Farming for solutions


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
May 23, 2010

“The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in out of the boats…” — John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

The weathered old sardine canneries that dot the waterfront of serene and scenic Monterey, Calif., serve as a reminder of what once was — a community and an economy built on the ocean’s bounty.

Made famous by the John Steinbeck novel “Cannery Row,” most of the still-standing canneries have been remodeled into tourist shops and restaurants that overlook furry otters and barking seals. In fact, the Monterey Bay Aquarium itself was once a bustling processing plant for the oily fish that captured Steinbeck’s imagination and employed thousands. Today, the aquarium’s prevailing purpose is not only to entertain its wide-eyed guests and lure them into a love affair with the seas, but also to educate and advance ocean-conservation causes, none more noteworthy than sustainable seafood.

Last week, the aquarium’s annual Cooking for Solutions event brought celebrity chefs, marine scientists, journalists and food professionals together to celebrate sustainable food and wine and, through its Sustainable Food Institute, to discuss the myriad issues facing our great blue seas. But in the grandest temple of wild fish worship, a discussion about aquaculture was of particular interest — after all, nearly 45 percent of the seafood that the world consumes can trace its origin to a farm, and it’s only growing.

During a discussion titled, “Greening the Blue Revolution,” panelist Howard Johnson, director of global programs for Seattle-based Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, said that since 2000, production of cultured seafood species grew from 32 million metric tons to 52 million metric tons — tacit proof that the global marketplace is embracing farmed fish.

“I believe sincerely that, by and large, aquaculture is important and its products are wholesome,” Johnson said. U.S. consumers, it appears, agree with him (as do I): Half of the top 10 seafood species consumed the United States are produced in part or entirely by aquaculture (shrimp, salmon, tilapia and catfish are primary examples).

Of all the issues facing aquaculture producers — disease prevention and antibiotic use, for example — none is more pressing (and ultimately solvable) than feed. Fellow panelist Roz Naylor, professor of environmental earth science at Stanford University, said aquaculture accounts for an increasing amount of global fishmeal and fish oil consumption. Aquaculture now gobbles up 60 percent of the global fishmeal supply, up from just 10 percent in 1990, she said.

“That’s the link we’d like to break in order to green up the blue revolution,” said Naylor, adding that this dependence is the industry’s “Achilles heel.”

Increasing the efficiency of fishmeal and fish oil use is paramount. Thankfully, exploration of feed alternatives is well under way. An example of how industry is spearheading this effort is Hawaiian producer Kona Blue Water Farms, which recently received a federal grant to pursue alternative and sustainable proteins for feeds.

Progress toward sustainable aquaculture will require sincere introspection and the contribution of innovative minds — and quite possibly, a different mindset. Paul Hawken, author of books such as “Blessed Unrest” and “The Ecology of Commerce,” was the keynote speaker of this year’s Sustainable Food Institute. He asked the audience the question, “Is business the right paradigm for measuring our success?”

Sustainability is indeed about how many fish are in the sea. But it’s also about people: Without financial profitability, advances toward the sustainability of aquaculture might be nothing more than a fanciful idea. It’s incumbent upon us all to make them a reality.

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