Sustainability. Isn't that what we're all shooting for? Defined as a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely. Indefinitely means forever or for a long time, no end defined. In advocating sustainable food we are attempting to create and support environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and prosperous farming communities. In doing so we are ensuring the future of our healthy food will be there when we need it. Sounds logical, right? But for some reason, not everyone is catching on.
So what do we do about the sustainability of our oceans and it’s living organisms? I mean, we continue to pollute it with oil spills, trash, toxic waste, etc, let alone over fishing it to the point that we are actually running out of fish! A 2003 study in the journal, Nature, reported that up to 90 percent of the stocks of the ocean’s major predators (Atlantic cod and blue fin tuna) have been wiped out. NYTimes
How has it gotten to this point? Tuna fish was once considered “Chicken of the Sea” because it was so plentiful and in high demand as the chickens running amuck our dry land today. Oh, how these days have passed. If the whole world stopped eating fish for two years, maybe even just one, there would be a chance our fish populations could possibly bounce back. The chances of that happening? Slim to none. Instead of fisheries slowing down their production, they’re going to whatever extremes necessary to make their money now, before there’s nothing left at all.
Commercial fishing, once viewed as a proud job, was passed along family businesses from generation to generation. Those days are coming to an end because of the bad rap the fishing industry has created from pollution and bycatch (unwanted fish and animals caught). Let's look at some of the more well-known techniques; “trolling”, “longlining”, “hook and line caught”, and of course the now taboo method of “dredging”. The latter, dredging, is when farmers drag a heavy frame with an attached mesh bag (the dredge) along the seafloor to catch bottom-dwelling shellfish. Some dredges have metal “teeth” along the base of the frame that act like a rake. Dredges cause significant habitat damage as they destroy all flora and fauna in its path and smooth out sandy and muddy bottom habitats, as well as catching bycatch. If you want to learn more about these issues, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium site.
Longlining sometimes gets confused with “Hook and Line Caught”. But don’t be fooled by their similar names. Hook and Line is the old-fashioned and trusty way of using a single line with one or two hooks and bait. As each caught is made, its wound in where the fisherman can quickly release unwanted catch from their hooks, keeping what they’re after. There is no habitat damage and the possible bycatch are released. The other technique, longlining, is a fish line that can be 1 mile to 50 miles long and is pulled alongside the boat for hours. Sea turtles, birds, sharks, and other fish are accidentally caught, killed unnecessarily, and end up being pulled along side for hours at a time.
Farming, another taboo word could possibly be our temporary answer. If we can learn to harvest wild fish sustainably then we will have succeeded in something we have failed at on land: finding a balance with a naturally productive ecosystem. We first need to be able to differentiate salmon farming and it’s foul history from the new possible standards. Salmon farming has given rise to numerous controversial issues including what is being fed to these fish, how it’s transmitted to our bodies, what it’s doing to our economy, and how it’s polluting our natural waters. PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls, a toxin) is found in all fish, but when the farmed salmon are fed fish pellets (ground fish meal and oils made from fish) their whole life, their numbers of PCBs are much higher than wild salmon which only start to feed on other fish with PCB as they are mature adults. Before the wild salmon have grown large enough to feed on small fish, they feed on tiny crustaceans called krill. These crustaceans have naturally occurring pigments that give salmon their beautiful orange color. Farmed salmon never have the opportunity to feed on krill, only being fed fish meal their whole lives, so their natural color is an unattractive gray color. Who wants to eat gray salmon?? They are in turn fed artificial pigments inside their meal in order to turn their flesh orange. Kinda gross, no?
In What to Eat, author Marion Nestle goes into great detail about our fish farming problems. She explains that along with the pollution from the waste of the farmed salmon spilling into our waters and harming the wild life, the salmon often escape their pins entering the natural waters. They can then mate with other types of salmon, spawning mutant species. If their levels of PCBs are higher than normal already, then they're introducing more toxins into the waters to be eaten by other fish. And, in case you're curious, just a few of the terrible health conditions that result from extreme exposure to PCBs include skin problems, reproduction difficulty, mental and physical developmental delays, and behavior problems. Scientists are still uncertain to what the small amounts of PCB found in wild fish will do. Hmm.
There are fish farms out there that are attempting to make a difference in the farming industry. Kona Kampachi of Kona Blue for example, a cousin of the Japanese Hamachi, similar to Hawaii’s Amberjack, has been farmed a half mile off the coast of Hawaii for a few years now. Cages that are 200-250 feet under the water hold fish that are kept and fed until they're mature enough, and in high enough demand, to sell. Hatching actually begins on land from a stock of fish caught off the coast and brought into holding tanks until they’ve become acclimated enough to start spawning. The eggs are then carefully transferred to the on-land hatchery until hatched where they are fed plankton for three weeks. Then the fish are weaned on to pellet-feed, made from vegetable-based proteins, PCB and hormone-free fishmeal, and fish oil. They are then transferred to the open waters where strong currents keep the fish moving and happy with minimal environmental issues. If any fish do escape during the exchanges, there is no risk in harming other wild fish in the open waters because they are not genetically modified and these are their natural waters.
Offshore fish farming is still really new so there’s no track record yet on the environmental issues. Up to this point fish farming has been done incorrectly and created more harm than good. But there is such a thing as sustainable farming and I think it can be pulled off in the fish industry, as well. At this point I believe we should be open to this idea as our oceans are in critical times and in danger of being wiped clean. At least until our wildlife can make a come back. If we can farm turkeys on land for our massive consumptions during the silly holiday, "Thanksgiving", then we should be able to consider fish farming a safe means, as well.