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The lure of fish farming Add to ...

If tuna is the "chicken of the sea," then consider salmon, bass and cod as the aquatic equivalents of beef, pork and lamb. Just as farmers historically selected chicken, cattle, pigs and sheep to domesticate, these four fish in recent decades have come to dominate the seafood market, thanks, in large part, to the rise of aquaculture.

As farmed seafood becomes as prevalent as wild fish, author Paul Greenberg says we need to strike a balance to ensure that both fish farming and wild fisheries are sustainable. In his new book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Mr. Greenberg crisscrosses the globe, from the icy waters of Alaska and Norway to the Mediterranean Sea and the rivers of Vietnam, to examine the state of our seafood and to search for solutions.

It seems rare to actually find hope in a book on food politics, especially one about fishing.

I actually think that sometimes gloom and doom is less helpful for the world. We have to remember that even though it's a compromised food system, the ocean is still an incredibly productive one.

We pull 90 million tons, the equivalent human weight of China, out of the sea every year. On the one hand, you could look at that as a great injustice to the sea, but on the other hand, it's incredible that the sea can continue to produce that kind of bounty. We have to think of it, first and foremost, as abundant; second, as threatened; and third, completely worthy of our full investment to make it whole again.

Fish farming, and salmon farming in particular, has probably a well-deserved bad reputation. But you say we shouldn't be against fish farming. Why not?

We can't be. If we were to eat all the fish that our health departments recommend, we would already have a huge seafood deficit. In fact, the 90 million tons of seafood that we pull out of the sea every year, that's in addition to practically an equal amount of fish and shellfish that's now farmed. So if we did away with fish farming altogether, there just wouldn't be enough fish.

We need to get away from the stigma of farmed fish, but at the same time, we need to really figure out what works and what doesn't.

We need to keep fishing, but fishermen need to be guardians of the sea, rather than just exploiters of it.

You suggest one answer might be polyculture fish farming. Can you explain?

If you look at our land-based food systems, monoculture almost always has ecological detriments.

One of the more encouraging things I saw in my research was in the Bay of Fundy, there's a company called Cooke Aquaculture that has a very, very small pilot project. Now I don't want to make it seem like they've solved all their problems, but they're growing salmon in conjunction with mussels, sea cucumber and brown algae, which can be used either for edible purposes or cosmetics and things like that. Theoretically, what they do is the brown algae extract the microscopic levels of nitrogen waste, the larger particles are filtered out by mussels, and finally, the sea cucumber can digest the particulate matter that so often is a problem in salmon farming.

You explain that we now have the ability to domesticate any species of fish in the world. So why should we be selective?

There are definitely creatures out there that have a life cycle that is more in line with what the aquaculture environment is, so it's less like putting a square peg into a round hole.

Take, for example, one fish that I think is a great substitute fish for salmon, and that's Arctic char. It's a salmonid, it has a nice flavour. They often live in lakes that can freeze almost solid and during a heavy winter, the char will be crammed really tightly together. So over the eons, they've developed comparatively high disease resistance, which makes them a good aquaculture fish.

Why do you say that those little seafood consumer choice cards that people carry around aren't very effective for fish conservation?

During a conversation [with Mark Kurlansky, bestselling author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World] he said, "You know, I can solve the cod problem. You know how to solve the cod problem? Stop bottom trawling."

And that's the thing. If you could get people to realize the issue isn't eating codfish, it's bottom trawling, then you could have a change. From a public-education perspective, [seafood choice cards]are great … but if we really want to directly change things, we have to get involved with government.

You've compared eating bluefin tuna to driving a Hummer. Are there just some fish that we should avoid eating altogether?

I think so. We shouldn't be eating Atlantic bluefin tuna at this point. ... We're not talking about extinction here with this fish yet, we're talking about loss of abundance.

Right now, if bluefin tuna were priced at a reasonable price and not at the insane prices that the Japanese pay for them - if they weren't fetishized out of existence, people wouldn't fish for bluefin any more. There's just not enough of them to make it financially worthwhile.

What kind of fish do you eat?

Most of the fish I eat, I catch. But when I do buy fish, I buy the smaller fish like anchovies. Sometimes, I'll buy tilapia, squid, mackerel. As far as my fishing practices are concerned, I don't fish [for]stocks that are in bad shape, and when I do fish, I try to make use of the entire fish. Like when I catch a codfish, I make a cod head spaghetti sauce, I pick the bones clean to make cod cakes, I boil the bones for stock. ...

We should know how to eat fish. We should continue to eat them.

If we don't continue to see the sea as a food source, we're just going to continue to do all sorts of offshore oil drilling and mining and all these things that ruin the sea. We need to keep fishing, but fishermen need to be guardians of the sea, rather than just exploiters of it.

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