Fishy Farms: the government's push for factory farming in our oceans

Food & Water Watch (FWW) today released a new analysis detailing what it describes as the troubling implications of expanding factory fish farming off U.S. coasts.

October 13, 2011

Food & Water Watch (FWW) today released a new analysis detailing what it describes as the troubling implications of expanding factory fish farming off U.S. coasts. Coming on the heels of the federal government’s announcement this summer of its National Aquaculture Policy, the organization’s report, Fishy Farms: The Government’s Push for Factory Farming in Our Oceans, claims achieving the government’s goals for the industry would come at a tremendous cost to both wild fish populations and the marine environment.

In a press release with the heading: New Report Reveals Troubling Consequences of Factory Farming Fish: Growth in U.S. Offshore Fish Farming Industry Could Require 40 Percent of World’s Fishmeal for Feed, Release Over 1 Million Fish, FWW said:

"Factory fish farming involves the growing of thousands of fish in open net pens or cages, where wastes, including excess feed as well as any antibiotics and chemicals used to treat the cages, flow directly into the ocean. The raising of high-value, top-of-the-food-chain carnivorous fish requires a high concentration of protein fishmeal and fish oil that comes from the capture of small wild fish. Escapes from open ocean pens are common, and when farmed fish escape they can compete or interbreed with wild fish, altering natural behavior and weakening important genetic traits. They can also spread disease to wild fish".

The report calculates that, if the government used factory fish farming to reach its stated goal of offsetting the U.S. seafood trade deficit (that is, importing less seafood than it exports), 200 million fish would need to be produced in ocean cages off U.S. coasts each year. This would necessitate the use of at least 41 percent of the entire current production of fishmeal worldwide for feed. The analysis also finds that, based on an industry rule of thumb for the rate of fish escapes, such an expansion would lead to at least 1 million and as many as 35 million farmed fish escapes each year, depending on conditions (i.e. storms that shake up cages, sharks attacks on net pens), and result in the discharge of as much nitrogenous waste as the untreated sewage from a city nearly nine times more populous than the city of Los Angeles.

“Clearly, factory fish farming is not a sustainable industry,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch. “Regardless, the government has already spent over $44 million in support of it, and the Obama administration has proposed allocating millions more. Why is taxpayer money being used to push a senseless industry at a time when we’re radically cutting our federal budget to trim down such wasteful spending?”

The report examines the four experimental "factory fish farms" that have been operating in state waters off U.S. coasts for up to 13 years and reveals that, despite government financial aid, the facilities have been plagued by a plethora of technical, economic and environmental setbacks.

“It’s unfortunate that the government is promoting an industry that has proven itself to be economically infeasible – even on a small-scale level – and continues to suffer the same sort of large-scale environmental problems that we have seen with factory farming livestock on land,” Hauter said. “The good news is that fish farming is a relatively new industry and we still have a chance to pursue it in a way that’s environmentally sustainable, economically beneficial and healthy for consumers.”

The report recommends more research for land-based, recirculating fish farms that can create jobs in inland communities and have low environmental impacts.

"This summer, the federal agency tasked with overseeing fish farming in waters off the coast of the U.S. announced a new, national policy that promoted factory fish farming. It also announced it would move forward with a controversial plan to expand factory fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico. Finally, it approved the first permit for a commercial fish farming operation in federal waters off the coast of Hawaii in July", the press release said.

Download the report.