If you must farm fish, farm responsibly

Posted: Monday, November 24, 2008

Growing up, dinners in my family were more than just meals - they were a time to learn, share and bond. My parents were intrepid cooks who not only insisted on using the freshest and healthiest ingredients but that we appreciate the communion between our food and the environment in which we live. Whether it was crabbing along the Chesapeake Bay or picking vegetables in the family garden, I learned at an early age that the choices we make about our food have impacts not only on our own personal health but on our planet as well.

In a Faustian bargain that future generations may come to lament, however, many consumers are unknowingly subsidizing harmful aquaculture practices that produce fish that raise health concerns for us and are also harmful for our oceans as well.

For many families, dinner begins with fish, and in the United States that often means salmon.

To keep up with this demand, retailers have turned to cheaply produced commodity farmed salmon. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, aquaculture now accounts for nearly half of the world's food fish. Salmon, in particular, has seen tremendous growth over the past two decades. What was once a largely Norwegian cottage industry is now a global enterprise run by large multinational corporations with major facilities in North America, South America and Asia. Yet, while salmon farming facilities might be found in picturesque locales around the globe, there's nothing pristine about salmon farming.

Unlike their wild cousins, farmed salmon spend most of their adult life in floating open water net pens with thousands of other salmon, where they are each confined to the equivalent of swimming in a bathtub full of water. These crowded pen conditions, in turn, not only produce large quantities of untreated waste that are discharged directly into the surrounding waters, but they also create an ideal breeding ground for deadly viruses and parasites - all of which can be readily transferred to native wild fish populations.

And problems at fish farming facilities have real-life impacts felt on kitchen tables around the United States. Indeed, earlier this year the Safeway supermarket chain announced its intentions to reduce purchases of Chilean farmed salmon after a March New York Times article examining the impacts of an outbreak of the infectious salmon anemia virus and related concerns about sanitary conditions in the industry.

Anytime a system is set up to cut corners, it creates a recipe for disaster. Not only is the quality of fish that many consumers buy suffering, but the massive industrial aquaculture facilities that have sprung up to produce cheap farmed salmon are hurting our environment as well. And as any entrepreneur will tell you, that's bad business.

The great author Wendell Berry once wrote that "how we eat determines ... how the world is used." When we support a system that produces cheap food at the expense of our ecosystem we're undermining the foundation of both our food system and our culture.

Fish lovers shouldn't have to subsidize environmental pollution with their meal purchases. The techniques employed at most industrial salmon aquaculture facilities are simply not sustainable. We have more than 10,000 years of agricultural history and we've done a poor job of transferring the lessons we've learned harvesting our lands to sustainably reaping the bounty of our seas. Aquaculture need not harm our environment. There is a better way.

Not all salmon farms are created equal and there are certainly great examples of companies that are making great progress toward truly sustainable aquaculture. And it is in the best interest of the health of our population to have more farmed fish in our diets. But our health cannot come at the expense of that of our oceans. In an era of globally declining natural resources, it's irresponsible for both producers and consumers to place the goal of cheaply farmed fish above responsible stewardship of our oceans.

• Barton Seaver is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. This essay was written for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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