Fish farming may change the way United States eats, but the effect on the seas is a concern.
ABOARD THE AQUA LEADER -- The harvesters had been hard at work since 8 a.m. in the evergreen-lined cove off New Brunswick's Lime Kiln Bay.
A humming vacuum hose was sucking silvery 10-pound salmon from their watery pens -- giant plastic cages measuring 230 feet around with 42-foot-deep nylon nets underneath -- and depositing the flapping fish onto a metal slide. There a punch machine rapidly stunned and killed them before workers slashed their gills to bleed them before dumping them into the hold of the 65-foot-long ship.
In four hours they collected more than 5,000 fish to be transported to a nearby processing plant and then shipped to Boston restaurants the next day.
Cooke Aquaculture Inc., the Canadian company that raises and processes the fish in Reserve Cove, is a major player in what has become the next agricultural revolution: fish farming. The sector's explosive growth is being hailed by many policymakers and entrepreneurs as a source of jobs and a way to satisfy the world's growing demand for protein, but environmentalists warn that aquaculture facilities also threaten to cause ecological damage by releasing nutrients and domestically bred fish and chemicals into the seas.
The final hunting frontier
Observers on both sides agree, however, that fish farming could transform the way Americans eat -- and, to some extent, work and live -- in the next two decades, and ultimately replace the last commercial food-gathering system based on hunting wild animals.
The Bush administration has vowed to quintuple the yield of aquaculture -- the fastest-growing sector of U.S. agriculture, with $1 billion in annual sales -- by 2025. That same year, forecasts say, half the fish consumed worldwide will be farm-raised instead of wild-caught. The government hopes that fish farming will erase the country's $8 billion seafood trade deficit: With $11 billion in imports in 2003, fish is second only to oil among imported natural resources.
"We have to keep looking for a good supply of healthy seafood for U.S. citizens," said William Hogarth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's assistant administrator for fisheries. "Aquaculture is extremely controversial, there's no question about it. (But) the time has come for us as a country to have this open dialogue."
The recent push to boost fish farming, which has been practiced for thousands of years but took off commercially only in the 1980s, is driven by several factors. The United States and other nations are demanding more seafood: By 2025, the U.S. market will need 2.2 million tons more seafood than it now produces. Meanwhile, the total global catch of wild fish has leveled off at just under 100 million tons.
Many nations, including China, Japan, Norway and Canada, have started farming fish to meet the burgeoning demand. China leads the world, with as much as 70 percent of the world's aquaculture production; by comparison, the 4,000 U.S. fish farms produce 1 to 2 percent of the global total.
Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, compares fish farming to the Neolithic Revolution, in which humans moved over the course of more than 6,000 years from hunting and gathering to raising animals and plants domestically.
"People who go fishing are the last commercial market hunters in the world," Belle said. "We don't do that anymore on land."
Although many wild stocks are suffering from overfishing, fish farmers say they can provide a reliable and inexpensive supply of salmon, catfish, shrimp and other species year-round. New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture processes 100,000 pounds of fish every day, seven days a week, and can ship it to anywhere in the United States within 24 hours.
"Nobody can get it from the water to the plate like we can," boasted Nell Halse, the company's spokeswoman.
Farming has also made once-pricey seafood delicacies such as shrimp and salmon much more affordable: In recent years the cost of raised salmon has dropped from about $7 per pound to the current all-time low of less than $2, and salmon farming has brought jobs to once-struggling areas such as New Brunswick's Charlotte County, where it now employs a quarter of the local work force.
But environmentalists say the aquaculture boom is masking problems with the world's fisheries and wreaking new ecological damage.
Gerry Leape, vice president for marine conservation at the Washington-based National Environmental Trust, said U.S. officials see that "the oceans are in crisis, and what's their response? To allow the enormous expansion of this industry that's proven to have a negative environmental impact."
Much of the controversy has focused on the fish feces and excess food that build up beneath the floating net pens and can form bacteria mats on the sea floor that harm marine life. Many scientists say these problems can be reversed by rotating the pens and allowing some to lie fallow, and most growers now use closer monitoring to reduce excess feeding. But salmon waste off the British Columbia coast still releases as much excess nitrogen as sewage from a city of 250,000, according to some estimates.
After environmentalists charged that two Maine salmon growers had violated Clean Water Act requirements, a federal judge ruled in 2003 that the companies had to leave nearly all their sites fallow for two years after they harvested their remaining fish. That improved local water quality, but industry experts say the move hurt the viability of fish farming in the state.
Disease and contamination
Many commercial fishermen are more worried about two other factors: the spread of disease that comes when animals are crowded together and the use of chemicals to combat these illnesses. In Maine, Canada and elsewhere, farmed fish have passed sea lice, which eat salmon flesh, to their wild counterparts. Infectious salmon anemia, a lethal disease first discovered in Norway in 1984, has spread globally, prompting one Maine fish farm to kill more than 1.5 million fish in 2002 to try to contain the infection.
Escaped salmon, which compete for natural resources with other fish and can sometimes interbreed with their wild counterparts, pose another risk. Fred Whoriskey, who heads the research staff at the Atlantic Salmon Federation and works on saving the few thousand wild salmon that still live in North American waters, found more than eight times as many escaped fish farm salmon as wild salmon in New Brunswick's Magaguadavic River last year.
Mitchell Shapson, a lawyer at the San Francisco-based Institute for Fisheries Resources who represents wild-catch fishermen, said his clients resent aquaculture's impact on their hunting grounds.
"If you destroy the environment and you destroy the wild fish, there won't be anything left to fish," he said.
Fish growers say they have made progress on several fronts: According to industry officials, the number of escaped Atlantic salmon in British Columbia dropped from 89,000 in 1998 to 2,500 last year.
"When we do something wrong it comes back to bite us first," said Belle, the Maine industry spokesman. "It hurts us in our pocketbooks."
The recent debate about health risks associated with farm salmon -- one 2004 study published in the journal Science concluded that raised salmon had such elevated levels of PCBs, dioxin and other cancer-causing contaminants that consumers should limit themselves to one eight-ounce portion a month -- has also made aquaculture controversial. Industry officials counter that the health benefits of eating salmon, rich in omega-3, far outweigh any cancer risks, and they have conducted recent studies showing PCB levels in farm salmon that are comparable to those in wild fish.
Farming can be safer
Not all aquaculture is environmentally harmful. Farming clams, oysters and scallops reduces nutrient pollution that can deplete the ocean's oxygen and cause harmful algae blooms, and raising shrimp can be less environmentally damaging than trawling for them, which can destroy coral reefs and enmesh other fish. Researchers are experimenting with new, more expensive techniques on land, and farther offshore, to mitigate fish farming's impact.
In West Virginia, the Conservation Fund's Freshwater Institute has developed land-based farms that recirculate water to contain pollution, disease risk and potential escapers. The plant boasts a massive 40,000-gallon tank that holds 60,000 rainbow trout, which are collected by a plastic grate once they are large enough to go to market. Ninety-eight percent of the tank's water is reused after specialized treatment.
For fishing communities such as Eastport, Maine, impoverished by the decline of Atlantic fisheries, aquaculture offers a tempting solution. The city was once a thriving shipping center and sardine cannery town, but its population has dropped by two-thirds in the past 100 years. City Council member Gary Biss saw some of aquaculture's initial excesses as a company diver in the 1980s, but he said the industry has improved its record and deserves public support.
"The world needs the food," Biss said. "There's a crying need for it. It has to be somewhere. It would be nice if it were here."