When adorable little calves end up at the slaughterhouse, many people feel guilty despite their love of veal parmigiana. When we see chickens caged up in factory farms, with chicks getting shredded alive, we’re filled with outrage. And when fish pumped to the gills with hormones and antibiotics land on our plates, we… don’t care. Fish aren’t cute and fluffy like baby chicks; they don’t have adorable little faces like baby cows. We rarely even see them alive, and anyway, they’re just fish, right? Oh, but they’d better be Alaskan salmon. Wild-caught, of course.
Uh, wait, we may have a problem there. To understand the situation, we have to step back and look at the bigger picture – starting not with fish, but with humans. The world population is growing rapidly; we’re at seven billion now, and that’s expected to increase to ten billion by 2050. We’re also getting wealthier, and increased income means increased protein consumption, which means the world will need 70% more protein in 2050 than it does now. The ocean is our primary source of animal protein; each person consumes an average of 19 kilograms of fish per year. We’re fishing so aggressively that we’re taking fish out of the ocean two and a half times faster than they can naturally respawn – 80 million tons in 2012 alone. The effect on supply are nothing short of catastrophic: there are now only half as many fish in the world as there were in 1970, while our fish consumption has doubled since then. It just doesn’t add up.
The fact is, we’re plundering the oceans. “Wild-caught” fish are like the luxury model. We picture them in some picturesque scene straight out of an undersea documentary, eating all kinds of tasty treats, swimming around the globe a couple of times before a grizzled old fisherman in a rowboat catches them and ends their long, happy lives reverently, almost lovingly. Yeah… not quite. Wild-caught fish are just as likely to have swallowed a bunch of plastic and spent their lives in polluted waterways. Even if we’ve stopped drinking out of plastic bottles, we’re fine with eating fish that once ate a plastic bottle. Poseidon would be tearing his hair out if he could see this.
We’re doing it already – we just don’t know it
We have to change the way we think – to relieve the burden on the oceans and figure out how to get our fish sustainably, whether freshwater or saltwater. The good news is, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel – the solution already exists, and aquaculture is its name. The bad news? It’s going to take a little work, especially when it comes to overcoming our own bias. In other words, don’t immediately say, “Aqua what? Never heard of it, no thanks. Farms are bad.”
Fish are the only animal people still hunt in order to eat, but that tide’s beginning to turn. “The system’s already at a tipping point,” says food trend researcher Hanni Rützler. “We now do equal amounts of fishing and fish farming.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) notes that, in 2016, worldwide fish production reached 171 million tons – more than ever before. Aquaculture accounted for 47% of that. If you only look at fish for human consumption, 53% was from aquaculture. In other words, we’re already eating more farmed fish than wild-caught. We just don’t know it. Aquaculture is the fastest-growing sector in the food industry. “Without aquaculture, we can no longer cover our protein needs,” Rützler says. “Worldwide hunger is too great. Wild-caught fish isn’t enough anymore. In 20 to 30 years, aquacultures will be completely normal.”
What exactly is aquaculture, anyway?
The FAO defines aquaculture as “the farming of aquatic organisms, including fish, mollusks, crustaceans and plants; farming implies human intervention in order to enhance production.” That’s exactly the place we have to start in terms of thinking differently about aquaculture – and it’s also where aquaculture gets its bad reputation. Not every aquaculture operation provides what we’d picture as an essential contribution to covering our protein needs through fish in the most natural, sustainable way.
Which is a shame, because fish is both an exceptionally healthy food and the most resource-efficient source of protein we have available. In order to produce less than half a kilo of beef, for example, we have to give the animal eight to nine times that amount of food, along with 8,000 liters of water. With farmed fish, meanwhile, it’s a 1:1 ratio – one kilo of fish requires one kilo of fish food, or even less with some varieties.
There’s no question that a lot of people have played, and continue to play, fast and loose with fish farming. Profit-hungry, amoral producers run their farms on the cheap using chemicals, pumping the fish full of medications and stuffing them into such tiny containers that they end up chewing each other’s fins off – or even failing to develop fins at all, because they don’t have room. They use GMO feed, or give soymeal to meat-eaters like salmon, which virtually causes them to implode. The fish sit around in water contaminated with their own droppings. In short: the exact opposite of what aquaculture has the potential to become.
Fortunately, there are pioneers out there who have discovered fish farming’s potential and invested time and resources into researching technologies that will allow sustainable, natural aquaculture. The goal is to imitate natural conditions within a closed system, minimize water and energy consumption, and use healthy feed.
Pioneers of sustainable aquaculture
Generally speaking, there are two methods of aquaculture: giant net “cages” in the ocean, or closed indoor or outdoor systems with self-contained circulation. In this second method, the fish live in pools with sophisticated integrated water-processing systems that continuously direct the water through several types of special filters, thus cleaning and disinfecting it biologically and mechanically before pumping it back into the pools. This keeps water consumption extremely low and eliminates the need for chemicals. The technology is still expensive in terms of both initial investments and operating costs, but it still holds a great deal of promise for the future.
One such pioneer is Crusta Nova, a company based outside of Munich with production volumes of over 30 tons, making theirs the largest indoor saltwater shrimp aquaculture system in Europe for Pacific white shrimp. The Bavarian shrimp are kept in sufficiently large tanks to avoid overcrowding, and are only sold fresh.
An even more ingenious concept, aquaponics, incorporates plants into the system. The plants draw nutrients from the processed water, and the fish droppings act as fertilizer. By pulling what they need out of the water, the plants clean the tanks automatically, creating an ecological cycle that allows efficient, resource-conserving production. Aquaponics are a particularly exciting concept for urban areas – in cities where water resources are scarce, they could prove essential to future food production.
Whereas indoor systems keep fish in artificial living environments, floating net systems create aquaculture around the fish in places they’d already be anyway – oceans or lakes, that is. Open Blue Cobia, a pioneer of deep-sea mariculture, runs the world’s largest mariculture platforms twelve kilometers off the coast of Panama. “Raising fish near the coast has a dramatic influence on coastal ecosystems,” explains Remco de Waard, Director Business Development Europe. “Further out to sea, the ecosystems are more stable, and the living conditions for the fish are far more natural.”
Let fish be fish
Open Blue’s goal is to imitate cobia’s natural diets as closely as possible, without hormones, dyes, pesticides, or antibiotics. Years of research have shown that the floating nets have almost no effect on the ecosystem.
Regal Springs is another company using sustainable aquaculture in fishes’ native environments; the Hamburg-based company raises tilapia in natural lakes in Mexico, Honduras, and Indonesia. “We know how to produce tilapia cheaply, but we don’t do it,” says Petra Weigl, General Sales Manager Europe. In 2018, Regal Springs initiated “We Care,” the world’s first sustainability program for whitefish and tilapia production. To ensure the least possible disruption to the lakes’ natural ecosystems, the company only uses one percent of each lake’s surface for farming. The floating nets are not overcrowded, the tilapia receive primarily plant-based food, and the company takes great pains to preserve water quality. No medications or chemical additives are involved, and the fish get as much time to grow as they need.
Chefs as refs
Ultimately, of course, everything comes down to taste. When it comes to making positive changes in the food industry, producers are the first link in the chain, but they aren’t the only ones who need to change their thinking. Sustainable aquaculture pioneers will always have a tough time competing against wild-caught and cheap farm fish. Consumers are the ones who have to start looking at things differently. In other words, it’s not just about convincing them that shelling out a lot more money for fish and seafood is worth it – it’s also about convincing them to pay more not for wild-caught Alaskan salmon, but for fish raised in sustainable aquaculture.
In the wild-caught vs. farm-raised battle, the restaurant industry is the referee. “Restaurant chefs haven’t really cottoned on to the idea that we need more fish from sustainable aquaculture,” de Waard remarks. “They have a big influence on developments and trends – so they can be the force in deciding whether the high-quality, delicious, healthy products we enjoy now are preserved for future generations.”
Fish tastes best when it’s been swimming in clean water, gets the right food, grows slowly, and moves around a lot. Sustainable aquaculture seeks to establish those conditions and allow fish to develop in a controlled environment. With wild-caught fish, we can no longer guarantee water and food quality – it doesn’t all come down to the fisherman anymore.
The question everyone ought to be asking themselves now is, “Am I prepared to support an innovation that may not quite match the taste of wild-caught yet, but truly has the potential to help protect the oceans and cover world protein needs?” Don’t say no right away. Think about it a little first. For the sake of the fish… so that there will still be fish in the future.