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Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Foodby Paul Greenberg
FIX THE FARM, NOT THE SALMON
By Paul Greenberg
When the New York Times reported this past June that the US Food and Drug Administration was "seriously considering" approving a genetically modified Atlantic salmon for American consumption, the cries from environmentalists and food reformers were, predictably, almost audible on the streets. The salmon's creator, AquaBounty of Waltham, MA claims that the fish which uses a "genetic on-switch" from the ocean pout (a very different fish) will be sterile and grown in out-of-ocean containment structures. Nevertheless the worry of genetic contamination of wild fish, the health risks a modified salmon could pose to consumers, and just the overall ick-factor the public seems to have about GMO food were all on display across the foodie and environmental blogosphere a few days after the Times article ran.
But, curiously, perhaps the loudest groan that I heard in response to the AquaBounty successes came from salmon farmers. "What I have been noticing over the years," Thierry Chopin, an aquaculture researcher based in New Brunswick, Canada wrote me, "is that the aquaculture industry is not jumping to embrace what AquaBounty has been proposing." For years salmon farmers have been waging a public relations war, trying to gain legitimacy as an industry that could be both profitable and produce more food for a hungry world. When a paper published in the journal Nature in 2000 revealed that it took more than three pounds of wild forage fish to grow a single pound of farmed salmon, the salmon industry responded through selective breeding and more efficient feeding practices to lower their wild fish use to the point where some farms claim to have achieved a fish in-fish out ratio of about 1 pound of wild fish for 1 pound of farmed salmon. When diseases like infectious Salmon Anemia and parasites like sea lice began to run rampant on salmon farms around the world, some regions, like the Bay of Fundy in Canada, instituted better fallowing and crop rotation practices and appear to have had some success in breaking disease and parasite cycles. In spite of these improvements, a single mention of transgenic salmon in a major media outlet is enough to spoil whatever gains the industry has made in public perception. Indeed, many lay-people I talk to have the impression that transgenic salmon are a regular part of the farmed salmon market, this despite the fact that there are still no transgenic salmon sold in the United States or anywhere else that I've encountered.
Don't get me wrong. I sincerely do not believe that the salmon industry has solved its environmental problems. But I do think that it suffers an unfair association with the AquaBounty project and that genetic modification distracts from what investment and research really needs to address. The two biggest problems with farming salmon are:
1) Salmon are grown in sea cages, often anchored amidst wild salmon migration routes. This can cause the fouling of waters with wastes and the transmission of diseases and parasites to already seriously threatened and endangered stocks of wild salmon. Selectively bred fish regularly escape and some suggest they may interfere with the life cycles of wild fish.
2) Farmed salmon consume a huge amount of wild forage fish. Even though feed efficiency on a per-fish basis has improved dramatically, salmon farming overall has grown so much that the per-fish efficiency has been all but erased by a much larger overall presence of salmon farming in the world. Atlantic salmon, once limited to the northern latitudes of the northern hemisphere, are now farmed on every single continent save Antarctica. It's possible farmed salmon escapees may have even reached that most southerly redoubt. Salmon farms exist as far south as Patagonia and Tasmania.
So what is the way forward and how do we deal with this transgenic issue? If I were tsar of all salmon-kind and could redirect investment money at will, I might take all of those dollars that go into transgenic research and put that money into really addressing the problems of salmon farming. I might look to developing efficient, above ground, re-circulating aquaculture systems. These facilities allow fish to be grown in temperature-controlled environments without any interaction with the wild. Using these systems, disease transfer and genetic pollution are greatly reduced, if not eliminated altogether. Yonathan Zohar a researcher at the University of Maryland's Center of Marine Biotechnology has created a test facility right in downtown Baltimore that efficiently grows an array of species and even manages to recycle the methane gas that result from fish wastes. Though these systems are energy intensive, the ability to build them in proximity to markets lessens food miles and somewhat mitigates the energy footprint. I might also try to expand on the work of Thierry Chopin who is piloting a program of Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture or IMTA where mussels, edible seaweeds, and sea cucumbers are grown in conjunction with salmon in a complex polyculture. Rather than just trying to make an artificially efficient modified salmon, Chopin is trying to make a more efficient system where multiple crops come from a single feed source and neutralize a lot of salmon farms wastes in the process. Another place I might put my salmon dollars would be the development of alternative feeds that are synthesized from soy and algae and might eventually obviate the need for using wild forage fish in salmon feed.
Finally, I might consider investing in a different fish altogether. Some critics of the aquaculture industry believe we should do away with the farming of salmonids altogether. But to my eye, there is a very entrenched market for salmon flesh now and we might be better served finding a different salmon-like fish that has a smaller footprint. The most hopeful alternative I've come across is the arctic char. The arctic char has pretty good feed conversion ratios and, most interestingly of all, because it frequently finds itself crammed into close quarters when its natural arctic lakes freeze, it has high disease resistance and takes extremely well to high stocking densities in aquaculture. Most arctic char today are grown in re-circulating, above ground tanks in Iceland and Canada. Of course some people will never embrace this solution. There is a camp that feels that farmed fish are uniformly bad for the world and lousy on the plate. I have to confess that I don't share this opinion. To my palate, farmed arctic char are pretty tasty.
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