Fish Consumption and Collateral Damage (Round 2)

Crabcakes? No chickpea cakes. It’s just not that hard. (via:

Of course, another semi-obscure impact of fish consumption is the varied environmental impacts of fish farming, especially in net pens–recently highlighted by the escape of a few hundred thousand Atlantic salmon into Pacific Northwest waters.

Hakai magazine does a nice job of looking at better alternatives to net-pen aquaculture, and discovers that there are no easy answers:

Moving from marine- to land-based or closed-containment aquaculture is a decidedly uphill battle. Terrestrial systems can cost several times as much as sea pens. Even though net-pen farms are restricted to suitable coastal sites, the ocean provides space and water, and free access to water circulation. On land, a similar arrangement may work on a small scale, but be prohibitively expensive on a commercial scale.

Land operations have hidden costs, too, says Tony Farrell, an animal physiologist at the University of British Columbia. Existing terrestrial operations take a lot of energy and produce a lot of greenhouse gases, he says. “They will get better,” he says, but the development of new technologies should proceed in a “positive, but cautious, way.”

I once looked into the many impacts of fish consumption, and how to reduce the impact of eating fish if you give a damn. And while there are definitely better and worse ways to consume fish (the best I concluded is to stick to farmed mussels), I came away thinking it just seems easier to me to simply not eat fish. The impact of that choice is both positive and beneficial to the oceans in countless ways.

Is it really that hard to not eat salmon and tuna? I feel completely out of touch with consumers who feel that their desire to please their palates (yes, salmon is healthy, but there are other ways to eat healthy) outweighs all the profound impacts of fishing and aquaculture on the planet. Yes, that is a judgement. But the cold balance of logic just seems so clear to me.

A Guide To Eating Seafood Sustainably

A farmed, vegan, rainbow trout. Really. (Photo is by Andrew Andrew Hetherington, who took great photos to illustrate the story)


Quite apart from now being vegan, I have long been skeptical of all the ways in which humanity catches, farms and eats fish. Species after species seemed to dwindle in number, despite “fisheries management,” and farming fish seemed equally destructive. So when people asked me what fish they should eat, I usually answered “You should eat no fish.”

But my editor at Outside, who loves fish and loves the planet, kept insisting this was the wrong answer. So I researched and reported a story on the question of fish. The answer I came up with is much more useful, interesting and surprising than I expected.

So, for all the seafood lovers out there, here is your guide to eating fish responsibly.

Here’s how it starts (which is already causing me grief from vegan absolutists on Twitter):

I contemplated the simple sandwich on the plate in front of me: a beautiful slab of glistening rainbow trout, crisp lettuce, and a freshly baked French roll. The trout skin was lightly seared and seasoned. The pinkish meat was firm and toothsome. I genuflected briefly, then two-fisted the thing and took a big bite. A slightly smoky, sweet flavor gave my taste buds a sensation long denied. I chased it with a slug of Fort Point ale. Soon, both fish sandwich and beer were gone. I am a vegan, but I was untroubled. Eating the trout seemed like the right thing to do. 

Read the rest here. Hope you enjoy it.

And there is a great photo gallery here. As well as a 6-step Guide To Eating Fish Right.

Is There Such A Thing As A Sustainably Farmed Fish?

I have long doubted it, but this guy thinks he may have cracked the code:

Goldman chose barramundi because their personalities are “tame, gregarious, and kind of patient” — well-suited to life in tanks. And, unlike most fish, which only obtain omega-3s from the plankton and algae — or other fish — that they eat, barramundi can actually synthesize them on their own. “They spend a lot of their early life cycle in freshwater, so they’re not exposed to the long-chain fatty acids,” explains Goldman. “They actually develop the ability to build omega-3s without necessarily having to consume them.”

This is key to the barramundi’s claims to sustainability. One pound of farmed bluefin tuna can require as much as 20 pounds of wild fish as feed; for farmed salmon, the ratio is often well above 3 to 1. That means a host of problems: depleting the biomass of the oceans at a faster pace, decimating so-called “forage fish” that serve as a staple in poor countries, and, since some estimates say aquaculture demands will outpace fish meal production within decades, undermining the industry itself.

“Everybody on the marine side is really focused on reducing fish meal and oil” in fish feed, says Goldman. “There’s a consensus on that — that it’s really, really important.”

It’s hard to say what the animal and environmental impacts of scaling this sort of operation to real significance will be. But my guess is that any flaws would begin to become pronounced at that stage. And like all industrial food farming operations it has a bit too much of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice feel to me.

Give Goldman credit for trying to address the very real problems of overfishing and environmentally destructive aquaculture. But maybe we should all just start coming to grips with the fact that our animal-eating tastes are overtaxing the planet and its other species, and start learning to love tofu.


Salmon farm in the archipelago of Finland
Image via Wikipedia

Salmon farming has always had that Sorcerer’s Apprentice, if-you-play-with-Mother-Nature-no-good-will-come-of-it, feel. And now that fish farms are suspected of spreading lethal infectious salmon anemia to wild salmon off the coast of British Columbia there are calls to move salmon farms inland (where they would likely impact the inland ecosystem), or simply ban them altogether.

Beyond the inevitable environmental impact industrial fish farming is bound to have, no matter where it exists, salmon farming is also extraordinarily inefficient. Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia, laid it out for the NYT’s Green blog:

“Aquaculture of carnivores is hopeless and extremely wasteful,” said Dr. Pauly, who supports such a ban. The farmed fish are fed with species that people could consume, he said, so it ends up contributing to human demand for the wild stocks of other species.

For every pound of salmon produced, five pounds of wild fish are needed, usually in the form of anchovies, sardines, or mackerel. “It’s like feeding tigers a ton of livestock to get tiger meat,” says Alex Muñoz Wilson, the vice president in Chile for the nonprofit ocean conservation group Oceana.

Many of these feed fish are species that people could eat, Mr. Muñoz said. A decade ago in Chile, the annual mackerel catch was around four million tons, he said. Today, only about 200,000 tons are harvested annually, he said, although the salmon farms are only partly responsible.

“I think in the long run, salmon aquaculture creates more problems than benefits,” Mr. Muñoz said.

Salmon is a food fetishist’s fish (yes, it tastes great and is good for you), and humans are either depleting wild stocks, or threatening them with industrial farming practices, to gorge on it. It’s a perfect example of a cultural habit whose true costs are not paid by consumers. And an example of how human desires and industry relentlessly impact and overwhelm ecosystems around the globe. But, hey, who cares? We gotta eat salmon.

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