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?

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Land-based systems may work for more premium species, and they offer the chance to raise fish close to cities. In New York State, for instance, a company called Local Ocean produces indoor-farmed sea bass and flounder two hours from Manhattan. But such systems are still more experimental than economical. "As much as the NGOs would have loved it, [Australis] just couldn't meet the economics of an expensive indoor environment," says Goldman.

Rise of the Frankenfish
Many NGOs would also like us all to choose farmed fish more judiciously, selecting sustainable species low on the food chain. There's not a lot of evidence that's going to happen, however. But if we won't always choose the fish that take better to farming, another option is to take the fish we like and engineer them into sustainability. Fish farmers have been doing that quite naturally for the past few years, breeding salmon and other species so they grow faster and require less fish meal — something farmers on land have done for hundreds of years with cattle, pigs and chicken. The Massachusetts-based biotech company AquaBounty wants to take that breeding process a step further by genetically engineering Atlantic salmon that can grow up to twice as fast as conventional fish. Its product, the AquAdvantage salmon, contains a gene from the chinook salmon, a larger cousin that lives in cold northern waters. That gene activates a growth hormone, with obvious commercial benefits for farmers who want to get their fish to market weight quickly. "America imports its seafood at the cost of a huge carbon footprint," says Ronald Stotish, AquaBounty's CEO. "This could make it economical to raise land-based salmon domestically. This is sustainability."

The Food and Drug Administration convened a panel of experts last fall to review the genetically modified (GM) salmon, and they were mostly satisfied with AquaBounty's proposal. But while the FDA hasn't yet decided whether to approve what would be the first genetically modified food animal, most environmental groups are staunchly against what they've termed the Frankenfish. They worry about the possible effect on human health, and they're concerned that if GM salmon escape into the wild — as conventionally farmed salmon do all the time — they might outcompete wild salmon.

While AquaBounty has pledged to ensure that the GM salmon will be kept sterile and produced in confinement, critics fear that something will go wrong. (As a government scientist wrote in a leaked e-mail, "Maybe [the FDA] should watch Jurassic Park.") "Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence," says Zach Corrigan, fish-program director for Food & Water Watch. "The regulation isn't there."

Even if GM salmon doesn't succeed in North America, it might find a home in China or another fish-hungry country where knee-jerk resistance to transgenic technology isn't so strong. And newer, better GM fish are being engineered in labs right now, including a transgenic trout that can pack on 15% to 20% more muscle than a conventional fish. But the very fact that we can ponder these issues shows how much our relationship with the last wild food has changed. For thousands of years, fishermen risked the elements to bring back the bounty of the sea. Fishing is the deadliest job in the U.S.: in 2009, 0.2% of fishermen died hauling in our seafood, compared with 0.01% of miners who died on the job. But that danger is also part of the allure, as the success of TV shows like The Deadliest Catch and books like The Perfect Storm demonstrates. "Fishermen are the last commercial hunters in the world," says Sebastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, who has seen unemployed New England fishermen take up aquaculture. "They had the excitement of never knowing what they were going to get."

With 7 billion people, however, the planet doesn't have much space for such freedom. It's not that commercial fishing will disappear; in fact, sustainable fisheries like Alaska's wild-salmon industry may even produce boutique foods, finally earning what they're worth. There's no doubt that something will be lost in the transition to mass aquaculture, as fish — the last true wild food — are domesticated to support human beings, in much the same way we tamed cattle, pigs and chickens thousands of years ago. But if we're all going to survive and thrive in a crowded world, we'll need to cultivate the seas just as we do the land. If we do it right, aquaculture can be one more step toward saving ourselves. And if we do it well, we may even enjoy the taste of it.

With reporting by Austin Ramzy / Beijing and Robert Horn / Bangkok

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