Eating fish is a great way to add lean protein as well as healthy omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. The healthiest seafood is wild-caught, but it’s often more cost-effective to purchase farmed fish instead. The aquaculture industry just got a huge boost from the Trump administration, as an executive order just paved the way for these companies to build massive industrial fish farms in the oceans.
While this might sound like a good thing for fish lovers, it could have some seriously detrimental effects on the environment.
Side Effects of Fish Farming
Most fish farming is done in self-contained inland areas, allowing aquaculture farmers to raise species like tilapia and salmon, which can be shipped and sold at lower prices. These packed fish ponds have a lot of negatives. They’re vulnerable to outbreaks of disease because hundreds or thousands of fish are living in extreme proximity.
To combat these diseases, the fish are treated with all sorts of chemicals and antibiotics that can leech into the surrounding environment and upset the local ecosystem. In areas where water is already at a premium, this contamination can contribute to water scarcity, which is a growing problem around the globe. We can only drink 1% of the water on our planet’s surface — everything else is frozen in polar ice caps or part of the salty oceans.
What happens when these massive fish farms are set up in the ocean? The same chemicals aquaculture farmers use on inland ponds leak out into the sea. Disease outbreaks could also spread to wild populations.
Competing for Limited Resources
Another downside of keeping these fish in ocean pens is the potential for escape. If large numbers of farmed fish get away, native species will suddenly find themselves fighting for already limited resources such as food, nesting space and mates.
The latter of the three is of particular concern. While they might be the same species on paper, wild and farmed fish are often vastly different on a genetic level. They are close enough to breed, but the farmed versions aren’t hardened by life in the wild. They won’t be able to pass on the genetic makeup necessary for surviving in the open ocean. If enough fish like this escape, their inferior genetics can weaken the gene pool and the entire species.
Putting Ecosystems at Risk
Ocean ecosystems are already at risk, thanks to overfishing. Without some dramatic reform, we could potentially reduce fish populations to the point where they are no longer capable of sustaining themselves. If this happens, entire sections of the ocean’s ecology could collapse.
Right now, fish and other seafood make up 15% of the planetary population’s dietary animal protein. An ecosystem collapse would leave us scrambling to find new sources of lean protein. Communities in developing countries that rely on the ocean for the majority of their food supplies will find themselves starving.
Apex predators like sharks are overfished, and many aren’t even consumed. They’re disappearing, and if the ocean loses them, chaos will ensue. Take a look at what happened in Yellowstone when wolves were introduced decades after the last native wolf had died. The reintroduction of an apex predator reduced herbivore herds and allowed other populations to recover. In essence, they repaired the ecosystem simply by existing.
Dangerous to Your Health
Farmed fish, in some cases, can even be dangerous to your health. You might think you’re getting a nice lean filet of salmon, but when you buy the farmed variety, you’re opting for a piece of fish that has more fat and higher calories than its wild counterpart. Farmed salmon also has more sodium and less of other essential nutrients like calcium, iron and potassium. This same farmed fish also has higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids. These can cause a variety of problems when consumed in excess, including heart disease.
Farmed fish are also subjected to chemicals and antibiotics necessary to keep them healthy as they live out their lives in small, crowded pens. These additives can contribute to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can cause other health problems down the line.
Farmed fish also contain more contaminants than their wild counterparts, including pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, which have been shown to cause cancer.
Allowing aquaculture farmers to create giant ocean pens will make it easier and more affordable to bring home farmed fish. Still, it will likely have far-reaching consequences that we haven’t even considered yet.
The Future of Aquaculture
With 7.5 billion people on the planet getting 15% of their animal protein from fish, aquaculture is going to be an important industry for decades to come. The problem will be rushing into the creation of these massive off-shore fish farms that could contribute to the destruction of the sea-based ecosystem.
We don’t need to farm fish in the ocean. We need to make better decisions about the way we manage the fishing industry to allow us to live in balance with the natural world. If we kill the oceans because of some twisted need to farm more fish that might not even be necessary, we’re effectively killing ourselves as a species, too.
Without the ocean, we lose a food source, as well as oxygen and CO2 storage, thanks to algae and kelp forests. We lose billions of species of plants, animals, and other flora and fauna. Our ocean is one of the things that makes our planet unique in the solar system. If it dies, we might go with it.
This is a worst-case scenario, but it starts with politicians deciding that the ocean is ours for the taking. If we don’t nip this in the bud now, we will be hard-pressed to fix the problems that start cropping up later.
Teaser photo credit: By Hans-Petter Fjeld – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5