November 25, 2011
With the population recently hitting seven billion, the need to provide food for the growing human race becomes more and more urgent. The amount of food available, though, is starting to decline, as the rate of intake far exceeds the natural reproductive rates of what we consume.
But omnivores, not to worry! The need to turn to vegetarianism is not quite there—the growth of aquaculture in the United States ensures that there will be enough seafood in everyday diet, at least for the time being.
The common definition of aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish and shellfish, which are grown to market size and released into the wild in order to support or rebuild wild stock populations. According to the NOAA Aquaculture Program, aquaculture also “includes the production of ornamental fish for the aquarium trade and plant species used in a range of food, pharmaceutical, nutritional, and biotechnology products.”
With all environmental alternatives, however, comes much debate over the proposed solution. Aquaculture faces heavy scrutiny from both scientists and the public over whether it is more beneficial or detrimental to our environment.
Currently, over 76% of world fisheries are either fully exploited, over exploited, or completely depleted, a grim outlook for the future of our diet. With aquaculture, however, the story is different, especially for the United States. The US is a major consumer of aquaculture projects; NOAA reports that “we import 84% of our seafood and half of that is from aquaculture—yet we are minor producer… Driven by imports, the US seafood trade deficit has grown to over $9 billion annually—the highest it’s ever been.” Though the US is typically at the forefront of everything, we are ranked 13th in total aquaculture production, behind countries from Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, which explains much of the annual seafood trade deficit. By turning towards domestic seafood production, the nation’s dependence on imports will significantly reduce.
In addition to helping feed a growing US and world population, aquaculture can also “reduce fishing pressure on certain wild stocks if that species can be produced through aquaculture rather than fished,” reports a PBS document on aquaculture. And judging by the current state of our economy, more concentration in aquaculture can create jobs in communities and increase revenue on city, state, and national levels.
There are many advantages to aquaculture; however, there are some significant issues with it as well. One of the major problems with aquaculture is the threat to native fish populations. Wild fish are used to make feed for the farmed fish and often several pounds of wild fish are used to produce one pound of farmed fish. Because the fish are farmed in such a tight space, aquaculture often results in high incidences of disease, which can contaminate the waters outside of the pen threatening the native fish as well. To combat disease, antibiotics are dumped into the pens, which pollutes the surrounding waters. Fish escapes are also extremely common and interbreeding between native and farmed fish weakens the gene pool of the wild fish.
There are clear benefits and disadvantages to aquaculture. The question is: what should the US do? A New York Times article, Finding a Sustainable Way to Farm the Seas, suggests that with improvements to the industry, aquaculture could be more sustainable. Courtney Hough, general secretary of the Federation of European Aquaculture Producers, claims that “highly efficient feeds have helped bring down the ratio of fish-based feed to fish produced, sometimes to nearly one-to-one”. In addition vaccination and monitoring can help decrease the incidence of disease. There are ways to farm fish in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way. If done the right way, aquaculture could be a great solution to satisfying the protein needs of our growing population.
NOAA Aquaculture Program: http://aquaculture.noaa.gov/us/welcome.html
About the authors: Leslie Chang and Lauren Taymor are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.