How to get 'Big Aqua' right

For an expanding global population, fish is the future of food. That's why sensitive, sustainable aquaculture practices are important.


Imagine shoppers in the late Stone Age peering into the display case at their Whole Hunter-Gatherer Market, admiring the marbling on mastodon steaks, gasping at the prices, and debating the merits of wild-caught versus farm-raised. Which is tastier, more humane, a better value? 

That is the debate at many seafood counters today. For thousands of years, aquaculture was a niche industry. Now it is booming. Michael Holtz explains why in this week’s cover story (click here). “People have never consumed so much fish or depended so greatly on the sector for their well-being as they do today,” says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. That will only increase as the global population zooms to 9 billion by midcentury, with fish the most likely protein source to feed them.

Already, more farm-raised fish than farm-raised beef is consumed worldwide. Fifty years ago, only 4 percent of fish came from aquaculture. Today 42 percent do. Farmed fish is on a track to overtake wild-caught by 2030. That has touched off a corporate rush. In recent months, Minnesota-based Cargill and Japan’s Mitsubishi have snapped up big aquaculture operations.

There are, of course, concerns. Aquaculture can pollute, damage coastal ecosystems, and stress wild fish stocks. As with terrestrial factory farms, profit-maximization in aquaculture can lead to animal cruelty and food that is potentially harmful to consumers. Sustainability specialists advocate refraining from capturing juveniles in the wild, using plant-based rather than fish-based feeds, and being careful with waste – ideally via a closed-loop, aquaponic system that channels fish waste into plant fertilizer and plants into fish food.

Vegetarians might disagree with any kind of fish consumption. Carnivores might harrumph that cattle will always be king. But seafood is humanity’s future. Though the oceans are a tricky environment, they are vastly more friendly than Mars or the moon. They make up 71 percent of Earth’s surface. As oceanographer Jacques Cousteau said, “We must plant the sea and herd its animals, using the sea as farmers instead of hunters.” 

As aquaculture expands, we have an opportunity to get it right, to avoid the excesses that Big Ag brought to factory farming. Done in a sustainable way, Big Aqua can help feed the planet without damaging it.

Fish don’t need my endorsement, but here it is anyway: As an inland kid, fish always meant breaded, frozen sticks from the freezer. I wasn’t a fan. One summer as a teenager, I went fishing with some pals on the Gulf Coast and discovered for myself – over a few hours in the mild, waist-deep waters of the Intracoastal Canal, with shrimp schooling and skipjack shad leaping – the sea’s incredible beauty and bounty. I can still taste the fisherman’s platter we assembled on the campfire that night.

These days, I would never turn down an oyster. Or lobster or mussels or pretty much any of the sea’s gifts. And fish tacos – don’t get me started on fish tacos.

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