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November 20, 2008

A Fish Story

Ah, the long-threatened fish post. Let's cut to the chase. Fish stocks, like their financial brethren, are plummeting fast. And of course, in the ocean unlike on Wall Street, rising demand only makes things worse. Mark Bittman had a good piece in the Sunday NYT on the prospects for saving fisheries as well as on the collision course between fishing and farming (both on land and on sea). First, he reminded us of what life was like back when he was young. He relates:
I'm old enough to remember fishermen unloading boxes of flounder at the funky Fulton Fish Market in New York, charging wholesalers a nickel a pound. I remember when local mussels and oysters were practically free, when fresh tuna was an oxymoron, and when monkfish, squid and now-trendy skate were considered "trash."
As Inspector Clouseau would say, "Not... Anymore." Bittman throws in a nifty chart that shows how world fish stocks have gone from abundant to totally exploited in the span of 50 years.


Bittman does offer a way forward in the form of sustainable fishing practices on an international scale plus a willingness of consumers to eat "low-rent" fish like sardines, mackeral and herring. While both have the potential to stabilize the situation, we will likely never be swimming in fish the way we used to.

But what really captured my attention in this article was the fish meal. Bittman reports that:
Nearly one-third of the world's wild-caught fish are reduced to fish meal and fed to farmed fish and cattle and pigs. Aquaculture alone consumes an estimated 53 percent of the world's fish meal and 87 percent of its fish oil.
So we deplete the oceans to fill the fish pens and the feedlots. Nice. What is it with factory farming? Devastating farmland and torturing animals isn't enough? They need to destroy the oceans, too? And it's not like it's an efficient use of resources, (efficiency being the last refuge of the economist). Rather:
Approximately three kilograms of forage fish go to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon; the ratio for cod is five to one; and for tuna - the most beef-like of all - the so-called feed-to-flesh ratio is 20 to 1, said John Volpe, an assistant professor of marine systems conservation at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
So color me disappointed to learn that a USDA panel just yesterday approved standards that pave the way for certified "organic" farmed fish. Does Bittman's description sound organic to you?
The industry spends an estimated $1 billion a year on veterinary products; degrades the land (shrimp farming destroys mangroves, for example, a key protector from typhoons); pollutes local waters (according to a recent report by the Worldwatch Institute, a salmon farm with 200,000 fish releases nutrients and fecal matter roughly equivalent to as many as 600,000 people); and imperils wild populations that come in contact with farmed salmon.
How about we label it "yucky"? "Gross", "outrageous", and "unsustainable" also come to mind. How about "illegal"? Would that work? To think that Wired Magazine included industrial fish-farming as part of the "Future of Food."

Now, not all fish farming is bad. After all, fish ponds (the antecedent of industrial fish farming) are considered a crucial element in subsistence farming for the developing world - Peace Corps volunteers have been digging them for decades. And according to Bittman, aquaculture is (surprisingly) better in China and much of Asia "where it is small in scale, focuses on herbivorous fish and is not only sustainable but environmentally sound." I'm not sure how you square that with some of the contrary evidence in a NYT Magazine article on the "Catfish Wars," but there you have it.

So like the "Paper or Plastic" question, there really is no good answer to the "Farmed or Wild-caught" question. I guess, as Bittman suggests, the best answer to that question is: mackerel.

Photo by Jean-François Chénier used under CC license
Chart by Bill Marsh for The New York Times

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Blogger Lindsay said...

"I guess, as Bittman suggests, the best answer to that question is: mackerel."

...or a good burger.

Blogger charliereece said...

This is probably your best-written post yet. Very nice.

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