Aquaculture for all

Government Pushes Factory Farming

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Despite consumers becoming more and more conscious about the environmental, cultural and economic repercussions of their food choice, Food and Water Watch says that the US government is pushing for and encouraging more factory farming in US oceans.

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Executive Summary

Over the past decade, people have become increasingly conscious about the environmental, cultural and economic repercussions of their food choices, and a movement has emerged to support more diverse, sustainable options. This movement has extended to choices about seafood, as people take note of issues such as overfishing and the environmental ramifications of different types of fish farming.

Despite this, the US government continues to subsidise the development of open ocean aquaculture, a type of factory farming that threatens the health of our oceans, coastal communities and consumers. Factory fish farming involves the production of as many as tens of thousands of fish in cages off the coastline.

This report revisits the four US taxpayer-supported factory fish farming experiments — in Hawaii, New Hampshire and Puerto Rico — that are described in Food & Water Watch’s previous reports, Seas of Doubt and the first edition of Fishy Farms. Because all of these research and demonstration projects have previously received government funding to advance the industry, we have traced the operations’ histories for lessons that can be drawn about the feasibility of ocean fish farming.

The results are bleak. This newest update finds that despite having as many as 13 years to overcome setbacks, the farms have been largely unsuccessful, facing some combination of technical, economic or environmental setbacks. They have experienced fish escapes, equipment failure and community opposition. In some cases, the problems have caused the operations to relocate, scale-back, sell out to other companies or even stop production altogether. Operations that have since been proposed have had difficulty securing permits and community support.

Even as new information about these facilities continues to demonstrate that their feasibility is uncertain, the data is becoming clearer about their potential impacts. A leading argument used to promote factory fish farming is that we need it to offset the US sea-food trade deficit — that is, to import less seafood and produce more seafood for local consumption.

A Food & Water Watch analysis finds that to do this through factory fish farming, however, would require an almost unimaginable 200 million fish to be produced in ocean cages each year. This would call for approximately 41 per cent of the entire global production of ishmeal to be used as feed, could produce as much nitrogenous waste as the untreated sewage from a city nearly nine times more populous than the city of Los Angeles and could lead to the escapement of as many as 34.8 million fish (if conditions are unfavorable) or one to two million fish (if conditions are ideal) into our oceans in one year alone.

Despite years of opposition from consumers, environmentalists and coastal communities, as well as increasing evidence that this type of farming is infeasible and irresponsible, the federal government, under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has continued to sink resources to support this industry and develop a policy for it. The government already has spent over $44 million in support of the troubled industry. During a time when people are pushing to trim the federal budget, NOAA continues to request money to support ocean fish farming — money that could be more wisely spent supporting job creation and economic growth in other areas.

After more than a decade of setbacks, it is time for the US government to recognise that factory fish farming is not the solution for increasing seafood safety and availability. NOAA must stop taking money away from improving the sustainability of our wild fisheries. Congress should act to prevent federal agencies from fast-tracking the development of the industry. The international community already has learned that large-scale, industrial, land-based agriculture cannot solve all economic and food security problems. When it comes to seafood and our oceans, we should take a lesson and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Key Findings

  • The factory fish farming industry has failed to demonstrate that it is environmentally sustainable or inancially or technically viable on a commercial scale. None of the US taxpayer-supported factory fish farming experiments have succeeded in proving that the industry is financially feasible or environmentally sustainable.

  • Open ocean aquaculture is not a solution to the US seafood trade deficit . According to Food & Water Watch analysis, based on examples from cobia, a type of fish currently in production, the United States would need to produce 200 million fish each year to offset the $10 billion seafood trade deficit. Our estimates conclude that:

    • It would take more than 1.2 million tons of fishmeal — or 41 per cent of the current estimated global supply — to feed this many fish

    • Assuming that these fish produce a similar amount of waste as farmed salmon, this volume of production would lead to as much nitrogenous waste as the raw sewage from a city of over 34 million people — nearly nine times the city of Los Angeles.

    • If as many fish escaped from these farms as escaped on average over the course of three unfavorable years of salmon production in Washington state, 34.8 million fish could be released into our oceans, where they could compete and interbreed with wild fish . This is over 17 times as many fish as are estimated to escape from salmon farms in the Atlantic Ocean each year.

    • Even if the industry avoided the unfavorable conditions of storms or equipment failure, we could still expect one to two million fish to be released into our waters annually, comparable to the quantity of salmon escapes in the Atlantic that some scientists believe has contributed to the extinction of wild Atlantic salmon.

  • Ocean factory fish farms will not reduce pressure on wild fish populations. The aquaculture industry already is the world’s largest user of fishmeal and fish oil, consuming 80 per cent of the world’s fish oil and half the fishmeal each ear.

  • Rather than contributing to domestic and global food supplies, open ocean aquaculture facilities will likely produce an expensive product that is out of reach for many US consumers and may, in fact, contribute to food insecurity in populations that are dependent on the small fish species used in fishmeal and oil for protein.

  • Like other factory-style industries with the goal of outputting as much as possible for the smallest cost, offshore fish farms will employ relatively few people, and the jobs may not be desirable or safe for workers.

  • Despite spending many resources and staff time, neither NOAA nor Congress have successfully drafted a policy that could responsibly regulate factory fish farming.
Juvenile cobia responding to a feeding pipe in an offshore cage of of the island of Culebra, Puerto Rico.
October 2011