Think eating farmed fish can save wild stocks? Think again.

06 November 2020

It was the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who first said “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”, commonly abbreviated as “you are what you eat”. But if we eat animals, then we should also care about what they eat too.

As part of Terra Madre, we’re hosting a webinar on November 10 in conjunction with Feedblack Global: Plenty of Fish in the Sea? Exploring Aquaculture’s Appetite for Wild Fish, focusing on the enormous and growing industry of farmed fish, particularly farmed salmon, which are fed on a diet of small, wild-caught “forage fish” that are turned into fishmeal: a highly inefficient process that’s a disaster both socially and ecologically. Feedback’s latest research examines whether we could get the same nutritional benefits if we simply ate the wild fish we feed to salmon, and cut out the “middle fish”. To get a bit of background, we spoke to Campaign & Communications Manager Christina O’Sullivan, who runs the Fishy Business campaign.

People tend to think of farmed fish as being more sustainable than fishing wild species. Is that true?

I think most people think aquaculture is better because it reduces pressure on wild species, that’s what I thought before I started working in this area. However, lots of aquaculture, including farmed salmon is reliant on large amounts of wild-caught fish for feed.

What effects do these large aquaculture farms have on their local ecosystems?

In Scotland, where my work is focused, there have been multiple reports about the adverse effects of salmon farming on the local environment and on wild fish stock in Scotland. The last commercial wild fishery closed in 2018 as there was simply not enough fish to catch. In the words of Fisheries Management Scotland “this iconic species is now approaching crisis point”. Research suggests that more salmon farming leads to more sea lice which can lead to more diseases, some of which can spread between farms and wild salmon populations

The effects aren’t just limited to their local ecosystems either, are they? There’s the impact on coastal communities for whom our “forage fish” may form an important part of their diets. What are “forage fish”?

Yes, we are essentially taking fish which can provide key nutrients to local people, transforming them into feed to farm salmon to supply the global market. It’s what happen in our current food system where food is primarily viewed as a commodity.  Research shows that 90% of the fish used to make fishmeal and fish oil could be eaten by people.

What can we do as consumers? Should we be eating any fish at all? What are our “least damaging” options?

Our research shows that we can eat a sustainable fish diet if we vary the fish we eat, reducing pressure on specific species. I also believe one of the most powerful things we can do is to stop thinking of ourselves as individuals, we have more power when we work together. That is why organisations such as Slow Food are so important.

What are the differences in environmental and social impacts between the farming of carnivorous fish like salmon, and shellfish / mollusks like mussels, clams, oysters?

Salmon fall into the category of fed aquaculture meaning it relies on external inputs for feed, where as mussels for example are classified as unfed aquaculture. When considering sustainability, it is important to not only think about what we eat but what is fed to the food we eat.

Looking around the world, do you see any reasons to be cheerful? Where, if at all, have we seen progress in terms of protecting our marine resources?

I see groups such as the Coastal Communities Network in Scotland coming together to protect their local environment. I also am inspired by the Youth Climate Strike movement; many people see the importance of protecting our planet and I find hope in that.

What role do you think Slow Food and Terra Madre should be trying to play in contributing to solving these urgent global issues?

Promoting alternative seafood options through initiatives such as the Ark of Taste. Also bringing people together – even in 2020 Terra Madre is connecting people across the world who care about our food system!

by Jack Coulton,

The Plenty of Fish in the Sea? Exploring Aquaculture’s Appetite for Wild Fish takes place at 3 p.m. CET on November 10. Info on how to join the webinar is available in the event description page.