by Eileen Weber
Much of the seafood we eat comes directly from fish farms, also known as aquaculture. More specifically, the majority of those fish farms are in China and some in Vietnam. With shrimp, eel, catfish, basa, and dace among them, the Chinese alone farm more than 50 million tons of fish. Compare that to about 5 million tons produced in the U.S., a mere fraction of the Chinese market.
According to some statistics listed on the Food & Water Watch web site, Americans eat more than 16 pounds of seafood per person per year. That’s almost 30 percent more seafood than 25 years ago. The amount we consume is about two billion pounds, which is the weight of approximately 270,000 Hummer SUVs.
Part of the problem with the Asian fish farms is that many of them are contaminated by sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial chemicals dumped into the waterways. They keep the fish in near-shore pens, nets, and enclosures that become breeding grounds for disease. To counteract this, Asian fish farmers turn to illegal veterinary drugs to ward off bacteria and parasitic infections. When that seafood is contaminated with illegal veterinary drugs and other environmental contaminants, what’s on our plates doesn’t seem all that appetizing after all.
The drug residue on Chinese farmed fish was the reason for a block on imports in 2007. According to a New York Times article dated December 28, 2007, the drugs are effective in fighting disease and increasing the survival rates of the fish, which directly affects their profitability.
“The dirtier the water and the more pollution there is, the more drugs are used, there’s no question about that,” said Lai Zini as quoted in the article. Zini is a researcher at the Pearl River Fisheries Research Institute in southern Guangdong Province
“Our waters here are filthy,” said Ye Chao, an eel and shrimp farmer who has 20 giant ponds in western Fuqing, as quoted in a New York Times article on December 15, 2007. “There are simply too many aquaculture farms in this area. They’re all discharging water here, fouling up other farms.”
But the situation hasn’t gotten any better since 2007. U.S. fish farmers are still feeling the pinch in the fish trade. Many farmers feel like the FDA holds them to strict guidelines and slacking off where other markets are concerned.
"Our standards are so high, and they don't have any," said Scott Kiker, a Mississippi fish farmer, of the Vietnamese in a Los Angeles Times article dated June 16, 2009. "That's the bottom line."
According to the FDA web site, importers must comply with regulations under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. As per a 1997 regulation about safety procedures and sanitary processing, seafood processors are required to identify food safety hazards and apply preventive measures to control hazards that could cause food borne illness.
All this is well and good if the system works properly. But often, breeding diseased fish in a farm and treating the resulting symptoms with drugs becomes a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
In the meantime, there has been heavy discussion of ocean fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Hawaii. The proposal is to create industrial-scale fish farms in a three to 200 mile radius off the coastline. The theory is that the U.S. can better compete with the Chinese fish market, create more jobs, and increase our food base. But many environmentalists don’t see this as a solution to the problem.
The environmental impact of fish farming is an unknown at this point. The process has not been proven to be ecologically sustainable, either. But when farmed fish escape their pens, which does happen, they bring their diseases with them. This runs the risk of contaminating the other wildlife. More to the point, even if the fish don’t escape, the waste products from the farming pen can contaminate the water.
If done correctly, fish farming can be a well-regulated and sanitary process. But unfortunately, this is often not the case. Aside from the global impact fish farming has on our waters, the whole reason we farm fish is because we’ve depleted a natural resource to a frightening extent. Yet once again, we’ve created our own misery through our gluttony and our greed. Now what? Your guess is as good as mine.
Photo courtesy of the FDA web site.