Thursday, 5 December 2013

Our Oceans vs. Fish Farms

I was in Galway the other day and amongst all the different people on the street with their petitions for a free Palestine and the latest in nail polish and nail care there was a group that was protesting fish farms in the Galway bay. 

I currently reside far out on the west coast of Ireland for the winter. My parents live here and I have spend many a good time around, beside and on the water. 
My parent's house is located on one of the smaller bays on the west coast and like so many others it sports a salmon farm at the top of the bay. 

Now, I like to make it clear that I am not an aquaculture lobbyist, far from it. In fact I used to be stark against this form of food production. In a way I still am, but I am also a fisherman. I love fishing. In my younger years it was mostly sea fishing especially deep sea fishing. I was on the boat so much that I had to strike a deal with the fisherman in order to afford my leisure trips. I ended up working on a charter fishing boat with one of the best fisherman I ever met. Jan has since passed on, but there are many moments when I remember the days on deck and learning about all sorts of marine life from him. 

Sadly, the days of plentiful catches are over. I am writing this being only 34 years of age and I can remember catching boxes over boxes of fish, containing many different species. This was when I was sixteen or so. Nowadays I am happy to catch a Pollock and maybe a couple of mackerel in the summer time. I haven't seen a Cod in years, no Ling, no Whiting and pretty much none of any other species that we used to catch. 

Pic 1: Recreational fishing
The reason is pretty simple and doesn't need much explanation. The sea has been completely overfished. Trawlers from all parts of the world including Japan fish through the complete length and width of the Atlantic. There are 7bn mouths to feed after all. Places like Indonesia and Japan cover a large proportion of their daily protein intake with seafood. Ever more technology is thrown onto the trawlers including GPS, sonar, laser guided nets and what not. The industrialisation of fisheries is only paralleled by the industrialisation of farming in my mind. But we don't hunt animals with such zeal. Why not? Well the answer is obvious, there wouldn't be anything left within a year or two. How come that we think that we can do it in the sea?
Pic 2: A small sized trawler hauling in a catch

I think the problem lies within the restrictions of most peoples imagination. We can't see what goes on under the sea. It is a complete mystery. We can't just go under water and have a look either. At least most of us can't. As long as I can still buy my cod fillets at Lidl or Costco for €2.79 why would anyone think that Cod is about to go extinct? 

But what are we going to do when (not "if") that happens. Fishermen in Newfoundland already know what that means, yet the story is always the same. Fishermen cry out about livelihoods and customers want their salmon steak for dinner and their lobster for christmas, whilst scientists and environmentalists start to warn about the consequences and about the imminence of this situation like a preacher warns about the devil and the end of days. 

How can we do this then. How can we feed 7bn people (and rising) whilst maintaining sustainable fishstocks?

Fish farming like other animal farming can be a solution. Sadly nowadays fish farms are more like the pigfarms and cattle farms as run by McDonalds, Burger King and Costco. But there are better alternatives out there. Nobody would consider a pig farm with 100.000 pigs in one spot sustainable....well maybe some people would....some people also think George W. Bush was a smart person but that is another thing entirly. What I am talking about are sustainable farming operations that are not only environmentally but also economically sustainable. 

Fish farms are undergoing a transformation. There are systems out there which are currently being investigated that integrate several different farm products on a fish farm that together form symbiotic environments. Such farms are Integrated Multi-trophic Aquaculture or IMTAs. In those systems you would for example find salmon being farmed in cages as you can see in many places. However, where normally the wast products of this high concentration of fish would pose a problem to the local environment, the cages are surrounded by a mussel farm. Mussels feed of the waste products of the fish and not only help to lessen the environmental impact, but also turn shit into money... quite literally. They also eat sea lice larvae, which are a huge concern in salmon farming. Those people that were protesting against the salmon cages in Galway bay were also specifically concerned about the higher amount of risk indigenous wild salmon would encounter when passing close to the cages. Sea lice and other diseases could spread to the wild population further reducing the already low numbers.
Other products grown in IMTAs are plant extractibles such as seaweed. Which also grow better due to the higher amounts of nutrients in the water orignated by the fish. 

Pic 3: Mussels grown on salmon cages on an IMTA in Eastern Canada

OK, IMTAs are still not really that environmentally friendly or even organic. There are still pesticides used, and the salmon feed is probably made from chicken meal grown in huge chicken farms....but it is a start. 

Some people have taken aquaculture another step further. There are some farms existing today that work on Permaculture principles, specifically the principle not to work against nature, but with it. Some farms have truly mastered the environmental farming and I would call it more fishing than farming. I will not go into the details of this here, but rather tell you to watch this video which gives a detailed run down of the complete system and how amazingly beautiful, productive and organic aquaculture can be whilst staying...nay, becoming totally economically viable.  

So, no I am not against but FOR fish farms. We need to ease the pressure on our marine environments if we want to survive. Without healthy oceans we WILL DIE! It is as simple as that. 
The oceans have been so immensely altered through human activities, that we have reached a point where we can not allow any further destruction of this system without running a real risk of a total collapse. Does anyone remember the orange roughy? That is how fast a total collapse can happen. We are playing around with a system that we neither understand,  nor can comprehend. 
In order to continue feeding everyone in the future and have sufficient seafood available for all, we either have to cull several billion people or have to resort to alternatives such as fish farming.

That being said....this fish farming should not and must not be carried out in a way that is equally destructive and thoughtless as nowadays ocean fisheries. 

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