Is there a good fish farm?
In a post concerning fish farming, I asked the question “why would anyone choose farm raised fish when the options for sustainable wild caught fish are so plentiful?”. I believe that this is a legitimate question, given the inferior quality of most farmed fish I’ve tasted. By way of answer, a friend, who is also a food professional, recently sent me a video of a talk by Dan Barber called “How I fell in love with a fish”. Dan Barber is the award winning chef and owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Farms in New York, and a strong advocate of sustainable farming, cooking and eating practices. During his talk, which was filmed in February of 2010, Barber proposes this answer to my question: The reason to think about eating farmed fish is that, given the rate at which we are depleting the supply of wild fish, farmed fish may soon be our only option. Good point.
In his talk, he describes two sorts of fish farms with which he has direct experience. The first is a standard, intensive fish farm that deals with the issue of pollution due to fish waste by being located far enough off shore so that the waste is, in theory, dispersed without harm to nearby coastlines (but as he notes, it must be going somewhere). However, this sort of farm depends entirely on the use of processed feed to supply nutrition to the farmed animals. World wide, most of the feed fed to farmed fish is produced from wild caught fish. With a ratio of pounds of feed required per pound of fish produced somewhere above 4 to 1, this sort of fish farming represents a net loss for the world fish supply. Not really a long-term solution to the problem. And as he points out, other options for producing feed, such as using chicken by products and feathers, are less than appetizing.
The second sort of fish farm is what he calls an “extensive” fish farm. He visited one such farm located on the Atlantic coast of Spain. In the extensive model, the goal is to create a fish farm that is so integrated with the surrounding environment that it actually functions as a wild habitat. The fish being “farmed” are only one of the species that live in this habitat; algae, insects, other fish, birds, in fact the whole panoply of life that would normally be found in the wetlands along Spain’s marshy Atlantic coast, will be attracted to it as well. The farmed fish are introduced to this habitat and become a part of it, feeding off the naturally occurring plants and animals, thus eliminating the need to provide processed fish feed. This new ecosystem actually acts as a filter, leaving the water that flows through it cleaner than before it entered. Best of all, because they are raised in a healthy, natural habitat, the fish produced in this sort of farm actually taste good.
Certainly the extensive fish farm model is attractive. Producing good tasting, sustainable food while cleaning the environment and at the same time creating wild habitat seems like the best of all worlds.
My first reaction is that I can’t help but be a bit skeptical that this sort of fish farming can actually produce enough fish to meet world supply. Extensive fish farming would seem to depend on huge amounts of available space in which to locate these habitats and huge amounts of investment capital build them. Further, one would guess that the time required to build a working wild habitat would be much longer than to build a traditional fish farm. And finally, these sorts of farms seem ill-suited for the raising of large-filet, high on the food chain predator fish (such as salmon and tuna) that seem to be the most sought after by consumers.
But maybe these sorts of doubts are a part of the problem. As Barber points out at the end of this video, one of the things that makes visualizing a post-industrial-agriculture world so hard is that we have accepted the parameters for this vision that have been imposed by big Agro-business. The model for Agro-business has always been to produce more food for more people more cheaply. It is a model that is capital, chemical and machine intensive and has never produced anything really good to eat. And it is a model that is very quickly depleting our oceans, our lands, our natural resources and our fresh water supply. In short, as Barber puts it, it is the model of a business in liquidation; model that has a finite life span.
Free of fixed notions of what is possible, extensive fish farms start to seem like an interesting option. Clearly the people who put together the fish farm is Spain found the capitol and patience to make this model pay. And if farms of this sort may not feed the world, is there any harm in feeding a small part of the world something good in a manner that actually improves the planet?
I think I could learn to love a good tasting little farmed fish.