Making the Case for Sustainable Aquaculture

By Tim Sprinkle September 2, 2020 | 8 MIN READ

The Dirt

Surprising to many, over half of the fish we eat comes from fish farms. But some farms, particularly from parts of Asia, operate in a hazy, underground seafood supply chain with little to no health or safety standards and zero traceability. With our rising need for fish, are we willing to pay more for high quality and transparent aquaculture production?

Global Food

Sustainable Agriculture

Making the Case for Sustainable Aquaculture

Agriculture Technology

By Tim Sprinkle September 2, 2020 | 8 MIN READ

The Dirt

Surprising to many, over half of the fish we eat comes from fish farms. But some farms, particularly from parts of Asia, operate in a hazy, underground seafood supply chain with little to no health or safety standards and zero traceability. With our rising need for fish, are we willing to pay more for high quality and transparent aquaculture production?

While fish is still a secondary choice in protein in the U.S., coming in behind poultry, beef, and pork, it is projected to be a growing industry. How can we ensure our seafood comes from sustainable fish farms, like those in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia? And how will domestic production react to this need for more local, sustainable, and traceable ways to farm fish?

When it comes to seafood, the average American diet is about as limited as it gets.

We eat salmon, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and scallops and that’s about it for most people, with some pollack and cod thrown in for good measure. You’re likely to get far more variety in a bowl of seafood stew at a restaurant than you do in the typical American’s seafood diet.

Not only do we lack variety, but volume as well. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average American consumed a little over 16 pounds of seafood in 2018. Although that figure has been steadily rising for several years, it still pales in comparison to the 94 pounds of chicken, 58 pounds of beef, and 52 pounds of pork we consume every year.

salmon and fish farms, Making the Case for Sustainable Aquaculture

The Food Marketing Institute’s 2019 Power of Seafood Survey found that 56% of Americans eat seafood twice a month. Freshness, flavor, and information about the product all play a major role in the decision to buy a piece a fish at the grocery store, along with the understanding of how to cook and enjoy it once they get home.

Some recent studies have suggested that a large and growing segment of the U.S. is interested in eating more shellfish and finfish (the industry term for fish like salmon and cod), provided they can find it at a price and quality they expect. This aligns with the EAT-Lancet Commission, as they fully support increasing seafood consumption for a healthy diet – as long as it’s sustainable.

Farmed fish – a “cleaner” option?

“The global demand for fish protein in people’s diets is growing and will continue to grow,” says Jacob Bartlett, CEO of Whole Oceans, a company raising sustainable Atlantic salmon in land-based facilities in Maine.

Companies like Whole Oceans hope to benefit from the rise of responsible fish farming by offering cleaner, more sustainable seafood than is commonly available from today’s aquaculture producers.

There has long been a difference between farmed and wild-caught when it comes to seafood. Many consumers perceive that wild-caught products are “cleaner” and more sustainable. Farmed fish, however, has a reputation more associated with dirty pens, sick fish, and an overuse of antibiotics to compensate for all this. In reality though, wild-caught fish is fraught with sustainability issues and farmed fish can be a clean alternative – depending on its country of origin.

To be fair, there are environmental pros and cons to wild and farmed seafood. Though wild-caught fish require fewer resources, it’s not a long-term alternative – 90% of wild-caught fish are either fully or overfished. Aquaculture – done safely and sustainably – is a great way to support a healthy diet and a healthy environment.

An unsustainable system

As of 2018, wild-caught and aquaculture (farmed) seafood each made up roughly half of the world’s fish consumption. But that balance is expected to tilt increasingly toward farmed fish, which is easier to scale and overall more sustainable. Major grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have been actively promoting its benefits to their customers.

salmon and fish farms, Making the Case for Sustainable Aquaculture

But it hasn’t always been this way.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, was a $169 billion global industry as of 2015, and that’s on track to exceed $242 billion by 2022. It produces more than 80 million metric tons of fish annually from some 580 aquatic species and employs roughly 26 million workers around the world.

From 1990 to 2018, we’ve experienced:

+14% Rise in global capture fisheries production

+527% Rise in global aquaculture production

+122% Rise in total food fish consumption

Despite its size, however, the industry is largely concentrated in central and southeast Asia, with China dominating overall production, followed by Vietnam, India, Thailand, and others. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for more than 85% of all aquaculture production, followed by Africa at 10% and Latin America and the Caribbean at 4%.

The U.S. ranks surprisingly low in aquaculture production at 17th in the world as of 2017, which equates to just 0.2% of total production. This is no surprise because the U.S. imports more than 80% of the seafood we eat. Most of the imports – in the order of volume – are shrimp, Atlantic salmon, tilapia, and shellfish.

salmon and fish farms, Making the Case for Sustainable Aquaculture

90% of the shrimp that Americans eat is imported from facilities in southeast Asia, while the vast majority of the farmed tilapia sold in this country comes from Latin America and Asia. Canada, Norway, Scotland, and Chile supply most of the salmon. Typically, smaller, more resilient species – tilapia, carp, trout, and salmon – are farmed, as their feed-to-growth ratio has been optimized through research and development.

No matter the farmed species, practices vary by country…and that’s part of the problem. Lax government oversight of the industry in countries like China, which make up the majority of all aquaculture producers, has created a two-tiered system: places like the U.S., Europe, Canada and elsewhere with industry practices with strict quality and environmental regulations, and those where the industry regulations are under-enforced.

Murky farming practices

This part of the aquaculture industry has a well-earned reputation for environmental contamination, poor working conditions, and poor health conditions for its fish. Raised in large, open-water pools, many of these unregulated farms are a hotbed for disease and pollution, and the chemicals and antibiotics often used to control these problems leach out into surrounding waters, affecting the local ecosystem, and just generally making matters worse.

That’s to say nothing about the working conditions at these facilities. For one thing, the parts of Southeast Asia – and now Africa – where much fish farming is conducted are a known hotbed for human trafficking, and a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch found widespread abuse in Thailand’s fishing industry, where migrants from all over the region are effectively sold into modern-day slavery.

Though the wild-caught seafood industry doesn’t have the safest labor practices, either. Because most fishing takes place in international waters, few regulations exist to keep the industry and its workers safe. It’s easy to exploit a vulnerable crew when out on the open seas for weeks at a time.

salmon and fish farms, Making the Case for Sustainable Aquaculture

It’s a grim picture…no one wants to eat fish that was packed into filthy open-water pens, fed a diet of farm waste, and hopped up on antibiotics before being harvested, processed, frozen, and flown halfway around the world to market.

These practices raised questions as recently as 2012, when it was reported that fish being fed a diet of pig waste was being sold to the U.S. market. Contaminants ranging from fish waste to antibiotic-enhanced feed, to parasites, chemicals, and more have been known to leak out of open-water facilities, impacting wild populations in the area.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, farmed species can even escape from their pens and interbreed with local wild stocks, throwing off the gene pool and further spreading disease.

Higher quality comes at a price

Proper regulation and safe working conditions are costly, positioning quality fish against the prices that many of these international producers can offer for their seafood. Higher quality operators in the U.S. and elsewhere are finding it difficult to compete.

It’s no wonder that the idea of fresh, healthy seafood is so foreign to most Americans.

“Our seafood supply chain is worse than broken”, says Eric Pedersen, founder of Ideal Fish, which is raising branzino fish in Connecticut in a sealed, land-based facility that hopes to bridge this gap by shortening the supply chain to reduce costs.

“We almost have no domestic seafood supplies. Almost everything we eat in the U.S. has been imported from abroad, flown thousands of miles, which means a tremendous diminution in the quality, freshness, and shelf life of the seafood.”

At the same time, Pedersen says, often we don’t even know where it’s coming from. Neither do the retailers we’re buying it from and the restaurants that are preparing it.

“You walk into most grocery stores and go to the seafood counter and it’s a sad experience,” he says.

Traceability is another concern that domestic aquaculture providers are working to overcome. As it stands today, most people know very little about the seafood they eat. Wild-caught fish often goes straight from the boat to a wholesale fish market, either locally or in cities such as New York and Seattle, where most seafood enters the U.S.

From there, it can go anywhere, from restaurants to grocery suppliers, to meatpacking and more. Fish buyers are a knowledgeable bunch, often tasked by their employers to identify and purchase products that are fresh and healthy, but that information is lost once that fish is loaded onto trucks for their next step in the process.

Farming – a solution

By leveraging fish farming to source some of this fish, proponents hope to introduce new layers of traceability to this traditional system. Fish sourced from a particular facility and bound for a particular customer can be tagged and traced, from pool to plate, using everything from blockchain technology to direct sales, in ways that the fragmented fish supply chain never has before.

That’s why there has been a push in recent years for more aquaculture production in countries where it can be produced with more regulatory oversight such as Norway, Canada, and the U.S. (the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees aquaculture operations in this country).

In May 2020, President Trump issued an executive order promoting American seafood competitiveness and economic growth to create jobs while eliminating illegal, unreported, and unsustainable wild-caught or farmed fish. This order also prompted offshore aquaculture as another solution for sustainable fish, resulting in the NOAA developing two out of the ten designated Aquaculture Opportunity Areas to develop fisheries.

salmon and fish farms, Making the Case for Sustainable AquacultureMonterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping consumers and businesses make choices for a healthy ocean. They even have a smartphone app consumers can access while food shopping.

Ryan Bigelow, Senior Program Manager with Monterey Bay says, “There’s increasing interest in knowing more about our food, having local sources, and aquaculture could certainly fill that niche.”

He’s quick to admit that U.S.-based producers won’t be able to compete on price due to the costs associated with running sustainable, regulated facilities, but the truth is we as consumers should also be questioning our consumption habits.

“That $15 all-you-can-eat shrimp plate, how is that possible?” Bigelow asks. “What’s happening in those pens, on that production line, that makes it possible to raise an animal on the other side of the world and ship it over for less than it costs to grow here?”

As with many things, the COVID-19 outbreak brought this reality into stark relief. Why is the U.S. relying so much on a hazy, underground seafood supply chain involving thousands of international suppliers when the technology exists to farm fish safely and sustainably here at home, or in countries that take pride in their aquaculture production?

Due to the gross lack of safety standards in some of the countries we import from, the FDA in recent years has discovered chemicals, carcinogens, antibiotics (often expired), and pesticides. Even more alarmingly, of the imported seafood, the FDA inspects less than 1% of it. And of that 1% the U.S. regularly rejects 50 to 60% of imports.

What can you do? 

While regulations are being updated to increase imported food inspections to ensure quality, and efficacy, there are things we can do at the consumer level:

  • Check out Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Guide – use their app at the seafood counter and see what you learn while you shop!
  • Look for packaging with Aquaculture Stewardship Council and Global Aquaculture Alliance labels that certify sustainable farms and seek out operations with best aquaculture practices worldwide
  • Beware of misleading statements on packaging, like “Prepared for” or “Packed by”, as this may not be the country of origin. Instead look for labels showing the fish are from the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Australia, or New Zealand as these countries have some of the safest seafood regulations.
  • Know your fish market! Buying from a local, trustworthy fishmonger can help to ensure the highest quality, as they will do the label and country sourcing for you.
  • Consider buying shrimp sourced from the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico – it’ll be more expensive, but you can feel good about its quality and production.
  • Vary your seafood choices. Lower food-chain fish, like anchovies and sardines, are smaller and have had less time to accumulate contaminants than larger fish. Add farmed bivalve shellfish – oysters, clams, and mussels, to this list – eating lower trophic farmed fish is good for the environment and healthy for you.

The Bottom Line

While domestic aquaculture products will initially be more expensive, leaders in the industry are turning to proven systems to help scale up production. But we need to play a role as well -- ask where your fish comes from and learn about seafood practices in various countries. Post-COVID, we're going to demand local more than ever, and that goes for fish, too. Supporting local fisheries or countries practicing operations that provide transparency and sustainability will help the global seafood industry move forward.