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Anita Cruse and Marianne Cufone: The Flip Side of Deep-Sea Fish Farms

There are other forms of aquaculture with fewer adverse effects on the environment

In “Deep-Sea Fish Farming the Wave of the Future,” published on Noozhawk on May 31, the Dos Pueblos High School students involved in the Nuvigreen Project hit on an important subject: how to supply healthy, sustainable fish to seafood lovers while preserving the environment and building economic opportunity.

Farmed fish now make up more than half of the world’s seafood supply, and as these students aptly mention, there are a variety of farm types, including onshore and offshore, deep-sea farms.

Unfortunately, although waste from offshore fish farms is more readily dispersed in deep waters and fast currents, deep-sea farms are still problematic; the waste from industrial-scale ocean fish farms doesn’t disappear, it just ends up somewhere else. Dilution is not the solution to pollution, and factory fish farms create a lot of pollution, in the form of fish excrement, uneaten feed, chemicals and antibiotics.

And unlike land-based, closed farms, open-water fish farms suffer from another significant environmental challenge — escapes. Escaped fish can spread disease to wild fish and interbreed with or overtake wild populations, leading to the depletion of wild stocks.

Kona Blue Water Farms in Hawaii has experience with escapes. In 2007, 1,500 fish escaped from KBWF’s pens after a cage door was accidentally left open. In 2009, a Galapagos shark bit through a cage. Hundreds of fish escaped and were subsequently eaten by dolphins. To this day, six or seven dolphins are believed to frequent the site daily looking for food, and according to a state agency official, the animals have begun exhibiting “unnatural behaviors.” Sadly, these types of escapes are not unique to KBWF; 2 million farmed salmon escape annually from farms in the North Atlantic as well.

Finally, the environmental impacts of deep-sea fish farms are matched by negative socio-economic impacts to coastal communities. In Hawaii, where KBWF operates, native Hawaiian groups continually fight the fish farms that they contend interfere with their culture and traditional use of the ocean. In Santa Barbara, these deep-sea farms could restrict access to fishing grounds or damage wild populations, destroying local fishermen’s ability to make a living and deliver fresh, wild seafood to the community.

There is, as the students point out, a need to supplement wild-caught fish to meet consumer demand for seafood, but there are many forms of aquaculture besides deep-sea farms, and other options have fewer adverse effects on the environment.

Traditional Hawaiian fishponds and land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are promising alternatives to open water fish farms. RAS are closed-loop, land-based facilities that retain and treat the water within the system. They reduce the discharge of waste and the need for antibiotics or chemicals while eliminating the problem of fish escapes. These facilities can be placed in a variety of locations — even in abandoned urban buildings and otherwise seemingly unusable spaces — allowing fish to be grown alongside plants in integrated production systems.

Many local and national fishing, environment and consumer groups have expressed their opposition to ocean fish farms because they are not “green” and they don’t boost local economies. Recently, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., introduced the Research in Aquaculture Opportunity and Responsibility Act (S. 3417) to protect our waters from ocean farms while researching and supporting other more ecologically and socioeconomically viable options.

We commend the students of Dos Pueblos High School for exploring the important topic of seafood and ocean conservation, and hope that this information will help them understand the full scope of the debate on offshore aquaculture. More importantly, we hope that these students will continue to explore issues in green technology and add their voices to the demand for sustainable global practices.

— Anita Cruse, Ph.D., is an associate professor at SBCC. Marianne Cufone is the director of the fish program for Food & Water Watch.

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