Dear Modern Farmer: Is Fish Farming Sustainable?

The tenets of sustainable agriculture—conserving topsoil, using natural forms of pest control and focusing on locally adapted crops—are increasingly well-understood. At the grocery store or farmer’s market, local, organic and non-GMO labels steer us toward food choices that align with our values. But how do those concepts translate to food that’s not grown on land, but in the water?

When it comes to the wild fish we eat, we hope that the water they were swimming in is free of pollution and that fishing practices respect the more sensitive, vulnerable species. Labels to this effect are just as commonplace as their counterparts for fruit and vegetables.

However, farmed fish—domesticated species reared in contained, controlled environments—are a whole other can of worms. The grocery store labels for farmed fish typically indicate the country they were farmed in, but nothing to clue us in on how they were farmed.

There is a reason for that: usually there’s nothing ‘sustainable’ to make a label for. The vast majority of farmed fish are raised with methods that are detrimental to the environment (and sometimes the consumer) in one or more of the following ways:

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  • Removes unsustainable quantities of water from rivers or ground sources
  • Returns contaminated water to local water bodies
  • Employs hormones, antibiotics and aquatic biocides that damage local ecosystems and have negative effects on public health
  • Raises fish on pelleted feed made with unsustainable ingredients, such as GMO soybeans and the waste products of factory-farmed livestock
  • Fails to prevent the escape of farmed fish into nearby waterways, where they may behave as invasive species and spread disease

One inherently sustainable aspect of aquaculture is that it doesn’t depend on wild species, removing the issue of over-harvesting from the sustainable seafood equation.

Stories of sex change hormones in tilapia and mercury and PCBs in farmed salmon have made health- and environment-conscious consumers quiver over farmed fish and are but a few examples of how deeply unsustainable the global aquaculture industry is today. But there is a silver lining.

Aquaculture has plenty of potential as a sustainable form of agriculture, it’s just that the numbers of environmentally minded fish farmers are but a drop in an ocean of profit-minded producers. One inherently sustainable aspect of aquaculture is that it doesn’t depend on wild species, removing the issue of over-harvesting from the sustainable seafood equation.

Good fish-farming practices include:

  • Recirculating aquaculture systems where water is reused and plants and microbes are employed to remove waste products (often called aquaponics)
  • Raising herbivorous species (catfish, tilapia and carp, for example) which require fewer inputs of high-protein fish food to produce a pound of fish than carnivorous species (such as salmon and trout)
  • Using cultural practices to control disease rather than antibiotics (by reducing stocking rates, for example)
  • Utilizing a supply chain of sustainably-sourced inputs

The sustainable fish farming industry is in its infancy, though production has ramped up in recent years. There are now a number of certifying agencies that provide third-party verification for aquaculture producers seeking the sustainable route. Various labels indicating sustainable farmed fish are starting to show up in grocery stores, though it’s much more common to find these products in Europe than in North America. Where they are found, it’s generally with frozen seafood products, not at the fresh fish counter.

The European Union established organic aquaculture guidelines in 2009 and Canada unveiled its national organic certification program for fish in 2012, but the USDA has yet to follow suit. Independent certification groups are filling this niche, however. Most certified producers are overseas, but some of their products can now be found at North American grocery stores. Sustainability standards vary among them, but the following certifying agencies have met the approval of Sea Choice, a sustainable seafood organization in Canada endorsed by the scientist-environmentalist David Suzuki:

Environmental groups have criticized the standards of many sustainability certifications for farmed fish as not living up to the promise of organic standards, so it’s worthwhile to look into the specific products and the farming practices used for each. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium provides a nifty online tool for doing so, called Seafood Watch.

So when will the U.S. get on the bandwagon of organic aquaculture certification? The USDA’s National Organic Program has been working on developing standards for a decade or more, but intense debate among environmentalists, scientists and producers about what should and should not be allowed has made for slow progress. Aquaculture is a different beast than land-based agriculture, making it difficult to translate sustainability principles from one to the other.

Much of the quandary stems from the fact that the global aquaculture industry says things like providing 100 percent of fish feed from organic sources and a complete ban on antibiotics is impractical. Their argument is that aquaculture is inherently more sustainable than both land-based agriculture and wild-caught seafood and should thus be exempted from the same level of rigor that other organic foods are subject to.

The organic aquaculture standards that the National Organic Standards Board has been contemplating for so long will be made available for public comment this summer. If all goes smoothly, the certification process could begin as early as 2016, with the first USDA certified organic fish products hitting stores in 2017. However, most organic foods and environmental advocacy groups consider them a watered down version of organic standards for other foods.

Preliminary reports indicate that the standards allow for a 12-year transitional period where producers can continue to use non-organic feeds. The intent is to allow time for what is now a marginally-developed organic fish food industry to ramp up to meet the demand that will be created by the new standards. Antibiotics will also be permitted with certain restrictions and the highly controversial pen systems used to farm salmon in the open ocean will not be excluded from certification.

With such a radical departure from what organic labeling connotes for land-based agricultural products, the proposed standards may never make it off the shelf. If they do, it will be a milestone in clarifying where the fish in grocery stores comes from — but that knowledge may come with its own costs.

Dear Modern Farmer: Is Fish Farming Sustainable?