How to fix fish farms

A deadly salmon-farm disease has reached the wild. What can the industry do to protect itself and the environment?

Topics: Environment, Sustainable food,

How to fix fish farms A salmon jumps for food pellets at a salmon farm in Chacabuco, Chile. (Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria)
This article originally appeared on Gilt Taste.

My brother, in a mad dash to get dinner on the table, once made a crucial error. Instead of reaching for his stepdaughter’s plastic Barbie plate that neatly defined the space for vegetables, carbs and protein, he put down three overlapping portions of the three unlike items. When he presented this intimate arrangement to my niece, bedlam ensued. Tears poured down. Fists pounded. Dinner, The Sequel, soon followed, with food properly meted out to their respective containers. With calm finally restored, my niece let forth one of our more memorable family utterances. “Keep the food separate” she said. “That’s my motto.”

GiltTasteAs it turns out, this has may have to become the motto for the fish-farming industry.

This past week, the disease Infectious Salmon Anemia (or ISA) was first discovered in wild salmon off the coast of British Columbia.This was something people in the anti-farmed salmon camp have been anticipating, perhaps even greeting the news as validation. In the last decade ISA mutated from its benign wild state in densely-packed populations of farmed salmon until it finally became a virulent epidemic. The disease has done serious damage to the European farmed salmon industry; the Chilean salmon industry was leveled and is only now starting to hobble back to life. Until now, though, ISA had not reached the heartland of the world’s last truly robust wild salmon populations. British Columbia and Alaska are home to wild runs of hundreds of millions fish a year and contribute billions of dollars to the region’s economy. Should ISA make the jump from the farm to the wild in those parts we will be facing a serious economic as well as a potential ecological catastrophe.

The fish farming industry is understandably skeptical. The Canadian government’s high profile “Cohen Commission” is just now in evidentiary hearings on the question of farmed salmon’s impact on the wild and more than one fish farmer has suggested that the anti-aquaculturists have gone looking for the ISA disease rather than applying a scientific method to judge its real threat. But whatever the case, many “what ifs” are being suggested if ISA has indeed taken up Canadian residency.

Which brings me back to my niece’s compartmentalized Barbie plate. In a world where nearly 50 percent of our seafood is farmed, we really don’t have the luxury to say we will no longer farm fish and shellfish. The demand is too great. The industry is too entrenched. But with the alleged appearance of ISA on America’s west coast we have to think about how we might separate the farms from the wild.

Fortunately, good technology and methods already exist to make this happen, and have lots of benefits besides. The first and most obvious way to get farmed fish out of the way of wild fish would be to put them into land-based tanks. While energy intensive, “recirculating aquaculture systems” not only keep wild fish from catching farmed-fish diseases, they also do the reverse, providing a sterile environment where fish can thrive. Temperature and water current can be carefully regulated, which adds to fish health and growth rates. Using these advantages, companies like SweetSpring of Washington state have managed to grow coho salmon in containment that reach maturity in a year and the market at a reasonable price. Closed containment’s other major advantage is the ability to create fish farms close to markets. In an experimental facility in downtown Baltimore, Yonathan Zohar, the director of the Center for Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland, is growing a variety of chefs’ favorite species in containment and providing fish to local restaurants that are steps rather than miles away.

The second, slightly lower tech way is to choose species and waterways that do not interact with the wild. Farmed “striped bass” are in fact a hybrid of striped bass and white bass that are sterile and cannot interbreed with wild populations. They are grown in manmade ponds and raceways that have limited interaction with the surrounding environment. It’s interesting to compare the fates of salmon and striped bass since the modern age of aquaculture was born. Whereas wild salmon populations have generally declined, striped bass have not. In fact, striped bass populations have been largely rebuilt over the last two decades even as the farmed striped bass industry grew. Today, 60 percent of all striped bass eaten are farmed.

The third path to separation is markedly less popular among conservationists. Instead of removing fish from the ocean, “offshore aquaculture” seeks to move fish farms away from sensitive coastal migration routes and put them offshore where there is little or no interaction with similar species. This, of course, has its problems. Wave action is considerably more extreme far offshore and a heavy storm can make mincemeat of the best technology. Moreover, an aquaculture operation three or more miles from land incurs a pretty heavy gasoline tax. Indeed, depending on how you run the numbers, a recirculating land-based facility can come off as more fuel efficient that an offshore pen.

The fourth and final way to separate things is on a hemispheric scale. Despite its salmon farming industry, salmon are not endemic to Chile. The equator acts as a “thermal barrier” to salmonids and so there are no wild populations in the global south farmed salmon can impact. But damage has been done: The introduction of salmon and trout to the region has probably dealt a blow to indigenous fish we never even had data on. A family of southern hemisphere fish called galaxiids probably suffered considerably from the competition. But a cynical argument can be made that this is already old news, and we needn’t worry about lost, unknown fish so much so long as farm-based diseases do not cross back up to the north and infect salmon populations there.

Whichever of these four avenues humanity chooses it’s clear now that wild populations will increasingly be exposed to the vagaries of a globalized farmed fish sector. Nevertheless we may still have time to keep the farmed food and the wild food separate. For the sake of both, it might be worth trying.

Paul Greenberg is the author of the James Beard Award-winning "Four Fish, the Future of the Last Wild Food." He is on Twitter @4fishgreenberg and on the web at

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>