The End of the Line

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Photograph by James Wojcik for TIME

Fish are the last wild food, but our oceans are being picked clean. Can farming fish take the place of catching them?

Josh Goldman runs a fish farm, but the hangar-size facility in the western Massachusetts town of Turners Falls looks a lot less like a farm than a factory. Thousands of one-third-pound barramundi — an omnivorous fish native to Southeast Asia and Australia — swim in a 36-ft.-diameter tank that resembles a supersize kiddie pool. They spend their days fattening up on feed pellets under the watchful eyes of factory workers — farmers, if you must — who grade them for size. After several weeks of careful feeding, the fish are moved via an industrial waterslide — the pescalator, Goldman calls it — to a larger tank in the plant's next cavernous room. The assembly line runs until the barramundi have been raised to market weight, about 2 lb., after which they're sent off to white-tablecloth seafood restaurants and sustainability-minded retail outlets across the U.S.

From the moment the barramundi are hatched, from eggs barely one-hundredth of an inch long to the day they're sold, they never swim in a river or sea, never hunt for food, never feel the tug of a fishing line. "We're producing great-quality fish without harming the oceans or anything else," Goldman says of his operation, Australis Aquaculture. His barramundi aren't caught; they're manufactured. And factories like these might represent the last, best chance for fish to have a future.

Since human beings first took up the plow about 10,000 years ago, most of our food has come from the farmer's hand. We grew fruits, vegetables and grains to feed ourselves and support those domesticated animals we relied on for meat and dairy products. But there was an exception. When humans fished, we still went out into the wild, braved the elements and brought back decidedly undomesticated animals for dinner. There was a romance to fishing that was inseparable from the romance of the sea, a way of life — for all its peril and terror — suffused with a freedom that the farmer and rancher would never know. Though the fishermen who roved the Sea of Galilee in Jesus' time and the factory trawlers that scrape the ocean floor today couldn't be more different, they share a common link to our hunter-gatherer past. "Fish are the last wild food," says Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, one of the best books on the state of seafood. "And we're just realizing it."

But we may be coming to that realization too late, because it turns out that even the fathomless depths of the oceans have limits. 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.

Meanwhile, the worldwide catch seems to have plateaued at about 90 million tons a year since the mid-1990s. That's a lot of fish, but even if those levels prove sustainable, it's not enough to keep up with global seafood consumption, which has risen from 22 lb. per person per year in the 1960s to nearly 38 lb. today. With hundreds of millions of people joining the middle class in the developing world and fish increasingly seen as a tasty and heart-healthy form of protein, that trend will continue. The inescapable conclusion: there just isn't enough seafood in the seas. "The wild stocks are not going to keep up," says Stephen Hall, director general of the WorldFish Center. "Something else has to fill that gap."

Something else already does: aquaculture. Humans have been raising some fish in farms for almost as long as we've been fishing, beginning with Chinese fishponds 4,000 years ago. But it's only in the past 50 years that aquaculture has become a true industry. Global aquacultural production increased from less than 1 million tons in 1950 to 52.5 million tons in 2008, and over the past few decades, aquaculture has grown faster than any other form of food production. Today about half the seafood consumed around the world comes from farms, and with the projected rise in global seafood consumption, that proportion will surely increase. Without aquaculture, the pressure to overfish the oceans would be even greater. "It's no longer a question about whether aquaculture is something we should or shouldn't embrace," says Ned Daly, senior projects adviser at the Seafood Choices Alliance. "It's here. The question is how we'll do it."

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