Farmed Fish: The New Staple for a Billion People?

Predictions for 2018: Farmed fish is in, wild fish is out.
Farmed fish consumption is rapidly bypassing captured wild fish consumption. (Photo: Rogan Macdonald/Getty Images)
Jul 11, 2012
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Worldwide, about a billion people depend on fish as their main source of animal protein; on some small island states, people rely on it almost exclusively.

But ocean stocks are rapidly depleting, with estimates of complete exhaustion just four decades away. What will so many people—a vast number of them the poorest in the world—eat for food? Farmed fish, reports Reuters. By 2018, farmed fish consumption is expected to surpass captured fish consumption for the first time ever.

MORE: Really? All Wild Fish Gone by 2050?

In the next nine years, aquaculture of farming fish, crustaceans, and mollusks is expected to surge 33 percent to 79 million tons, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Meanwhile, capture fisheries are expected to experience only a 3 percent growth. 

The FAO defines aquaculture as “the farming of aquatic organisms,” which implies that humans intervene in certain ways—from stocking and feeding to protection from predators—in the rearing process of fish. The goal of capture fisheries, on the other hand, is not to promote the rearing of fish, but to catch wild fish, a practice which has largely depleted fish populations. 

Farmed fishing isn’t just for developing countries looking for protein; in the U.S., half the seafood Americans eat is farmed. Globally, on average people are eating four times as much seafood as they did in 1950.

Though farmed fish will help meet world demand for animal protein, the practice comes with setbacks, particularly for farmed fishing operations that operate in open net pens instead of inland “closed” systems. One concern is how closely fish are packed together in farmed fishing operations. Fish do not normally live as closely together as they do on farms. This containment contributes to water pollution and can also be damaging to fish, promoting infection, physical damage, and stress.

A second concern is how to feed the fish; carnivorous fish require at least a portion of their feed to be made up of other fish, usually wild-caught. According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, it takes more than three pounds of wild fish on average to grow one pound of salmon. A third concern is infection, particularly sea lice among fish, which requires antibiotics, a practice which is increasingly under scrutiny. Habitat damage and farmed fish escaping into the wild are also concerns.

The good news, as Monterey Bay Aquarium points out, is that the risks of fish farming depend on the people who do it. “When the environment is considered and good practices are used, it’s possible to create sustainably farmed seafood,” MBA advises.

What do you think about farming fish? Is it a sustainable solution to feeding the world? Let us know in the comments.

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