fastest from the fish farmers. Meanwhile, harvesting fish from the ocean for fishmeal deprives wild fish of a major food source.
Other aquaculture pitfalls closely parallel those of agriculture. The larger the salmon farm, the greater the chance for disease and the need for antibiotics. The risk of escape drives the stakes even higher: Fish escape farms, particularly coastal net-pen farms, in great numbers — over 100,000 at a time. The possibility of diseased fish escaping and infecting wild stocks has made many fishers vocal about the dangers of aquaculture.
An obvious alternative is to raise the fish in giant inland ponds, where waste can be treated and the fish have nowhere to escape. But this technology will be expensive: Decent-sized ocean fish farms, such as those off the coast of Norway, contain at least half a million fish and produce about 10 million pounds of meat annually, a scale that would be difficult to recreate on land. “Salmon cannot be raised in a closed system,” argues Ocean Conservancy California’s Karen Reyna, who is skeptical that ocean conditions could ever be replicated in a land pond.
One proponent of ponds wants to add transgenic fish to the equation. Aqua Bounty Farms, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based company, has had an application to market its transgenic salmon — which grow twice as fast as regular salmon — sitting before the FDA since 1996. The company expects to sell its fish eggs and fry to fish-farming operations, which would in turn market the fish back to consumers.
Aqua Bounty says that its transgenic salmon, by growing faster than regular fish, would give inland fish farmers the economic edge to compensate for the high costs of inland ponds. But even Aqua Bounty Vice President Joe McGonigle concedes that the days of inland fish farms are a long way off. “It’s not clear that these [land-based systems] can operate efficiently at that level,” says McGonigle. And until they do, Aqua Bounty’s primary customers would likely be offshore farms.
But critics of genetically engineered foods charge that transgenic fish technology is much too dangerous to implement near wild fish stocks. An oft-cited 2000 study out of Purdue University found that transgenic fish were both more successful in mating and less likely to produce viable offspring — a formula known as the “Trojan gene,” which could lead to species extinction. Transgenic fish also mature faster, outcompeting wild fish for food supplies. Aqua Bounty has only sought FDA approval to sell sterile female fish, which the company says eliminates the possibility of transgenic fish destroying wild stocks. McGonigle also says that female transgenic fish almost never return to freshwater streams to breed. But critics like Joseph Mendelson at the Center for Food Safety aren’t reassured. “Almost never is not never, and sterilization is not 100 percent effective. You could still have a breeding female that would be producing spawn of these fish, with the genetic trait.”
When The Pew Oceans Commission, a nonprofit organization whose members include former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, NRDC President John Hamilton Adams, and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations President Pietro Parravano, released its assessment of the state of US oceans, the report called for a moratorium on the expansion of finfish farms and on farming all transgenic and anadromous species until national standards are established. Whether the commission’s advice will be taken remains to be seen.
Here in California, Senator Byron Sher, a Democrat from the South Bay and Chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, has been working to stop transgenic aquaculture before it can get off — or in — the ground.
“It’s like offshore oil drilling,” says Jeff Shellito of Sher’s staff. “We’re trying to stop something before it gets started.” An attempt at legislating a ban last year died in the state assembly after pressure from the biotech lobby.
This summer, SB 245, a new bill that would ban all finfish aquaculture in the waters off the coast, will be heard before the same assembly that killed SB 1525. This bill doesn’t single out transgenics or biotechnology, and Shellito hopes that a compromise will be reached so it will pass. While there is no finfish aquaculture taking place in California waters now, Shellito believes passing the bill is a necessary precaution.
In February, the California Fish and Game Commission adopted regulations that effectively ban transgenic aquaculture, making an exception for research. Meanwhile, states like Washington and Maryland are adopting more stringent bans on transgenic fish farming.
McGonigle dismisses these efforts as political maneuvering and paints a picture of an anti-biotech interest group lobbying in states like California to gain national support. “It’s kind of silly,” he says, “because you’re essentially regulating a product that isn’t on the market.”
Should its products enter the market, Aqua Bounty has adopted a policy counter to the likes of Monsanto, which fights keep its genetically engineered seeds unlabeled. According to a company report called “Biotech Acceptance: A Label Goes a Long Way,” the company plans to require all farms growing AquAdvantage fish to label the product as genetically engineered, despite the lack of any legal obligation to do so.

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