Posted by: rebeccanmckinnon | October 31, 2011

Aquaculture: Doing More Harm Than Good For a Decreasing Wild Fish Population

I attended the extra credit John A. Delaney Presidential Professorship Lecture on October 10 at 6 p.m. in the Student Union. Dr. Gregory A. Ahearn gave this lecture on aquaculture, which he called “protein for an expanding human population.” I was impressed by the vast amount of knowledge this man possessed on the subject of aquaculture, but by the end of the evening, it became clear that a few biases did exist within his research and viewpoint. This doesn’t discredit his intelligence or the leaps and bounds his research has made for the success of the aquaculture industry, which he defined as “the growth of freshwater marine animals for human use and consumption.”

His research specifically looks at how to improve this process by reducing the larvae mortality rate and increasing growth patterns. I thought it was curious how he viewed aquaculture as the answer to what he called a “growing world population.” He provided United Nations charts of future population numbers, estimated from our current increasing yearly percentage rate. According to the UN, the population will either continue to rise dramatically, experience a slight drop, or remain the same. It was at this point in the lecture that I raised my eyebrow at him; for being the main foundation of his argument behind the necessity of the growth and improvement of the aquaculture industry, these population graphs seemed a bit obvious and not exactly specific. I thought, “So, the population will increase, decrease, or remain the same. A toddler could gather that much.”

I began scribbling down notes from what I remembered from our readings of “The World is Blue.” This much is certain: the wild fish population is decreasing, and Dr. Ahearn agreed with this sentiment. He seemed certain that aquaculture would answer the market’s call for fish but alluded to the fact that fishermen don’t necessarily consider this move good for their livelihoods. He called the relationship between fishers and farmers one of “animosity” and quickly moved onto facts about aquaculture’s current impact on the market. He said that China leads the aquaculture industry, with 56 percent of its products farmed. Interestingly, the number one aquaculture product in demand is not one for consumption but one for entertainment; ornamental fish take up 57 percent of the farmer’s efforts. But all sorts of water animals become the fruit of aquaculture—from fish to mollusks to crustaceans to algae to alligators to clams. In Dr. Ahearn’s words, “What’s for dinner?”

I pondered this thought as too many questions ran through my brain. Humans, especially Americans, are animals of high consumption. We grow up in a culture that teaches us how to buy happy, and in America, how to eat happy. Our family gatherings meet around the dinner table and holidays like Thanksgiving become un-holiday-like without specific dietary and consumption needs met. Certainly, “What’s for dinner?” may be an apt question to consider. Why, as humans, do we feel the need for an unnatural variety in our consumption? Certainly we don’t need to kill whole whales or alligators to survive; we only eat them because we crave very small portions of their body. And why do we crave these portions? Is it based only on taste, or is it instead based on the egocentric need to dominate a species that is arguably larger and more wildly dangerous than us? This sent my thoughts to Moby Dick and Ishmael’s own egocentric desire for dominance over the whale. These are the questions I considered when Dr. Ahearn asked his overly simple question and listed in exceedingly long length the sea animals available for consumption through aquaculture.

The question I have is this: Do we need aquaculture? Dr. Ahearn would answer a resounding yes, but I’m not so sure. He used unspecific population data as unequivocal proof of aquaculture’s importance but failed to mention that the population can meet its dietary requirements in countless other ways. One classmate raised a question about the growing field of aquaphonics, which doesn’t use wild catch bycatch to feed its cultivated fish like aquaculture does but instead creates a looping environmental system that is completely self-sustainable. He smiled slyly and didn’t have much of a response to this field. Obviously, his background and current and future research is in aquaculture, and that’s where he sees the direction of fish farming heading in the future. “Each stage [of aquaculture] costs money,” he’d said earlier. “Can you grow for less than you sell it for?” With this in mind, clearly growing food for a growing population (a term his pamphlet coined) is not a game of environmental ethics and restoration; it is a game of economics based on cost/value analyses—and this is the strength aquaculture has that aquaphonics necessarily doesn’t.

It is unfortunate that Dr. Ahearn is not completely honest with his audiences (and perhaps even himself) about this fact. He talked for awhile about aquaculture’s positive effects on the environment, specifically on restoring the wild population of blue fin tuna. He lovingly called blue fin tuna the “tiger and cheetah of the ocean.” But farming these fish through aquaculture raises serious ethical questions about the lives of cultivated tuna, swimming circles in a gigantic tank until they are slaughtered for sushi. When asked about this, Dr. Ahearn said he “would rather the fish swim around in circles than become extinct.”

But this answer for me goes back to the first question I asked myself (and later him) during his presentation: “How are we going to stop the fishermen from driving the wild fish population extinct when farmers’ relationships with fishermen are competitive rather than cooperative?” Aquaculture will not save the wild fish population when the people who are decreasing the wild fish population (the fishermen) are not decreasing their behavior but rather increasing it in response to a competitive market. Indeed, everything does come down to economics in the end, and within our capitalist system, “animosity” certainly is fueling the market, but it is not saving wild fish. Dr. Ahearn told me and the rest of the audience that the fishermen needed to abide by stricter regulations and they needed to realize their role in the problem to both retain their jobs and sustain the human population.

But how do the fishermen realize these things? They certainly don’t realize them on their own, and the aquaculture farmers certainly don’t help them realize anything within a relationship of animosity. So the central issue behind the decreasing wild fish population remains unsolved despite the growing field of aquaculture.

More aquaculture products in the market drive prices down, but they do not stop the efforts of legal and illegal fishermen. Period. If the researchers and owners of aquaculture facilities truly cared about environmental restoration, they would be trying to better facilitate their relationship with the fishermen and they would be pushing for government regulation. But they’re not. In our culture of consumption, this is an issue of economics, not environmental protection and restoration. I do not worry about food for our growing human population. I worry about the survival of our oceans and wild aquatic populations. I’m not sure I can say the same for supporters of the aquaculture industry.

(Blogs 3 + 4 combined [1,200 words] for Rebecca McKinnon)

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