By: Thomas Siebertz
At the International Boston Seafood Show this past weekend, I met Dr. Jesse Trushenski with Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a member of the National Aquaculture Association and had the opportunity to interview her about her industry. Aquaculture is already a critical source of seafood due to rising demand and static fishery landings. Close to half of the world’s seafood already comes from farms, and that percentage is growing every year. There seems to be a lot of confusion about farm-raised fish among consumers.
I have heard many comments from people that farm raised products are inferior, taste different, are unsafe or are bad for the environment. The facts are quite the opposite, and there simply isn’t enough fish in the oceans to feed our growing populations. Hopefully some of your questions are answered and we can get more people to eat farm raised fish.
Q: Sustainability has become a popular demand for consumers across the market for many food products. It also has economic implications for fishermen and their communities. What is the role of aquaculture in sustainability and how does it impact the seafood industry?
A: Seafood sustainability is about making sure there is enough seafood for everyone, now and in the future. At this point aquaculture is necessary because many fisheries are already at their limits and there are no new fisheries being discovered. In order to have sustainable seafood we must minimize reliance on limited resources and the impact on the environment. Aquaculture puts food on the table for millions of people, often in regions where it’s needed most. What’s more, aquaculture also helps to support wild fisheries by relieving some of the pressure on imperiled stocks (farm-raised hybrid striped bass helped wild Atlantic striped bass fisheries to recover by meeting demand) and public and private hatcheries stock millions and millions of fish and shellfish to replace those lost to harvest, habitat degradation, etc. It’s not a question of farm-raised OR wild-caught, we should eat farm-raised AND wild-caught fish and shellfish.
Q: A lot of consumers are against aquaculture because they perceive wild caught as higher quality and safer since they believe fish are farmed in polluted conditions. What would you say to those people about the quality and safety of farm raised products?
A: Many consumers’ primary concerns have to do with pollutants such as mercury and PCBs. Unfortunately, these contaminants are in the environment and they find their way into our food supply—in wild and farmed fish and in poultry, beef, pork, and all the rest. In fish, high levels of these contaminants are associated with fish that eat high on the food chain and long lifespans. Aquaculture fish are the opposite: they don’t living very long because they are raised to be harvested, and many (including some carnivorous fish) can be on a plant-based diets which reduces the accumulation of contaminants. In any event, the health and medical communities have concluded that the risk of contaminant exposure via seafood—wild or farmed—is near negligible, but the risk of NOT consuming seafood and reaping the benefits of lean protein and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids is substantial and deadly. Another misconception is that the aquaculture industry relies heavily on antibiotic drugs to boost performance. The truth is that there is no use of antibiotics or hormones for growth production in U.S. aquaculture, and the few drugs that are used to treat fish diseases are strictly regulated and only allowed when fish are sick and some sort of intervention is needed. As far as environmental impacts, it’s not in the best interest of the farmers to raise fish in poor conditions because it will affect their bottom line. Fish will not grow well in polluted conditions, and escapement represents a catastrophic economic loss. In other words, fish farmers do everything they can to make sure they raise their fish under the best conditions possible—happy fish are healthy fish, and healthy fish grow quickly and efficiently and make fish farms profitable.
Q: Another growing problem is seafood fraud and mislabeling. This is in part due to poor traceability of imported products. How does the traceability of domestic farm raised seafood compare to imported seafood?
A: It is more challenging to trace the origin and quality of imported seafood. We import most of our seafood (close to 90%), and it’s a huge volume to track and trace—that’s just a fact of life. With domestic product you know exactly what you’re getting, where it came from, and that it was raised according to strict standards to make sure the product is safe and healthy.
Q: What are the regulatory or economic barriers faced by existing companies or new ventures that want to start fish farms?
A: There are many regulatory barriers to aquaculture because the industry is regulated by 7 different agencies: FDA, EPA, USDA, US Army Corps of Engineers, FWS, NMFS and the US Coast Guard. The individual states also have authority over their coastal and inland waters. There is no comprehensive regulatory structure in place for the aquaculture industry—each agency has a piece of it and this makes it difficult to know where to go and what to do to be in compliance. Fish farmers don’t have a problem with following the rules—the problem is the absence of clear, easy-to-understand regulations.
In terms of economic barriers, it is really difficult to get a loan to start a fish farm. The main problem is that fish have a long growth period before they can be harvested. It can be at least 6 months before the fish are ready to be harvested. Bankers are unlikely to finance because of a long turn around time. There are also no government incentives to subsidize aquaculture like there are for other agricultural industries. There are only grant programs for aquaculture research, and the amount of investment in aquaculture is minor relative to other agricultural enterprises.
Q: What kinds of species are grown domestically and at what volumes?
A: Catfish is the number one species grown in America, volume -wise. The number two species by volume is rainbow trout, which happens to be number one in terms of value. Other species grown here are: Hybrid Striped Bass, Tilapia, Atlantic Salmon and Barramundi, and there are quite a few shrimp and molluscs raised in U.S. waters as well.
Q: I’ve tried Barramundi and it’s an excellent product. It’s also one of the few fish farmed in enclosed tanks, which are better for the environment. Why aren’t there more of these in existence?
A: Land based systems are very costly to operate because of the use of sophisticated machinery and also because large amounts of water have to be heated/chilled, pumped, filtered, etc. This can be very costly, which makes construction and operation of these kinds of systems challenging from an economic perspective. That said, there are people doing it for freshwater and saltwater fish and shrimp, so it’s definitely possible.
Q: What other methods besides coastal and enclosed tank systems are being used?
A: There are aquaponics farms that use wastewater from the fish tanks to fertilize crops while filtering the water. This essentially eliminates a lot of waste while creating a usable by-product. It’s a very efficient way to recapture waste products and maximize profits.