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The Business of Fishing
The July 18, 2011 issue of TIME magazine has a story by Bryan Walsh on one of my favorite topics, aquaculture, or fish farming. Granted, I don’t think I’ve talked about it before in this particular space but I’m always bringing it up in my “Week in Review” column, specifically when it comes to restaurants and grocery stores mislabeling fish. All kinds of studies show how much fraud there is.
But on the aquaculture industry itself, following are some stats from Mr. Walsh’s piece that speak to the size of the business and the troubles faced.
“The U.N. reports that 32% of global fish stocks are overexploited or depleted and as much as 90% of large species like tuna and marlin have been fished out in the past half-century. Once plentiful species like Atlantic cod have been fished to near oblivion, and delicacies like bluefin tuna are on an arc toward extinction. A recent report by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean found that the world’s marine species faced threats ‘unprecedented in human history’ – and overfishing is part of the problem.”
Worldwide fish catch has plateaued at about 90 million tons a year since the mid-1990s.
Global seafood consumption has risen from 22 lb. per person per year in the 1960s to nearly 38 lb. today. As the middle class grows, consumption will of course grow. Ergo, there isn’t enough fish in the sea to meet demand.
While aquaculture has been around a long time, it’s only the past 50 years that it has truly taken off.
Global production was less than 1 million tons in 1950. In 2008, it was 52.5 million tons.
“Today about half the seafood consumed around the world comes from farms,” so with consumption increasing, fish farming will have to pick up the slack.
Some fish are more efficient than others, however. For example, a relatively new introduction to the dinner table, barramundi, yields more protein than it takes in as feed. Cod, on the other hand, isn’t as efficient.
Personally, I’m a big fan of salmon…it’s “Salmon Sunday” at my house every week, for example…but “Salmon raised in an aquaculture environment…often has lower levels of cardiovascular-friendly omega-3s than wild fish, and farmed fillets would actually be gray without a pink chemical dye.”
“U.S. aquaculture accounts for just 5% of Americans’ seafood consumption.” Some organizations tell consumers to stay away from farmed fish for health reasons. I myself began to stay away from farmed salmon as much as possible when I read a totally disgusting piece awhile back on a salmon fish farm. But then the fish I buy that is labeled “wild” more often than not isn’t. It’s farmed. So I end up going on the look.
In fact when it comes to Atlantic salmon, “90% of what arrives at tables comes from farms.”
Oysters, mussels…account for a quarter of all aquaculture production – more than 13 million tons each year.
More than 1.3 million tons of shrimp are farmed each year – about 40% of the shrimp consumed globally.
Tilapia farms yield more than 2.5 million tons. I’m convinced just about every fish you see on a restaurant menu is really tilapia
84% of the seafood consumed by Americans is imported.
China is responsible for 61% of the world’s aquaculture, and is exporting catfish, shrimp and tilapia in large quantities. I’ve seen Chinese duck farms firsthand, in the countryside, and they’re quite disgusting looking so I can just imagine what the fish farms are like. Or, as Bryan Walsh of TIME puts it:
“As production pressures have ramped up, Chinese manufacturers have packed their ponds more tightly [Ed. which is what I’ve seen with the duck farms], leading to disease and pollution from fish waste. That waste can overload coastal waters with nutrients, causing dead zones that can strangle sea life. To fight the diseases worsened by crowding, Chinese fish farmers have liberally used antibiotics and other drugs, including malachite green, an antifungal agent and potential carcinogen that was banned by Beijing in 2002 but shows up periodically in exports. ‘It is still a problem,’ says Wong Ming Hung, a biology professor at Hong Kong Baptist University….
“A badly run near-shore farm of 200,000 salmon can flush nitrogen and phosphorus into the water at levels equal to the sewage from a town of 20,000 people.”
But, as disgusting as that sounds, it’s not as if farming on land is much better. Think pig farms and those toxic waste pools in states like Virginia and North Carolina.
Meanwhile, back to the barramundi, which is from Australia, this is a fish that is rich in omega-3 oils and it can be farmed very efficiently in terms of the percentage of feed that comes from fish meal and fish oil, only 20%, vs. salmon requiring 50% of its feed from fish meal. So if you see barramundi on the menu and you’re like, “What the heck is this?” Try it! And wash it down with a Foster’s.
But about six weeks ago in my “Week in Review” column, I cited a piece by Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times that began thusly:
“Scientists aiming their gene sequencers at commercial seafood are discovering rampant labeling fraud in supermarket coolers and restaurant tables: cheap fish is often substituted for expensive fillets, and overfished species are passed off as fish whose numbers are plentiful.
“Yellowtail stands in for mahi-mahi. Nile perch is labeled as shark, and tilapia may be the Meryl Streep of seafood, capable of playing almost any role.
“Recent studies by researchers in North America and Europe harnessing the new techniques have consistently found that 20 to 25 percent of the seafood products they check are fraudulently identified, fish geneticists say.”
Finally, I see that this week the European Union is working on revising a decades-old treaty on fishing and quotas that were initially designed to prevent overfishing.
The thing is, once a boat reached its quota, the rest of the catch was wasted. My understanding now is that at least if you were to, say, catch 1.5 tons of tuna but your quota was 1 ton, at least the other 0.5 ton will be used, though applied against future years’ limits. [I think I have this right.]