Feeding the World: why farming a carnivorous fish is not the answer

by Rob Johnson.

Every year sustainable seafood advocates – conservation organizations and the seafood, fishing and aquaculture industries – get together to discuss ways to ensure that food that comes from the sea, either fished or farmed, is as sustainable as possible. New innovations are shared, best practices presented and networks strengthened – all in the name of protecting our seafood protein source and our oceans and coastal environments at the same time.

This year, at the International SeaWeb Seafood Summit in New Orleans, many discussions were around the need to feed the world and the potential to do this through farming fish in the ocean, particularly as wild stocks are almost perpetually in decline.  The basic tenet being that fisheries worldwide are being or have been overfished and there is a growing global population that needs to be fed, and therefore aquaculture is the solution, albeit saviour to feed the world.

Owl's Head 4

An open net pen salmon operation. Photo: Inka Milewski

Salmon farming is one of the faster growing aquaculture industries. Salmon has been sold to the masses as a good alternative to terrestrial protein and the profit margins of open net pen salmon farming are high – 53% according to a 2010 study from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, so it makes sense that this industry is able to be the most visible and vocal at such sustainable seafood gatherings. And here is where the myth gets created and oversimplification of how to feed the world misses the mark.

For one thing, salmon farming produces an insignificant amount of total world aquaculture production. Around 90% of aquaculture globally occurs in Asia, dominated by freshwater, omnivorous species such as carp. Industrial net pen farming of carnivorous salmon, as it is practiced globally today, produces a luxury seafood product for wealthy markets using an unsustainable model that degrades marine environments, threatens wild fish populations, damages coastal communities, and, after all that, results in a net loss of protein, as salmon must be fed fish meal in order to grow.

This issue of seafood’s role in the context of feeding the world and alleviating hunger and poverty can be seen in essence to be about two crucial elements: One, global seafood production and consumption from sustainable small-scale fisheries and aquaculture are at the heart of food security for a growing human population on our small, finite, mostly-ocean planet. Two, healthy and resilient oceans are essentially needed to provide healthy protein for human consumption, as well as invaluable ecosystem services such oxygen production, carbon dioxide uptake, and regulation of a warming global climate.

Photo: Inka Milewski

Photo: Inka Milewski

Seafood is our last great wild food source, and fish are a vital protein source for much of the world’s population. Half of the world’s seafood for human consumption now comes from aquaculture. The other half, a not insignificant 80 million metric tons of annual global fisheries catch, still comes from a naturally food-producing ocean, free from costly inputs and damaging effects that often accompany industrial agriculture and aquaculture food production. There is no sustainability in the attempt to feed a rising population of humans on this planet, without safeguarding our natural fishery resources.

A global population that’s anticipated to reach 9.6 billion people by 2050 requires the enhancement and promotion of small-scale, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture to support the massive challenge of feeding our planet while preserving our oceans natural resources for generations to come.

Photo: Inka Milewski

Photo: Inka Milewski

If we truly want to feed the world, we need to stop wasting our fish, we need to feed more of it to people and less to animals – including carnivorous fish but terrestrially farmed animals as well. BSE (mad cow) scares have meant a huge increase in demand for fish oil and meal to feed terrestrially farmed animals. If we truly want to ensure that our marine protein continues to be part of the human diet, then we need to protect more of the ocean, and limit impacts of fishing and aquaculture. If we truly want to achieve sustainability, we need to stop pretending that large scale farming of carnivorous fish is the answer, and rethink the model to include small scale sustainable operations that also help to recreate our food systems.

This conversation doesn’t get had nearly enough at big conferences like the Seafood Summit and maybe it is time that it does.

Rob Johnson is the SeaChoice Atlantic Coordinator at Ecology Action Centre. He strongly believes in the promotion of sustainable fisheries and sustainable seafood initiatives as important aspects of a wider marine and coastal management framework for healthy oceans that support healthy communities.


4 thoughts on “Feeding the World: why farming a carnivorous fish is not the answer

  1. Perhaps you don’t know that most salmon aquaculture achieves conversion rates so that they produce more than 1 kg of salmon flesh for 1 kg of fish fed to them — thus it is more efficient (in terms of fish protein) to produce farmed salmon than to eat the fish that are fed to them.

    • Hi Ray,
      Perhaps you can provide the data to back up your assertion of positive protein creation through salmon farming? The industry itself doesn’t even make such a claim. Please ensure that you accurately represent dry weight vs. wet weight of fish meal, and also account for all the net pen farmed salmon that die from parasites, disease, superchill freeze events, expected mortalities, and are lost as escapes. These significant volumes of farmed salmon don’t actually end up producing any food protein at all.

  2. As far as the comment on conversion rates, I think Ray’s are actually a little more on the money. And I believe the industry did make such a claim after the very misleading article in I believe Nature magazine a few years ago that made your assertions, but never compared two fish of the same species. (IE wild Chinook vs framed Atlantic rather than farmed Chinook) Fish farm feed can be filled with alternative sources of protein and fillers, while wild stocks cannot. And if you are going to be talking about farmed fish mortality rates effecting these statistics, can you really give a true conversion rate on wild fish without knowing how disease or predation effected population? And as far as “Farmed and Dangerous”, if you watch the movie, all of their predictions were incorrect. Sorry, but in my eyes, Morton is a paid shill of the Alaskan fish ranching industry (way worse for the wild stocks) that has been shown to lie to the public and media. I prefer to follow the lead of Jacques Cousteau, who said farm the ocean, and actually figured out that it would only take fish farms with a surface area of about Switzerland on the surface of the ocean to replace the world’s commercial fishing fleet. You may not like the idea of fish farming, but let me ask you this, if you were trying to save wild buffalo, would you tell everyone to stop eating farmed cow and farmed buffalo and just eat the wild buffalo? Then why is it OK for salmon?

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