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Our oceans have been so overfished that some species face extinction. One recent report in the journal Science predicted that if fishing carries on as it is now, 90 per cent of the world’s fisheries will be exhausted within the next 40 years. Meanwhile our appetite for fish increases by the day. In China, for example, fish consumption has doubled in the past 15 years.
With wild fish stocks so vulnerable, aquaculture seems the ideal way of giving fish a break. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) considers it a way to meet the demand for seafood, and predicts that by 2010 half of the fish the world eats will be farmed.
Already more than 50 per cent of the fish Britons buy from supermarkets is farmed. Farmed sea bass, tropical prawns, bream, barramundi, tilapia, mussels, crayfish, Vietnamese catfish (also known as basa or pangasius), cod and halibut are all available in the chiller cabinet or freezer. But more than anything we eat farmed salmon.
Wild Atlantic salmon is in crisis. Aquaculture has made this magnificent fish more easily and cheaply available and provides a popular source of protein. But salmon farming doesn't get fish off the hook: salmon are carnivorous, and their diet is other fish.
There have also been concerns about the welfare of the farmed fish themselves and on the environmental impact that intensive salmon farming has on wild salmon populations. Since the 1980s, however, the Scottish salmon farming industry has cleaned up its act and the number of organically certified farms has increased as demand has grown. Organic fish farms tend to be smaller, family-owned concerns, whereas the majority of non-organic Scottish salmon farm production is in the hands of a few very large Norwegian companies.
Wild salmon swim thousands of miles from and to their native rivers to ocean feeding grounds, developing more slowly and living far longer than those that spend their two-year lives kept in cages in the sea. Compassion in World Farming believes this makes them unsuited to farming.
Farmed salmon are raised in captivity, kept in sea cages submerged in the sea or in sea lochs until they reach market weight. More than 50,000 salmon may be confined in the largest cages. They are reliant on humans for their food and, largely, for their welfare in protection from disease and predation but they can't escape danger from algae blooms and jellyfish.
There are different standards for stocking levels, use of antibiotics and chemicals and the type of feed the fish receive. As well as stocking density the welfare of salmon is affected by the water quality and how it flows around the cages, and the feeding methods. How they are prepared for slaughter and the way they are also covered by standards.
According to the RSPCA, salmon farmed to minimum industry standards may not have enough room to swim around properly. Higher stocking density is more likely to cause stress and damage to the fish. The RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme for salmon (which can be for organic or non-organic fish) covers welfare standards from birth to slaughter; half the salmon farmed in Scotland meets with its approval.
Organic standards for farmed fish allow more space, reducing stress and making them less vulnerable to disease, which in turn suits the required reduction in chemical use. Copper-based chemicals used to keep the nets clean, and which may be toxic, are banned on organic farms.
The Soil Association (SA) caused controversy when it first licensed organic fish farms in 2006. Some questioned the ethics of introducing organic standards for salmon, trout, char, shrimp, carp and bivalve shellfish. However, the SA's view that aquaculture is here to stay and that it's better to reform from the inside has prevailed. Its standards are the toughest in the world and it demands stocking densities 30 per cent lower than the RSPCA's Freedom Food standards. Compassion in World Farming welcomes most but not all of its requirements for organic certification.
Organic fish feed must come from more-sustainable sources and for salmon only enough natural pigment to satisfy the nutritional needs of the fish are allowed, so the flesh is much paler. Yet even organic salmon has to be fed other fish. Organic farmed fish feed is either based on fish from fisheries certified as sustainable or uses leftovers from fish processing which don't necessarily come from organic fish or from sustainable stocks though this is the aim in the future.
Wild salmon and trout's distinctive pink-orange colour is a product of its krill- and prawn-rich diet. The feed for farmed salmon and trout doesn't contain enough natural pigmentation to turn their flesh the hue consumers expect, so they are fed a food additive called canthaxanthin (E161g) to give the desired pink-orange hue. Organic fish food contains shrimp shell - leftovers from North Atlantic prawn fisheries - but not in quantities sufficient to make the fish as pink as in the wild or most farmed, so the flesh is paler in colour.
Farmed fish are a renewable resource - but the same isn't necessarily true for their diet. Salmon, cod, sea bass and sea bream are fed fishmeal pellets made from edible wild species such as sardines, pilchard and blue whiting. It can take more than three kilos of fish to produce a kilo of salmon (known as the conversion rate), so this equation represents a greater loss of wild fish than if people simply ate the mackerel, sardines and other small fish.
Salmon farmers claim there's no market for most of the fish caught to produce fishmeal and fish oil for feed, though feeding them to farmed fish is depriving wild fish such as cod of a food source. Nevertheless they are looking into ways of improving the conversion rate, and at alternative feeds based on soya, for example. However carnivorous fish will never be able to survive only on plant-based feeds.
Advocates of aquaculture also point out that salmon are more efficient at converting their feed into protein than many land animals are. It takes far more feed to produce a kilo of beef, for example, than a kilo of salmon.
Caged salmon are vulnerable to sea lice, a parasite that causes the fish suffering if not treated with chemicals. Better farming practices have reduced infestations but sea lice remain an animal welfare issue. Independent research by the Scottish Association for Marine Sciences published in 2005 has helped allay fears that the chemicals used to treat them damage the ecosystem surrounding infested farms.
Waste from fish farms can build up and harm marine life, but again a Scottish Executive report suggested the area covered by farms is too small to have a significant effect on the overall seabed. Fallowing, leaving fish cages empty so the marine environment can recover, is an important step taken to raise the standard of the salmon farming industry. Organically certified farms have to be fallowed for longer than conventional ones.
Although incidences are decreasing, the greatest cause for concern is still the unacceptably high number of fish escaping from farms, spreading diseases, and interfering with the highly evolved instincts of their wild counterparts by interbreeding.
After salmon, tropical prawns - technically known as shrimp - are probably our favourite type of farmed fish. They're grown in pools along the coasts of Latin America, South-east Asia, Bangladesh and India. Setting up the farms used to involve clearing coastal mangroves, wreaking havoc on the environment and communities, depriving people of their livelihoods and protection from the elements. However, according to WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund), mangrove destruction is no longer the main issue, as new shrimp ponds are usually created inland from mangroves.
Despite improvements in the industry (which vary from country to country), problems persist. Saltwater, waste and chemicals from the farms can contaminate agricultural land, and clean water can become scarce. Using wild fish for shrimp feed can deplete wild fish stocks and escaped farmed shrimp can harm wild ones.
Yet the industry is important to impoverished countries and steps are being taken to raise standards. Major British supermarkets try to source more-sustainably farmed prawns but it's not always clear how responsibly they have been produced. Look out for organic tiger prawns from Madagascar and other farmed prawns produced with more consideration for the environment and human rights from Ecuador, Belize and South-east Asia where German organic certification body Naturland certifies many farms. The Soil Association is in the process of certifying some farms as organic but, while the WWF agrees that an organic label can have its uses, it is working towards a more robust system that addresses environmental and ethical issues associated with farming, as well as sustainability.
Freshwater carp and trout have been farmed in Europe for centuries. Around the world more carp is farmed than any other fish, and because it's popular in Eastern Europe it is becoming more widely known in the UK. Eating pond-life, supplemented with worms and grain, these omnivorous species can be the most sustainable of fish. Britain now has its first organic carp farm in Devon.
After carp, in terms of the quantity produced, tilapia are the most important farmed ﬁsh in the world. Like carp, they're omnivorous and don't need a fish-based feed. Native to Africa they are now extensively farmed in Asia and Central and South America in ponds, cages, in lakes and in artificial tanks. There have been problems with pollution from the farms and with escaping fish harming wild stocks.
Freshwater Vietnamese catfish, which are omnivorous, are widely farmed in South-east Asia. Tilapia are also being farmed on a very small scale in the UK, but need heated water. Herbivorous barramundi, originally from Australia, are also being farmed in warm water tanks in the New Forest.
Cod is being farmed in Norway for Findus, and was being farmed to organic standards (though not Soil Association standards) in the Shetlands, sold under the No Catch label. However this pioneering cod farm went into administration in 2008. The disadvantages of farming cod are that cod need more feed and produce more waste than Atlantic salmon.
Least harmful of all farmed fish and seafood are probably oysters and mussels. Otherwise conservationists recommend wild fish from fisheries certified by, for example, the Marine Stewardship Council, followed by organically farmed as the most sustainable. Keep an eye out for organically farmed carp though. If we develop a taste for it in Britain, these freshwater fish could become the most sustainable of all.
© Copyright BBC - Source : Food Matters on BBC
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