Saturday, March 18, 2006

In the future, we will all be Catholic, and it will always be Friday.

So - about fish. A few weeks back, I passed on the story about how, yes, we've passed Peak Fish. (At least, Peak Wild Fish.) But humans still need to eat, and if global poverty decreases (A Very Good Thing) global food diets are also likely to swing more towards proteins, and away from carbohydrates. Read: Less rice, more beef. (Potentially, A Very Bad Thing.)

Put simply, we cannot feed the projected population of 12 billion people (by 2050) on beef. Hell, we probably can't do it on pork. That leaves chicken and various forms of fish. Chicken are much better at our favourite form of alchemy - turning vegetable in to meat - than beef, and most fish are better still than chickens. Were we willing to plan our diets rationally (no evidence of this, based on North American consumption) we would almost certainly choose to get our proteins from fish.

Unfortunately, the way we get fish is pretty horrible too. Forget the wild stuff - it's almost gone anyway. No, the growth industry for fish is the marine equivalent of ranching. Unfortunately, farmed salmon regularly tests much, much higher for pleasant little additives like PCBs.

(As an aside, you really have to admire western ingenuity. The Chinese and Indians have had a tradition of sustainable aquaculture going back millenia. We turn our aquaculture in to a toxic waste site.)

So what to do. Well, in this month's edition of Popular Science, it looks like the latest idea is open-ocean fish farms. Basically, the problem with fish farming as it's practiced conventionally is one of space - too many fish confined in too little volume. This is because relatively few places have the calm surface waters needed to build fish farms. So the few good spots are terribly crowded. This leads to intolerable pollution of the hydrosphere.

Solution: the ocean floor! There's plenty of room, and the rent is cheap. (Yes, rent. National governments get to lease out chunks of their exclusive economic zones, which extend from 3-200 miles from the shoreline.) Specifically, one company called Net Systems has been selling an underwater fish pen for years now. The pens are really very simple - a ballast tank sinks them to a depth where they don't endager shipping, and the waters are relatively calm. The outer net is made from military-grade plastic, both to keep the fish in and the sharks out. The next model - the 5400 - is also being designed with an automatic food hopper and remote maintenance abilities. The potential is pretty huge:
In 1999 the state of Hawaii granted Cates International permits to set up operation in state waters, and the company became the first private OOA outfit to start production in the U.S. Randy Cates currently sells 8,000 pounds of moi a week, but with plans in the works for a total of 16 cages and a new hatchery already going up, he expects to be selling four million pounds of the fish annually within two years—more than the total caught in Hawaii over the past half-century.
Some interesting problems remain, of course. The biggest is that we tend to like carnivorous fish for dinner - Salmon, Tuna, Halibut, Cod all need to be fed protein, which has traditionally meant scooping vast amounts of wild catch out of the sea and turning those fish in to fish food. However, there is hope here. First, Cates and other early entrants in to the market seem to realize there's a branding opportunity here, and are making efforts to actually be sustainable (as opposed to simply looking sustainable.) This has meant a great deal of experimentation with feeding - including using soy as a feedstock to partially replace fish meal. In the future, your tuna will be fed tofu.

If Futurama taught us anything, however, it's that you can't feed a carnivore exclusively on tofu. So where there's a necessity for actual meat, it should be possible to replace wild catch with farmed feedstock. Given that Wal-Mart (!) wants certified sustainable fisheries for its stores, there's a real market here.

Option #2 is to simply not eat carnivorous fish, but instead eat carp or tilapia. Probably a non-starter.

The other problem is that many advocates for open ocean aquaculture seem to think - like we all did, back in the 1950s - that the solution to pollution is dilution. That is, if all that fish crap is being dumped in to a body the size of the pacific, it doesn't matter. I want to see independent measurements and data from some fish farms before I sign on. Factory hog farms have shown us that, above a certain density, animal wastes can be incredibly toxic.

Still, there's a lot of space out there, so at least initially there shouldn't be the same pressures to cram fish in so densely - the American EEZ actually encompasses more area than the lower 48 states. Meanwhile, beyond the EEZs are international waters, the last real wild west. I can't wait until we start reading stories of gun-slinging salmon rustlers, or mavericks who refuse to brand their halibut.

And to bring it back to energy (because I always do) even if these installations become more complex and industrialized, it should be possible to power them renewably, using ocean currents (analogous to windmills, but underwater) or the thermal difference between the warm surface of the ocean and the cold depths.

The problem with everything I write about the future, as always, is the difference what "can happen" and what "will happen." And as far as open ocean aquaculture goes, the inital signs aren't encouraging - the Bush administration is pushing legislation that would give the Commerce Department the regulatory oversight of offshore fish ranches. This is expected to mean little to no environmental regulation.

Some interesting links:

The Popular Science article itself.

A piece from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

An earlier Wired piece.

The University of New Hampshire's site on OOA. Some interesting info there.

Finally, a group that is very critical of OOA, the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy. Specifically, here. (PDF) Where they lose my vote is opposing OOA because it will harm fishing jobs. Sorry, when fewer people produce more food, that's called a good thing. Farming put the hunter-gatherers out of work, fish farming should do the same.


odograph said...

I initially liked the idea of ocean fish farms, but I think the real world impacts have changed my mind.

They rely on feeder fish caught in huge quantities and ground into meal.

They create artificially concentrated populations, generating pollution and disease.

They create a mindset of "hey, so what if never restore the fisheries, we'll just farm."

In my opinion, after having read moderately widely on the issue ... restoring the fisheries it the only safe path, the only path that offers truly long-term sustainability.


wonderdog said...

Furthermore, they endanger wild fish stocks (and by extension, the aquatic ecosystems on which they themselves depend) by pollution, interaction of escapees with wild populations, etc.

I don't believe that large-scale aquaculture is sustainable.

One of these days, we're going to have to get around to admitting that we have an overpopulation problem.

One thing that might interest you, along these lines, is some research done by a guy at University of Winnipeg (?), suggesting that the human species is now dependent on the supply of nitrogen fertilizer for its survival.

zack said...

One of these days, we're going to have to get around to admitting that we have an overpopulation problem.

Great point. So, what do you suggest....put the fish-farming project on the shelf, and instead ship half the earth's population to Venus?

My guess would be that ocean ecosystems would adapt, and endure, if we were to create massive fish farms.
THAT IS - if it means we stop raping and pillaging wild stocks.

I mean really...come guys sound like you think fish farming is more harmful to ocean ecosystems than commercial trawling. What does "restoring the fisheries" even mean? That we stop fishing for 5 years, and let the stocks "heal?" That worked great with the Cod stocks. Hey, do you know what they still eat in Newfoundland? Despite the vaunted "moratorium?" Cod.

For a (poor?) analogy...why do you think there are still deer, moose, antelope, etc in north america?
Because of cows and pigs.

Admitting we have an overpopulation problem means finding sustainable food solutions. Saying "restore the fisheries" is like saying "Whatever, I'll let my grandkids worry about it"

odograph said...

Don't make a straw man argument, Zack.

This is not a binary choice between (over) fish farming and (over) fishing.

Rationally, some limited farming and/or limited fishing may be possible.

Unfortunately, there are few constituencies focused on limiting things. Certainly no commercial actor makes more money with a limit. Whether it is fishing or farming, the commercial pressure will be on "more."

Now, do your research and scope it out ... I suggest "The Doryman’s Reflection" by Paul Molyneaux, if you have not already read it.

But speaking as one of that tiny minority interested in restoring the ocean's natural productivity (for both aesthetic and practical reasons) ... I think we need more "no fish zones" and fewer ten zillion tuna enclosures.

john said...

Wonderdog: I was wondering if you were still reading. Nice to see you.

Re: Population problems. I agree that there's an overpopulation problem, obviously. But even if we begin strict controls now, the population is likely to peak at 9 billion people. A more realistic estimate is 12 billion. Those people need to be fed somehow, and humans do require some protein. Seems to me that fish farms are one of the only ways to get that protein efficiently.

Oh, and regarding breeding between wild and farmed stocks, there's some controversy around that - the fish that are explicitly grown for food seem to be much, much stupider than their wild counterparts. One researcher I read concluded that all escapees from one farm died before they could breed.

Odograph: I don't know if we can say what the real world impact of ocean fish farms are - there's too few. The question we should be asking is, is there a qualitative difference between open ocean farms and inland ones. The stuff I've read (and I'm literally only a few days in to my interest on this subject) seems to argue that there is.

I don't think I ignored any of the issues you raised. In fact, I explicitly drew the division between what is possible and what the current state of affairs is. I don't think it's naive to point out that things can be done much better.

I (unfairly) mocked the possibility of growing herbivorous fish like carp and tilapia in the post, largely because I think westerners will insist on eating tuna and salmon. But it's worth pointing out that Chinese and Indian fish farming is based around different breeds of herbivorous fish.

Finally, regarding the issue of preserving the fisheries, the obvious corrolary (though unlikely to occur in reality) to open ocean aquaculture is a global ban on commerical fishing, as fish farming accelerates. This would also solve the problem of caught fish being used as feed.

I don't want to see the oceans despoiled any more than I want to see the climate unbalanced. However, (and call me a human chauvinist if you like) the reality is that humanity needs survival options, and fast. And we need as many options as possible.