Forget Everything You Thought You Knew About Farmed Fish

Forget Everything You Thought You Knew About Farmed Fish

This is not just another beautiful landscape photo.  THIS is the landscape that houses a world-class sustainable fish farm - OUR sustainable salmon fish farm, Mt. Cook Alpine, in New Zealand's Southern Alps. I'm putting it out there because I want customers to have an informed understanding not only about our farmed salmon but why sustainable fish farms must be embraced. I'd like to debunk the jaded myth that sustainably farmed salmon are just not as good, natural or desirable as wild salmon. It's simply not true, and I'm happy to have the opportunity to explain why.

Is Perception Making Us Fearful?

These days, you can't open a website or newspaper without reading about the "farm to table" movement and the trend towards locally sourced greens and meats. This is something to be celebrated, as we now have options and can make educated choices about our food. Yet when people open their menus or head to the supermarket or wet market, they often don't know how to approach the question of seafood. Is it healthy? Is wild caught fish as good as it sounds? What about farmed fish? What is being overfished? Where did it come from? Is it really sustainable? I know, it's complex and confusing but hopefully this read will go some way to giving you some insight into the state-of-play in the farmed versus wild discussion.

Why has society resorted to fish farming?

It's a pretty simple but grim answer.  According to the United Nations, we've already fished 90 per cent of the ocean's large predatory fish like tuna and salmon. And over 70 per cent of the world's fisheries are considered significantly depleted or exploited. "Think about it," biologist Kevin Fitzsimmons told the New York Times "if we tried to source our beef from hunting, there would be a lot of hungry people."

Demand is met with large-scale fishing techniques, like bottom trawling and super-trawling – dragging massive weighted nets across the sea floor, which indiscriminately scoop up both the intended target fish as well as coral, juvenile fish species and other marine life vital to the functioning of a marine ecosystem – all of which is discarded as "by-catch". Marine life caught as by-catch can comprise up to 90 per cent of a net's total catch and is thrown back into the ocean, dead or alive.

In terms of overfishing, the current landscape is grim. The world's fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce. 80% of fish stocks are already fully exploited or in decline. 90% of all large predatory fish - including for example Bluefin Tuna and Atlantic Halibut – are gone. Scientists predict that if current trends continue, world food fisheries could collapse entirely by 2050. All of a sudden, the idea of ethical, well-managed, eco-friendly farms of salmon and tuna, tended by local fishermen, doesn't sound so bad, right?

Fish Farming Then And Now

Fish farming has existed in some form for millennia. It was used by indigenous people of Australia and within the Roman Empire. Aquaculture practices in China during the Tang Dynasty led to a mutation that created the goldfish, now a ubiquitous household pet but only reached industrial scale in the last 40 years. In that time, the industry has suffered its share of bad press: antibiotics, non-native fish escape to name a few. These stories have left a bad taste in consumers' mouths. However, fish farming is now one of the fastest learning and fastest growing food sectors in the world. Aquaculture is providing huge and consistent quantities of seafood without wreaking carnage on our oceans. In fact, 50% of all seafood consumed now comes from fish farms.

So What's Changed?

Well, the pain barrier associated with the birth and toddler years of fish farming has now passed.  Coupled with the immovable fact that we're running out of fish, consumers are now accepting farmed fish as a healthy, viable alternative to wild-caught fish.  Nearly every coastal country in the world has space that's suitable for aquaculture development and farming fish is easier on the planet than farming animals on land - to grow 1 kilogram of small saltwater fish, you'd need around (it depends on the farm) 1 kilogram of feed, while a cow would require 9 kilograms of feed and thousands of gallons of water. Not to mention, fish are a healthy, low-fat source of protein.

It’s all just so logical—you don’t need to be a scientist to figure this out. Food can be plentiful if we do it right" says Mike Velings, the CEO of Aqua-Spark, an aquaculture investment fund. Alongside his wife and business partner Amy Novogratz, he backs a handful of companies shaping a more sustainable industry, from feed producers to entire farms. "The aquaculture industry has been terrible at telling their story so far, and we're all paying the price for it. There are a lot of challenges, but we’re getting more optimistic by the day." Mike is a fascinating guy who captures the issues around fish farming better and more succinctly in this TedTalk than any other expert I've seen.

Why We Should Trust Sustainably Farmed Salmon

In the context of what we know about the decimation of the majority of wild seafood species including salmon, the choice to embrace sustainably farmed salmon is no longer one about nutritional quality or what's perceived as a more natural or superior product. It is simply irresponsible to eat wild salmon for all the ecological and environmental reasons stated above and by the thousands of respected academics and experts in this field. In fact, I don't believe it's even a choice any longer - we are way past lifestyle choices.

We must consider farmed seafood, and salmon in particular, as a good alternative if we truly care about having a future for our oceans and for the possibility of eating seafood beyond 2050. Ten years ago, there was justifiable concern about fish farming - poor stewardship standards, pollution, use of pesticides and antibiotics were common. But as we have seen in the agricultural sector, sustainable fish farming is now more mature, and valuable lessons have been learned. When done right, it is now accepted that sustainably farmed fish can be a healthier choice than wild-caught fish. The Harvard Medical Review goes further and reports little if any significant differences between the nutritional profile of farmed salmon over wild caught salmon, so there is really no reason left to hesitate in embracing the change.

Sasha's Fine Foods  - Our Sustainable Farmed Salmon

In the earliest days of Sasha's Fine Foods, I put huge effort into identifying a wild-caught salmon supplier I could trust; one with superb sustainable products and exemplary standards. I couldn't find one then and I can't find one today. But I was blown away when I visited Mt Cook Alpine Salmon nestled deep deep in the Southern Alps of Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.  It's a sustainable fish farm like non other, where freshwater King Salmon are raised to standards that are accepted as the best in the world -  this is the Singapore Airlines of fish farms, the Manolo Blahniks of salmon. It's the best of the best, farmed in all its glory and absolutely spectacular in every way.

Me with Adrian Hill and Martin McDonald of Mt. Cook on my visit earlier this year.

When it comes to what we buy or what we can order, it's actually hard to know.  Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a great resource (including its Seafood Watch App if you want to check what's what in your supermarket). Yet there is another challenge, which is a question of labelling. According to a report from Oceana, more than 59% of all tuna is mislabeled – and it is worse with some other species. Generally speaking, there simply is very little transparency around wild caught fish. We often don’t know where it swam or what it ate; whether it came from a clean source or an area that is compromised; or if it was sustainably harvested or done in a way harmful to the environment. My advice is to read the labels or check the product details on websites. Look for sustainable certification like MSC, and don't assume that "wild-caught" branding or labelling is telling the complete story. It's the only way to distinguish the good from the bad.

Why Sustainable Fish Farming Is Good News for Everyone

Aquaculture holds the benefit that it's not a large-scale ocean-gouging practice. Depending on the farming method, fish farms can be built in most locations, meaning food can be produced closer to the consumer. Fish farming can also be conducted at a low environmental cost. Fish can be fed cheaply, and the practice is linked to improving incomes, employment levels and food security for some of the estimated 120 million people worldwide whose livelihoods depend on fishing. It's estimated 90 per cent of fish-reliant farmers live in developing countries, which means investing in their production offers not just a source of food for supermarket shoppers, but a pathway out of poverty for smallholder producers.

So how can we actually feel OK about buying or ordering seafood off a menu? We should take a page out of the book of livestock farms that have perfected raising cows and pigs sustainably – eliminating antibiotics, streamlining how feed is delivered and in what amounts, getting rid of nasty chemicals, etc. In other words, we need to get fish farming right so we can take the pressure off our oceans. The biggest perception issues I tend to hear about include;

  • Getting feed right
  • Reducing antibiotics and improving farm operations
  • Increasing transparency

Mt Cook Alpine Salmon use premium proprietary feed which is sustainable and certified GM free, formulated to minimise the depletion of feeder fish in the ocean. They actually feed the salmon by hand which allows the team to observe and respond to their needs and helps ensure they are fed to correct nutritional levels. I'm very happy to report that Mt. Cook don't not use antibiotics, pesticides, vaccines or growth hormones. As for transparency, I can only speak for Mt Cook where transparency is an art form - they go so far as to track the life of each salmon so they can know the fish history, their life story, what it ate, its movements (I couldn't even provide this level of detail about my own kids).  Every Thursday morning when our fresh salmon delivery lands into Changi airport, I know it's pristine.

The Final Word

I believe wholeheartedly in the quality and flavour of our sustainable farmed salmon. I believe it's the amongst the most environmentally positive and ecologically sound products available in Singapore today. We're running out of fish, and we have brilliant alternatives available at the click of a mouse. So, I encourage you to try to buy certified sustainable fish, whether it's farmed or wild-caught.  Don't we owe it to our planet to take what we know and exercise good judgement, and by embracing sustainable farmed salmon and seafood, we become part of the solution and not the problem.

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