It’s Time to Take a New Look at Farmed Fish

““It was wrong that I was looking at the industry at large through a very acute lens and not understanding its potential, benefits, and capacity for innovation,””

Article by Liz Grossman SEPTEMBER 10, 2018

A Hawaiian Kanpachi farmer holds a recently harvested fish

“I used to stand on every stage I could get an invitation to and preach the gospel of farmed and dangerous.” Seafood sustainability expert and chef/author Barton Seaver has since changed his mind and wrote a blog on the virtues of farmed seafood for the James Beard Foundation, but the negative connotations around aquaculture persist.

“It was wrong that I was looking at the industry at large through a very acute lens and not understanding its potential, benefits, and capacity for innovation,” Seaver says about his change of heart. “Certainly there are still abuses for which to hold producers accountable, but the bottom line is advocating against things isn’t really productive.”

Barton Seaver with farmed salmon

Why does farmed fish have such a bad rap? Early open-net pen systems are partly to blame; images of pent-up sea lice-ridden fish fed pesticide- and antibiotic-tainted feed and swimming in their own waste permeated the media and created the fear that farmed fish were unsafe and toxic. And news of fish escapes (which still occur) after a current, strong wave or storm positioned the industry guilty of contaminating, poisoning and depleting ocean resources.

But a lot has changed in the last 20 years, and aquaculture is, in fact, one of the fastest growing and changing industries in the world; making up 44 percent of all fisheries.Aquaculture is developing on a global scale (about 8 percent a year in the U.S. since 2008) and rapidly growing to meet the strong demand for seafood consumption. And in the wake of recent stories surrounding mislabeling and fish fraud, there’s a strong case for farmed fish to be made for chefs concerned with transparency and the traceability of their seafood.

Fourth-generation fishmonger Vinny Milburn, co-owner of Greenpoint Seafood & Lobster Company (that supplies both farmed and wild fish) says farmed fish is necessary. “So many people hear ‘wild’ and ‘farm’ and think farmed is bad and they have to go wild when it’s actually the other way around,” he notes. “If we continue to take wild fish out of the ocean at the rate we are there, will be no more wild fish.”

Superior Fresh facility in Hixton, Wisc.

The tricky part is distinguishing the good farms from the bad. “This is, sadly, not an easy task, even for a seasoned pro,” says Milburn. But advancements in the quality and sustainability fish feed and BAP certifications(best aquaculture practices) are helping, as is innovation in aquaculture technology that includes everything from land-based systems that mimic ocean currents to fully submerged off-shore ocean pens breeding fish from indigenous eggs.

Land-based farming

When it comes to farming technology, the industry has come a long way from mismanaged, poorly located open-net farms. Milburn prefers farms with land-based systems that have closed, recirculating agriculture systems (RAS). “These systems are non-disruptive to the ocean environment,” he says. “Waste is not being absorbed by the ocean, there are no chances of escaped fish disrupting natural ecosystems or sharing of diseases with the natural stock.”

Hudson Valley grow-out tank where the fish reaches its target size

At Hudson Valley Fish Farms, trout are raised from egg to plate through an RAS system on 120 acres in upstate New York. Eggs come in dry and are disinfected with a light iodine solution before they go into the system. “Water is a big vector for pathogens and parasites, so from that point on, we’re keeping the bugs out,” says President John Ng. The eggs are hatched and moved to larger tanks.  “We’re far from producing the kind of volume the world needs but we are taking a step in the right direction,” says Ng, whose company will produce total of 1,200 metric tons of fish annually and roughly 10,000 pounds of fish a week (that number will rise to 40,000-45,000 pounds a week within the next 12 months).



UWSP intern Brianna Dunbar holding Atlantic salmon at Superior Fresh

And at BAP-certified Superior Fresh, an RAS aquaponic farm in Wisconsin, 160,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon and steelhead trout (along with 17,000 heads of lettuces a day in a separate greenhouse) are produced each year on the one-acre facility. “As our populations grow and our natural resources dwindle, we’re making this artificial symbiotic relationship here that wouldn’t otherwise exist in nature,” says aquaculture systems manager Kyle Woolever. “You could set one of these facilities in the middle of the desert and provide everyone around with fresh fish and fresh produce.”

Off-shore farms

While off-shore farming still exists in the U.S. and overseas, proper management and placement of the pens help avoid the previous problems of fish escapes. In early days off-shore farming, poor maintenance and the placement of the pens in waters affected by strong currents and waves caused disruption, damage and fish escapes.

At Blue Ocean Mariculture, about 700 tons of Hawaiian kanpachi (or Kona Kanpachi) is grown a half a mile off the Kona coast every year in pens that are fully submerged 30 feet below the surface. “This allows them to get below the damaging surface energy (winds and waves) caused by storms that can damage other net pens and lead to problems,” notes Todd Madsen, the company president. Fish is produced from wild-caught brood fish that are indigenous to the west Hawaiian coast. “You want to be using fish that are indigenous to the body of water you’re growing in,” Madsen adds. The fish are raised and hatched on-shore and taken off-shore where they spend a year in 8,000-cubic meter open ocean net pens. “The fish will school and form up into a ball in their natural behavior and look densely packed but they’re not,” he says. “They’re sort of free-range fish if you want to think of it that way.”

A Blue Ocean diver inspects his crop of Hawaiian Kanpachi
Photo By: Bryce Groark

Along with being bred in spacious tanks, the kanpachi are also swimming upstream against the natural currents off the coast, which Madsen believes helps improve the quality of the fish. “From my perspective, I think it’s a challenge to get the same natural taste and texture in some of these land-based systems you can get in the fish’s natural environment. But I know they’re all working on that.” But Madsen also realizes his location puts his farm at an advantage. “One of the advantages of land-based systems do have is they can try to manipulate the environment, temperatures, salinities, and other parameters. Hawaii is a unique place where we get that naturally.”

Why wild still matters

While land-based systems make sense on land-locked states, and off-shore farms fit seamlessly into Hawaiian waters, there’s an argument to be made to not dismiss wild-caught commercial fishing industries in places where they’re ingrained in the culture, history, and livelihood of the communities.

“Wild-caught fish are still of utmost importance,” says Seaver. “We as chefs must do everything we can to ensure that fisheries endure in a sustainable way. It’s part of our heritage, cuisine, our sustainable food system.”

Madsen agrees, to a point: “There’s nothing better than a wild-caught salmon from British Columbia or Alaska, but the reality is we’re not going to feed the world with wild-caught fish,” he says. “The oceans are pretty much at capacity in terms of what they give up on an annual basis in capture fisheries. That gap is going be made up through aquaculture. And the question becomes, what species and how do we do it right without having a negative impact on the environment?”

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