Fish Farms: One Solution to the Jobs Crisis

So why are some still against aquaculture?

Of course, caution is advised. No one wants to turn our pristine waters into chicken factories. (Photo: Natallia Ablazhei/Reuters)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

Two things the world is in desperate need of today: fish and jobs.

So why not, suggest some aquaculturists and new-economy visionaries, twin the two needs for one good result, i.e. encouraging fish farms that will help grow jobs too?

There are admittedly some real concerns, both environmental and healthwise, about fish farming as it’s typically done around the world: Steroids, antibiotics and other growth-inducing chemicals mix into the natural ebb and flow of bays and other bodies of water; “bio-engineered” fish escape into the wild, where they mate with wild fish and forever alter species; the farms can pollute air and water, which is standard for most “farming” operations.

But if those concerns can be improved upon, there is a great logic to encouraging more fish farms as a way to create jobs.

In Bermuda, for example, it’s not the fishing or food industry that has launched a program to encourage more fish farming in its blue waters but the Department of Environmental Protection, which is looking for investors to help what it is calling its “Blue Ocean Economy” program. As well as searching for investment in ocean-floor mining and wave-energy programs, the Bermudan government is actively seeking aquaculturists. As the numbers of wild fish in the sea continues to plummet, its argument is that growing fish—from catfish to salmon—benefits everyone.

The immediate concern of course is that no one wants to encourage turning what are today pristine waters into the waterborne equivalents of chicken factories, so caution must accompany any such investment.

In Kenya, its National Aquaculture Research Development Training Centre is making the argument that growing fish also helps ensure a country’s “food security.” At its Sagana-based headquarters it has already trained 1,000 fish farmers. Dr. Harrison Charo-Karisa and Dr. Jonathan Munguti, global experts in the genetics and breeding of fish, who have already trained farmers in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, lead the effort. Health education is mixed into their instruction as well, as they attempt to teach the mostly agrarian East Africans that fish can be healthier than a diet of red meat. Of course, even the best of fish farms need a steady supply of water and lengthy droughts are always a risk across the continent; currently more than 12 million are in desperate need of drinking water across the region.

Farm-Africa, is an example of an NGO taking part in Kenya’s “aquashop project,” a two-year, $600,000 program that supplies commercial and small-scale fish farmers with the essentials for farming, technical advice,  training and links to markets.

Closer to home, in New Orleans, the Recirculating Farms Coalition recently launched a national campaign to promote growing local, fresh food as a way to simultaneously grow green jobs. Its argument is that with one out of six people struggling to buy food—most of them unemployed—providing good, fresh, local food is a priority, as are creating stable jobs. Its sights are set on eco-friendly farms that grow fish (aquaculture) or a combination of plants and fish (aquaponics).

Its “recirculating farm” model sets a high standard, of course, in that it requires farming operations that they run without antibiotics or other drugs and chemicals and are designed to re-use up to 99 percent of their water and wastewater. The Coalition’s executive director, Marianne Cufone, says she’s seen such farms be successful ranging in size from “desktop” to “ones covering acres and acres.”

...with one out of six people struggling to buy food—most of them unemployed—providing good, fresh, local food is a priority, as are creating stable jobs.

For the moment, “recirculation” is going through a defining process; some regard them as experimental labs, thus subject to a higher standard of permitting, while others see them as typical agriculture. The coalition needs to convince Congress that recirculating farms are economically better, safer environmentally and healthier than ocean-based fish farming.

For the U.S. government’s part, NOAA has weighed in with its own “implications and considerations” study. Its 264-page report on the effects of a growing aquaculture industry, created by the NOAA Aquaculture Program,  suggests that since fish farming is going to grow worldwide no matter what the U.S. does, it’s better to be involved than not. While admitting that farming fish will at least initially compete with existing fishermen’s market, if demand for fish continues to grow as it has been in recent decades, there should be room for both. From a job perspective, the report sees aquaculture as win-win, and includes new opportunities in both onshore and offshore operations, including maintenance, delivery and administrative jobs.

But it’s a fact that not all politicians, or consumers, are quite ready for bio-engineered fish, no matter how many jobs they might create. In Alaska the creators of a biotech salmon—which allegedly grows twice as fast as a regular salmon—have been stalled by a Congress concerned with anything bearing the description “genetically-enhanced.” The company, AquaBounty, argues that while the FDA has previously called biotech salmon “safe to eat,” the opinion of prominent local politician Senator Lisa Murkowski is still widespread. The idea, says Murkowski, gives her the “heebie jeebies.” She is leading the effort to get the FDA to ban the “frankenfish.”

AquaBounty argues that since its fish are grown in tanks inland, they are not risking polluting fresh waters or corrupting local species.

Of course Murkowski’s argument has a political bent, since many of her constituents fish for wild salmon and would rather not have any competition. In that regard the future of aquaculture, with its inherent risks understood, is a classic example of old economy versus new economy thinking. To create jobs in a stagnant economy it requires thinking outside the traditional.

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