A response from Food & Water Watch


Whit Richardson , SeafoodSource contributing editor

Published on
March 30, 2010

My recent two-part series on offshore aquaculture in Mainebiz (Part 1 and Part 2) received a response from Marianne Cufone, director of Food & Water Watch's fish program. While she agrees the United States needs to reduce its seafood trade deficit, she says expanding ocean fish farming is not the right way to do it. I've copied her letter to the editor below. Let me know what you think.

Ocean farming carries multiple hazards
To the editor:

The Mainebiz article published on Feb. 8, “Fishing for a future,” on the subject of aquaculture expansion in the state of Maine includes some good information – however, I believe some common misconceptions are also repeated therein, and Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy organization that has been involved with aquaculture issues for many years, would like to address.

The author rightly notes that the United States imports the vast majority of its seafood, creating a multibillion-dollar seafood trade deficit.  However, expanding fish farms in U.S. waters is unlikely to eliminate this deficit. Currently, the U.S. exports about 71% of our domestic fish production – including tilapia, tuna, salmon, crab and some shrimp. 

Ironically, these are among the six top seafood imports as well. Essentially, we send abroad the fish we produce here in accord with more stringent labor, safety and health standards to fetch a higher price in international markets where our standards are more highly valued.  U.S. restaurants and markets serve cheaper, often industrially produced, lower-quality, imported fish.

It is not likely that this will change dramatically with the growth of U.S. ocean fish farms. The industry is intended for profit—fish that are farmed in U.S. waters will therefore probably be sent elsewhere for bigger dollar returns—likely leaving the U.S. with just the environmental consequences, which can be severe.

For example, farming finfish may increase fishing pressure on wild fish and disrupt ecosystems.  Most fish that are ocean farmed – like the cod and salmon mentioned in the article – are carnivorous and will eat feed that contains other fish. Food & Water Watch’s calculation of the conversion ratio for Atlantic cod, for example, found that it takes between 2.81 and 3.07 pounds of wild fish to produce just one pound of farmed fish.  That means two to three times the amount of wild fish is being used than is being produced in a farmed fish – and that is both unsustainable and inefficient.

Already, significant amounts of wild prey fish are removed from ocean waters—about 23 million to 33 million tons annually worldwide were used for feed in recent years. Ocean farms in U.S. waters will need fish for use as protein in feed. Efficiency will likely dictate that the fish utilized for feed in domestic ocean farms should come from nearby waters—increasing the take of local wild fish. Often, fish used in feed are the same that wild fish and marine birds eat. This leaves less food in the wild and disrupts a delicate ecosystem balance. Recently a prestigious academic journal, Science,  also suggested that the depletion of smaller fish that larger fish and other wildlife commonly eat (called forage fish), may contribute to food insecurity in certain countries, as these same fish are food for some people.

Also of concern, open water finfish farms can be dirty, pollute the environment and infect wildlife. Because ocean fish farms allow free flow of water between the cages and the ocean, concentrated amounts of fish food, wastes, diseases and any chemicals or antibiotics that may be used in farms can flow straight into ocean waters. A report about one ocean farming facility affiliated with the University of Hawaii said the farm “grossly polluted” the seafloor and “severely depressed” sea life. In Norway and British Columbia, numerous problems have occurred with parasites spreading from caged farmed salmon to wild salmon. If this polluting industry were to expand further in U.S. waters, it would likely affect wild fish populations, thereby hurting fishing communities that are already struggling.

Rather than constantly reciting the refrain that the U.S. needs to reduce our seafood deficit with ocean fish farming, government agencies and fish farming entrepreneurs would do better to consider more progressive solutions to our problems – like keeping more domestic seafood in the U.S., and looking toward pioneering new technologies like land-based recirculating aquaculture systems.


Marianne Cufone
Fish Program, Food & Water Watch?
Washington, D.C.

*Originally posted to The New Aquaculture on Tuesday March 23, 2010. 

Comments this post received (please post your own comment using the comment field at the bottom of this post):

Ms. Cufone from the Food & Water Watch's fish program makes some interesting points about the USA’s seafood trade deficit. However, I would like to correct her statements about aquaculture’s use of wild fish in farmed fish feed – particularly pertaining to salmon farmed in Canada.

Canadian feed manufacturers are developing new feeds that are increasingly replacing some of the fish-based ingredients in salmon feed with ingredients from sustainable sources such as vegetables – yet still provide high quality, nutritious farmed salmon.

Several feed formulations now include less than 30 percent fish meal and oil, and Canadian producers are leading the way in terms of utilizing low-meal diets for salmon culture. In some salmon feeds, the use of alternative ingredients has allowed a 50 percent reduction in the use of fish meal and fish oil, with no significant reduction in the amount of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in the fish. Canadian salmon farmers use an average of 30 percent fish meal and oil in their feed. That means only 0.5 kg of wild fish meal and oil is needed to grow 1 kg of farmed salmon. Where possible, the alternative feed ingredients are sourced locally.

When it comes to pollution, I’d like Ms. Cufone to be aware that all approvals for salmon farms in Canada are subject to an environmental review according to both federal and provincial legislation, including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. In addition to locating farms in well-flushed waters, salmon farmers use fallowing, crop rotation and low stocking densities to limit nutrient pollution. They also employ state-of-the art feed monitoring systems that use real-time technology – such as underwater cameras and sensors – to detect uneaten feed and adjust feed delivery to the appetite of the salmon.

Fish farmers in Canada and the US operate to some of the highest environmental monitoring standards in the world. Having said that, as farmers we are learning all the time. With the development of remote monitoring technologies, improved feed formulations and a better understanding of how our farms interact with the ecosystem, we are constantly striving to decrease our environmental footprint. These efforts are in the best interest of both the environment, and our industry.

Ruth Salmon
Executive Director
Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance

March 24, 2010 6:15 PM  

I appreciate Ms. Salmon bringing up some facts regarding Canadian Fish Farms that are often miscommunicated. Ms. Cufone brings up land based farms in the last sentence of her letter to the editor. The part I would like to clarify on this point is the financial and environmental impact land based farms make. So many throw this term around without actually thinking about carbon footprint these facilities make on the environment. How much does it cost to run this facility?

More people pushing for this type of solution needs to look into the environmental impact first.



March 28, 2010 9:40 PM 

In response to the second commenter:

Thanks for your inquiry about the financial and environmental impact of land-based farms. In fact, Food & Water Watch has done a comparative study on just this subject.

Our comparison of open-ocean aquaculture facilities (OOA) with land-based, recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) shows that it is much more efficient, cost-effective, and lower impact to run an RAS facility than an OOA operation.

I invite you to read our fact sheet on the subject here:

It is also available in PDF form at this address:

Thank you!

Marie Logan
Researcher and Policy Analyst
Food & Water Watch

March 29, 2010 1:54 PM

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