In the UK today, a huge amount of the animal and seafood products we consume are farmed. It’s worth remembering that farming of anything is not exactly natural. It’s what we’ve done in order to organise our food production and produce it in volumes and formats that work with the way we now purchase and consume our food. This feature explains how farming is applied to fish, and explores the positives and negatives of this practice.
Why does it happen?
In some parts of the world, wild food is still the primary source. However, in the developed world this is becoming less and less common. Often some wild berries, mushrooms, or perhaps rabbit or venison might be the only ‘wild’ foods we expect to see on a menu. We accept the fact that our beef, chicken, pork, dairy, fruit, veg, cereals and more all come from farmed sources. Our seafood, however, usually comes from a mix of both wild and farmed sources.
As the global population increases, so does the demand for tasty, nutritious and affordable protein. We are all familiar with the terms ‘overfishing’, ‘endangered’ and ‘unsustainable’ being used to describe the state of our oceans. And it is true that over the years, many of our oceans have been abused, which has led to a decline in the wild populations of some species.
To help tackle overfishing, there are now numerous schemes in place to help consumers choose wild fish from sustainable sources. The best known of these is the Marine Stewardship Council , or MSC. However, despite the successes of these schemes, pressure on our oceans and wild fish stocks continues to be an issue, in part due to our dependence on our favourite wild fish: cod, haddock and tuna.
In recent decades, another type of seafood production has seen a steady incline – farming, otherwise known as aquaculture. The farming of seafood products is nothing new, but it is going through a period of enormous growth, and developments in the methods and technology used is having a huge impact on its sustainability.
How much of our fish is farmed?
The most common farmed seafood we consume includes salmon, trout, sea bass, bream, pangasius (often labelled basa or river cobbler) and prawns. Today, in the developed world, it is thought that around half of all the fish we consume is from farmed sources. Certainly, in a UK supermarket or on a restaurant menu, the vast majority of salmon will be farmed. Wild salmon is much less accessible and comes with a substantial price premium.
What does farming fish involve?
In the main, the process is as follows:
- Parent fish stock are selectively bred, to produce the fish best suited for farming.
- Fish eggs are hatched in small tanks. When they’re big enough, they’re moved to larger tanks where they are fed and monitored.
- When they are around 150g in weight, they are moved either to large ponds, or netted areas in the sea, such as the one pictured above.
- From here, they are fed concentrated fish feed, until they reach the desired weight. During this time, their health is closely monitored, often using underwater cameras.
- Once they reach the desired weight, they are transferred to processing factories where they are killed, gutted and packed.
Is all fish farmed the same?
As with all farming, no two farms are ever the same. Every farm will vary in its standard of animal welfare, environmental impact and sustainability. We are well used to seeing choice when buying products such as eggs, chicken and pork; with options such as Red Tractor, RSPCA Approved, free-range and organic all being available. However, this level of choice is not yet present in farmed fish in the same way.
Despite the lack of obvious choice when buying farmed fish such as salmon, there are many schemes behind the scenes that are tackling the various issues. These include:
- RSPCA Assured – Focused primarily on the welfare of the fish
- GlobalG.A.P. – Focused on food safety, ethics and traceability
- Best Aquaculture Practice s and Aquaculture Stewardship Council – All-round programmes aiming to improve environmental impact, sustainability and food safety
- Soil Association / Organic – Focused largely on environmental impact and organic farming principles
Many UK retailers are adopting one or more of these schemes as a method of tackling the issues around responsible production systems.
How sustainable is it?
The farming of salmon on a large scale is a relatively new industry, which has boomed in the past few decades. This sudden boom has perhaps outrun the ability to fully understand its impact on the environment, sustainability and human health.
In previous years, the industry made many mistakes which caused damage to its reputation. These included the escaping of fish, which caused problems when they then bred with wild populations, the polluting of seas and waterways, use of unsustainable fish feed, overuse of drugs to treat health issues in stocks, and the questionable use of chemicals.
Whilst the industry as a whole is still not perfect, it has learnt from the mistakes of the past and gone through enormous change. Technology has played a huge part in improving sustainability, by enabling farmers to monitor fish behaviour, capture data on environmental impact and use robotics to ensure feeding levels and oxygen levels in the water are optimal.
Further work is still needed to better manage impact on the wild fish stocks in surrounding areas, as this is frequently one of the hidden impacts of this production. It is commonly thought that “inland” ponds can offer more sustainable environments for fish to be produced.
One of the key factors affecting the sustainability of farmed fish is the feed that’s used. Fish such as salmon naturally feed on smaller fish. Therefore, a large percentage of the feed given to farmed salmon is made up of fish protein and fish oil. These fish components will come from wild fish, so this needs to be from sustainable sources to ensure the farmed salmon is, in turn, sustainable itself. As technology and science continue to develop, the ratio of marine ingredients in salmon feed is continually being improved, to help the conversion of wild fish into farmed fish become more efficient. The fact remains that we have a much larger demand for salmon than we do for the small wild fish that go into its feed.
So what should I buy?
The key to a responsible diet is always to eat a wide variety of foods, from responsible sources. We would always recommend varying the fish and seafood you consume, not always demanding the same species.
When buying a farmed fish product such as salmon, trout or prawns, it is recommended to buy from a trusted supplier and ask whether it is from a certified source. Some supermarkets have a policy of ensuring all their salmon carries a certification, such as RSPCA Approved.
At Jamie Oliver, for our restaurants and our products, we always buy from sources that we’ve either assessed ourselves, or that are certified through one of our recognised schemes.
About the author
Daniel Nowland has a scientific degree in food quality, and is Jamie’s in-house expert on all things food and farming related. He spends much of his time on farms and in factories all over the world, working with Jamie on developing and raising standards.
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Also referred to as shellfish farming or fish farming, aquaculture is considered an industrial process to rear, stock and breed different marine species, both in freshwater and oceans, to be used for different purposes such as commercial consumption. These different species include shellfish, plants, crustaceans, mollusks, fish eggs and sea vegetables.
There are two kinds of aquaculture: marine and freshwater. The former refers to culturing of marine species from the ocean. These include shrimps, mussels, clams, oysters, sea bass and salmon while the latter has something to do with producing species that usually live in ponds, lakes and rivers. These are the bass, catfish, tilapia and trout. There is also one form of aquaculture that is known as stock restoration in which shellfish and hatchery fish are brought to the wild so they can reproduce and replenish wild population.
Although there have no written records, it is believed that aquaculture had its beginnings around 2000 B.C. and was started by the Chinese. Since they migrated to different parts of the world, this practice was spread in other countries in Europe and Asia. In the last decade, aquaculture reached a global surge due to several factors, such as, increasing global demand for shrimps and prawns by developed countries, need for other options for fishermen and fear of reduction of marine population from over-fishing and effects of climate change that affect the bodies of water.
Aquaculture has also become controversial because despite its benefits, it is also criticized for its drawbacks. Let us discuss some of the arguments presented by supporters and critics.
List of Pros of Aquaculture
1. Source of Food for People and Marine Species
Proponents for aquaculture posit that this practice is an effective solution to meet the increasing demand for seafood and other fish species. With aquaculture, consumers will be assured of continuous food supply. Also, this also becomes the source of food establishments and restaurants that serve seafood like prawns, clams and salmon, among others. Moreover, some fish species are also cultured to be fed to carnivorous fish species.
2. Source of Income
Supporters of Aquaculture claim that this gives livelihood to fishermen and other people since it opens job opportunities. Fish producers usually use fish tanks and cages that they put in the middle of the ocean to culture the fish. There are also fish producers who breed in ponds and cages in lakes. The process demands man power and thus, gives employment opportunities. For producers, on the other hand, this serves as a source of income since seafood is highly demanded commercially and delivered not only locally but also to other countries.
Advocates for aquaculture say that fish farms can be built and established anywhere where there is body of water. For marine aquaculture, tanks can be built and placed on the seafloor or be left hanging in columns while for freshwater aquaculture, tanks and cages can be built on-land as well as in lakes, rivers and artificial ponds.
4. Helps Waste Problems
Supporters of this practice claim that re-circulating aquaculture systems is also a big help in reducing, reusing and recycling waste materials that is healthy not only for the cultured species of fish but also to the environment.
List of Cons of Aquaculture
1. Propagation of Invasive Species
Critics of aquaculture say that despite the good intentions of culturing fish for consumption and increase the population of fish, it can also lead to the increase population of invasive species that are harmful to the other marine species because they take away the food supply for fishes in the wild. The Janitor fish, for one, is considered a threat to other freshwater species since they breed faster and compete with other fishes for food.
2. Threat to Coastal Ecosystems
Opponents of the practice of aquaculture argue that this method does not help in recycling wastes but instead cause it. An example is the culturing of salmon which is done in pristine coastal waters. This results to the pollution of the bodies of water because the discharged waste of salmon is disposed to the aquatic environment. For marine aquaculture, on the other hand, results to wastes sinking in the bottom of the sea that can harm the homes of species living there.
3. Contaminates Water and Threatens Health
People who are not in favor of aquaculture and eating fish harvested from this method say that since fish farms can be built basically in any body of water, the chances for water contamination are higher since waste products from the fish can stay in the water which is sometimes used for drinking by people in poor communities. Some of these wastes can enter water systems and can contaminate drinking water in the homes. As for health issues, critics say that some fish producers use antibiotics and artificial supplements to hasten the growth of fish. Also, fish food can also be contaminated with pesticides and chemicals that are in the feeds. This can affect people who will buy from commercially cultured fish products.
4. Affects Wild Fish Population
Another drawback of the practice of aquaculture is the need for wild fish to be fed to culture fish like salmon. Opponents say that it takes more than just an ample amount of wild fish to feed one salmon for commercial consumption. This can result to diminished supply of wild fish that can affect the population as well as the continuity of marine life.
5. Impact on the Environment
Skeptics about aquaculture are concerned of the changes in the habitat that need to be made to build fish cages and tanks. There have been areas with mangrove forests in parts of Asia like China and Vietnam that have been disturbed to give way to these fish farms and other types of industries. With the destruction of mangroves, there will be no buffers to the effects of natural disasters. If this happens, destruction of properties and loss of lives can happen during cyclones and hurricanes.
Aquaculture will continue to be popular in many countries especially with the growing demand of commercial fish products. Although there are drawbacks to this industry, there have also been developments to mitigate the concerns brought about by aquaculture.
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