When large-scale commercial aquaculture started expanding in the United States several decades ago, it had problems. Overcrowded fish enclosures. Large amounts of excrement fouling waters. Excessive use of antibiotics.
Those environmentally harmful practices resulted in fish farmers suffering from an image problem. And even though practices have improved dramatically since then, the negative perception lingers.
“In the early days, a lot of mistakes were made,” says Dr Michael Rubino, the director of the Office of Aquaculture at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service. But even as practices have changed, “the public hasn’t caught up with the 20 years of learning that has gone on in aquaculture. We have a lot of experience of what to do and what not to do.”
These days, for instance, fish have more room to swim. Many fish farmers fallow the seafloor between crops of fish, allowing it to recover. And vaccines allow fish farmers to greatly reduce antibiotic use and, in some cases, eliminate it entirely.
Those changes are causing Americans’ image of aquaculture to improve. “I think public perception about aquaculture is changing, and quite rapidly,” Rubino says.
On the East Coast, demand for oysters is surging and fish farmers from Maine to the Carolinas are launching oyster farms. At grocery stores, Rubino said, farmed fish is flying off the shelves and farm-raised salmon is largely responsible for increases in per-capita fish consumption.
But the aquaculture industry still has a long way to go in improving its image, according to Ryan Bigelow, the Seafood Watch programme engagement manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
“People prefer American-caught wild seafood. That’s the gold standard. And there’s a price premium,” Bigelow says.
In reality, that preference doesn’t match what Americans eat: the US imports 90 percent of its seafood, and more than half of seafood consumed is farm-raised.
Farmed fish are “a significant part of our diet already,” Bigelow says. “So while there’s an image problem, it’s not impacting the bottom line.”
“We’re eating it. We think we’d prefer something else, but we continue to buy it,” he adds.
Aquaculture faces a different set of challenges than terrestrial farming, Bigelow adds. People are accustomed to land-farmed meat and vegetables, since that’s where almost all their food comes from – there is no wild alternative to a farm-raised cow. But with farm-raised fish, “you have an option. You can opt out,” Bigelow says.
Different types of fish farming are inherently more sustainable than others, notes Bigelow, whose Seafood Watch programme rates fish on a green-yellow-red scale of sustainability. The most sustainable farm-raised fish are shellfish, which filter the water and don’t require feed. Next are lower-trophic level finfish, such as tilapia, which are omnivorous and don’t require much fishmeal.
Then there are fish like salmon, which have a reasonable feed-to-fish ratio that’s close to one to one.
The least sustainable fish are top predators, such as blue fin tuna, which require enormous amounts of fish feed. Tuna never should have been labelled “chicken of the sea,” Bigelow says. “They’re 1,500lb predators. That’s definitely not like chicken.”
While a very vocal, small segment of the population vehemently opposes aquaculture, surveys of the general public show that most people have few preconceptions about it, says Sebastian Belle, a former commercial fisherman and the executive director at the Maine Aquaculture Association, the oldest state aquaculture trade association in the US.
“By and far, the general public doesn’t know anything about aquaculture, and that comes through loud and clear in the opinion surveys,” says Belle. But a small portion of people – one to two percent of survey respondents – is “for whatever reason passionate about their opposition to aquaculture generally.”
Taste-test surveys, meanwhile, show a consistent preference for farm-raised fish, probably because of the texture and fat content, Belle says.
The lack of awareness about seafood origins reflects a broader disengagement between Americans and their food, Belle says.
“I think it’s actually symptomatic of a much larger issue, and that’s that we as a society have become quite disconnected from where our food comes from,” Belle says, adding that in his work with elementary-school students, he found that kids most commonly say food comes from “the store” and “the package”.
The lack of opinion about aquaculture means fish farmers have an opportunity to educate the public, Belle says. To better tell the aquaculture story, Belle thinks that fish farmers need to step outside their species silos and band together, with catfish, salmon, tilapia and oyster farmers all working together on the industry’s image.
Chefs and seafood sellers will also be part of the perception change.
King’s Seafood Company, for instance, actively promotes farmed fish on the menus at its 18 restaurants in California, Arizona and Nevada.
While seafood sellers still have to struggle against perceptions of pollution and unsustainable practices, those old narratives are often based on information recycled from decades ago, says Michael King, who handles all seafood purchasing for the restaurants. Practices have changed, and the industry is closely scrutinised these days, with environmental groups examining it under a magnifying glass.
Humane, healthy and environmentally friendly fish farming practices will be evident in the quality of the fish, King says.
“If the individual product is great and people really enjoy it, it’s going to be around,” he says. Similarly, if farmed fish weren’t being raised properly – if they were stressed in overcrowded pens – the product would reflect that, and wouldn’t taste good.
Besides, fish farming is far more sustainable than many types of terrestrial farming, King says. A cow requires six to seven pounds of feed per pound of meat, while salmon is closer to one to one.
“For us to not embrace aquaculture, we have the blinders on. I think we’ve allowed a lot of other countries to gain the edge in this industry, even though we’ve produced the technology,” King says.
The US isn’t just missing out on a local source of food, but the local jobs that come with
producing that food, he adds.
Convincing people to order farm-raised seafood means telling the story of the person who farmed it, and giving the customer a connection to the farmer and the animal. At King’s restaurants, the menu always labels whether a fish is wild-caught or farm-raised. Other restaurants should similarly label their products with pride, King says.
“We need to get away from hiding the fact that something is farmed,” King says.