Is Fish Farming Safe?

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REX RYSTEDT/SEATTLEPHOTO.COM FOR TIME

FARM FRESH? Heritage Salmon executive Odd Grydeland near Campbell River, British Columbia

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Experts say aquaculture done right could easily feed the world without polluting it. A favored method of environmentalists is the hard-walled pen system that isolates the fish from the surrounding water in 40-ft.-deep tanks and catches their waste in the bottom. Even more secure are containment ponds built onshore into which seawater is pumped. Agrimarine Industries in Cedar, B.C., is testing a site with eight tanks 100 yds. from the sea and 40 ft. above it. But production costs are expected to be about $2.20 a fish — double what it costs to raise a salmon in a net pen.

Although salmon farming for decades has been a highly profitable industry and shows strong promise for the long term, profits are being squeezed today — making it more difficult for operators to adopt more expensive, eco-friendly methods. About 75% of salmon-farming firms are relatively small and privately held and don't make their finances public. The large, publicly held companies in the business — including Dutch food producer Nutreco Holdings NV and Norwegian seafood giants Fjord Seafood ASA, Stolt Sea Farm and Pan Fish ASA — are feeling the pinch. Pan Fish recently reported a quarterly operating loss of $18.5 million.

The Chinese, who have been farming fish for 2,000 years, pioneered a method in which nothing is wasted. Farmers dig ponds around rice paddies and feed carp in the ponds with weeds from the rice field. The silt from the ponds is used as fertilizer for the fields, and crabs are grown to eat pests. Some of those techniques are being adapted in Western fish farms. In Tuscaloosa, Ala., Dan Butterfield, 59, raises bass, carp, catfish and other species in the same pond; the sun and the catfish feces stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, which feeds the other species. His water stays relatively clean, with no need to discharge wastes. "I am probably the most environment-friendly fish farmer in the country," claims Butterfield, who figures he nets about $1,000 an acre each year on his 150 acres of ponds.

But these alternative techniques tend to be expensive and difficult to scale up, which make them a hard sell for U.S. fish farmers. "The challenge is to have the industry grow in a way that is both ecologically sensitive and sustainable," says Rebecca Goldburg, 44, a scientist who co-authored a report on the aquaculture industry last year for the Pew Oceans Commission. "But until the government steps in, there will be no incentive for the industry to act."

Boatmen who catch wild fish and shellfish are often more strictly regulated than seafood farmers, whose wholesome image has helped them resist government oversight. But after eight years of discussion, shrimp farmers around the world are considering adoption of a universal certification process that would require them to comply with standards on the siting of ponds, effluent treatment, the reduction of chemicals and disease management. In exchange, their products would be labeled eco-friendly. By 2004, labels indicating whether seafood is farmed or wild will become mandatory in the U.S. (though they won't be required on restaurant menus). Jason Clay, 51, a senior fellow at World Wildlife Fund who helped develop the standards, is optimistic that they will be accepted. "As the industry gets more competitive, those who survive will be those who do it better and cleaner," he says.

Except in Maine, there's little talk of certification systems among salmon farmers. But there are quiet moves to clean up the industry from within. "A lot of farms were badly run," admits Peter Sawchuk, 49, who has been farming salmon in British Columbia since 1989 for Marine Harvest and Agrimarine. "They were overfed, poorly sited and there was too much drugging. But now we are getting better. We are not in the business of destroying our farms."

Venture Point, near Vancouver Island, is something of a showcase. Underwater video cameras monitor the salmon feeding so that extra pellets are not added after the fish have stopped eating. And those pellets contain up to 60% soy meal instead of fish. Nutreco, the company that owns Venture Point, individually vaccinates young salmon, reducing the need for larger quantities of antibiotics later on. Venture Point was located in a narrow channel east of Vancouver Island to take advantage of powerful currents that prevent wastes from building up under the pens.

If techniques like those used at Venture Point are widely adopted, fish farming could become sustainable while remaining profitable. If methods don't change, either voluntarily or by government regulation, we may get plenty of fish and shrimp to eat — at least for a while — but lose the wild stocks they came from and the clear blue waters in which they once swam.

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