“Is This Fish Farmed or Wild?” Learning and Communicating about Aquaculture

Sablefish, also known as black cod, lives in deep waters, making it difficult to raise in aquaculture settings. However, a research team supported in part by Washington Sea Grant is partnering with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and others to find ways to effectively and affordably raise this fish for commercial-scale production. (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary)

 

Aquaculture has exploded as an industry over the last couple of decades and is now the world’s fastest growing food industry. Farmed seafood comprises over 50% of seafood consumed by Americans, and that number is only expected to increase.

Consumption of farmed fish has the potential to be one of the most sustainable and healthy ways to feed the world’s growing population. While the aquaculture industry has undergone significant positive changes, many Americans still have hesitations about eating farmed fish, while others are concerned about how the industry will affect wild fish populations which are the foundation of their careers or lifeways.

I have been working on a project in collaboration with the School of Aquatic Fisheries Sciences and McCluney Seafood Strategies to launch a thought campaign aimed at improving perceptions surrounding aquaculture. Specifically, I am the content creator and relations manager for the project. Our campaign, Today’s Farmed Fish, launched at the end of May and is built around providing science-based information that provides an accurate picture of farmed fish and attempts to address concerns and dispel myths that continue haunt the industry. With funding from NOAA and Sea Grant, we held focus groups to understand the pain points of consumers and which topics needed to be addressed and clarified. With this baseline information, we went to farmer’s markets around Seattle to survey people and learn about their meat and seafood preferences. The data showed that most people are concerned about the environmental impacts, feed usage, potential escapement, and overall sustainability of aquaculture. People also seemed to be concerned with impacts to the wild fish industry.

With all of this information in mind, we wanted to show consumers that aquaculture and the wild fish industry are not an “either/or” option, but are rather an “and/and” option. We worked hard to highlight the importance of seafood as an entire protein category and how its associated sustainability and environmental impacts compare to land-based proteins, like different livestock. We sought to address questions such as: How is aquaculture different today than yesterday? What are notable advancements in the industry that have increased its sustainability? We also aimed to address more difficult questions in an honest way such as: What happens if there is an escapement? What about wild fish being used in the fish feed?

Samish Bay, WA – Oyster beds, maintained by Taylor Shellfish. Taylor Shellfish operates under a national permit known as Nationwide Permit 48, which was reissued in 2017. Last year, the Swinomish Tribe and others filed lawsuits over the permit. The Swinomish Tribe’s lawsuit cites concerns over a lack of regulations to protect eelgrass beds at shellfish farms in north Puget Sound. The Tribe argued that healthy eelgrass ecosystems are vital to their ability to obtain food from their traditional waters. (Photo: Abigail Keller)

 

Not all aquaculture operations are well-managed, but I don’t believe that those operations should dominate the way consumers think about farmed fish. Aquaculture has the potential to provide healthier, tastier, and more affordable protein options, with a lower environmental footprint than livestock protein. In an article I wrote for Today’s Farmed Fish, I explain that, “Similar to the evolution of pasture-raised and free-range livestock models, today’s farmed fish production systems have evolved to demonstrate a more environmentally-conscious, nutritious, and more humane way to produce food as consumers continue to demand better.” Seafood is widely pointed to as a healthy and environmentally conscious protein substitution for meat. As global populations increase and as protein intake increases in countries where wealth is increasing, farmed fish will be necessary to keep up with demand.

This project was difficult for me, as aquaculture is such a controversial topic among a wide range of people, with wildly different experiences from one community to the next. For instance, after an avoidable salmon escape on Cypress Island, Cooke Aquaculture tried to buy the escaped fish from the Lummi Nation in exchange for silence on banning net pen farms in Washington State, and the Nation was rightfully insulted by Cooke’s offer. Meanwhile, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe has written positively about aquaculture and have pointed out that they have practiced rearing shellfish and finfish for over 100 years to preserve native populations. They’ve also been working on a project with Washington Sea Grant, the UW, and other partners to bring farmed sablefish to market.

Many commercial fishermen are also opposed to aquaculture for both environmental and economic concerns. As more fish is produced in farms, the market for wild fish could be impacted in ways that have negative consequences for fishermen. Disease transfer and poor water quality from farmed fish are also a concern for many commercial fishermen. Yet Robert Jones, the current global aquaculture lead at the Nature Conservancy, is an advocate for aquaculture, particularly restorative aquaculture, despite having previously worked in the commercial fishing industry. According to Jones, responsible fish farms in conjunction with well-managed wild fisheries is key to sustainable seafood and lively coastal communities.

Prior to working on this project my knowledge of aquaculture was limited, and with such different opinions from a wide range of groups and communities, I had to do extensive work to be sure that I was creating content which I felt represented aquaculture in an accurate manner. However, after all my work researching, writing, and interviewing fish farmers and government officials, it seems clear to me that we should promote aquaculture in the United States. In one of my interviews, I spoke with Danielle Blacklock, the Director of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Aquaculture, about the promise we hold as a nation to be the “gold standard” for responsibly produced seafood. There is so much potential in fish farms, and I believe we should take advantage of the environmental, social, and economic benefits they can bring.

After connecting with so many fish farmers across the country and learning about their practices, I’ve become more inclined to support them, especially now with COVID-19 changing the ways people obtain their food. Recently, I ordered trout fillets for my mom’s birthday from Superior Fresh, overseen by Brandon Gottsacker, one of my interviewees. Superior Fresh is an excellent example in sustainable farmed fish, combining aquaculture with hydroponics to produce both farmed fish and leafy greens in a closed system, nearly zero-waste operation. The farm produces over 10 tons of greens and fish for every 1 ton of feed and only uses six acres of land to produce an amount of food that normally takes 150 acres. They also recirculate 99.9% of their water, produce no discharge from production or processing, and use no antibiotics, pesticides, or vaccinations. The fish I ordered for my mother was harvested and delivered on ice to her doorstep in one day.

Trout fillets aside, working on this project has significantly grown my communication skills. Before coming to the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and working on this project, I had minimal experience with this type of writing. But with practice, it became secondhand nature to look through primary literature and translate the information into something people would engage with and understand. This was also my first experience with interviewing people, and to say I was nervous is definitely an understatement. However, with each interview my ability to ask questions in a meaningful way has grown, and so has my confidence.

Post-website launch, I’ve been maintaining our social media pages and connecting with other folks in the industry across a multitude of professions. Everyone I speak to wants to get the message across that aquaculture, when done right, is an incredibly sustainable form of protein that can benefit both society and the environment.

An infographic which provides consumers information about how shifting from meat to seafood can greatly lower contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. (Graphic by Corinne Noufi)