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Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food Hardcover – July 15, 2010
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When the New York Times reported in June of 2010 that the US Food and Drug Administration was “seriously considering” approving a genetically modified Atlantic salmon for American consumption the cries from environmentalists and food reformers were, predictably, almost audible on the streets. The AquAdvantage® Salmon uses a “genetic on-switch” from a fish called an ocean pout (a very different animal) in combination with a growth gene from a Chinook salmon to achieve double the growth rate of the unmodified creature. The animal’s creator, AquaBounty Technologies of Waltham, MA asserts that the fish will be sterile and grown in out-of-ocean bio-secure containment structures. Nevertheless the emotional worry of genetic contamination of wild fish, the public preoccupation with health risks a modified salmon could pose, and just the overall ick-factor consumers seem to have about GMO food were all on display across the foodie and environmental blogosphere a few days after the Times article ran.
But, curiously, perhaps the loudest groan that I heard in response to the AquaBounty successes came from salmon farmers. “What I have been noticing over the years,” Thierry Chopin, an aquaculture researcher based in New Brunswick, Canada wrote me, “is that the aquaculture industry is not jumping to embrace what AquaBounty has been proposing.” For years salmon farmers have been waging a public relations war, trying to gain legitimacy as an industry that could be both profitable and produce more food for a hungry world. When a paper published in the journal Nature in 2000 revealed that it took more than three pounds of wild forage fish to grow a single pound of farmed salmon, the salmon industry responded through selective breeding, increased use of soy and other agricultural products and more efficient feeding practices to lower the wild fish use of farmed salmon to the point where some farms claim to have achieved a fish in-fish out ratio of close to 1 pound of wild fish for 1 pound of farmed salmon. When diseases like infectious Salmon Anemia and parasites like sea lice began to run rampant on salmon farms around the world, some regions, like the Bay of Fundy in Canada, instituted better fallowing and crop rotation practices and appear to have had some success in breaking disease and parasite cycles. But in spite of these improvements, a single mention of transgenic salmon in a major media outlet is enough to spoil whatever gains the industry has made in public perception. Indeed, many lay-people I talk with have the impression that transgenic salmon are already a regular part of the farmed salmon market, this despite the fact that there are still no transgenic salmon sold in the United States or anywhere else that I’ve encountered.
Don’t get me wrong. I sincerely do not believe that the salmon industry has solved its environmental problems. But I do think that it suffers an unfair association with the AquaBounty project and that genetic modification distracts from what investment and research really needs to address. The two biggest problems with farming salmon are:
1) Salmon are grown in sea cages, often anchored amidst wild salmon migration routes. This can cause the fouling of waters with wastes and the transmission of diseases and parasites to already seriously threatened and endangered stocks of wild salmon. Selectively bred fish regularly escape and some suggest they may interfere with the lifecycles of wild fish. Even worse, entirely different species of salmon are often raised in non-native environments. Atlantic salmon are regularly farmed in the Pacific and often escape.
2) Farmed salmon consume a huge amount of wild forage fish. Even though feed efficiency on a per fish basis has improved dramatically, salmon farming overall has grown so much that the per-fish efficiency has been all but erased by a much larger overall presence of salmon farming in the world. Atlantic salmon, once limited to the northern latitudes of the northern hemisphere, are now farmed on every single continent save Antarctica. It’s possible farmed salmon escapees may have even reached that most southerly redoubt. Salmon farms exist as far south as Patagonia, South Africa and Tasmania.
So what is the way forward and how do we deal with this transgenic issue? If I were tsar of all salmon farming and could redirect investment money at will, I might take all of those dollars that go into transgenic research and put that money into really confronting the problems that plague the industry. I might look to developing efficient, above ground, re-circulating aquaculture systems. These facilities allow fish to be grown in temperature-controlled environments without any interaction with the wild. Disease transfer and genetic pollution are greatly reduced if not eliminated altogether. Yonathan Zohar a professor and Chair of the Department of Marine Biotechnology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County's has created a test facility right in downtown Baltimore that grows an array of species and even manages to recycle the fish wastes into fuel-grade methane gas that can be used to run pumps or heat water. Though these systems are energy intensive the ability to build them in proximity to markets lessens food miles. Furthermore recirculating systems offer precisely controlled growing conditions and can bring fish to market in half the time as open sea cages.
I might also try to expand on the work of Thierry Chopin who is piloting a program of Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture or IMTA where mussels, edible seaweeds, and sea cucumbers are grown in conjunction with salmon in a complex polyculture. Rather than just trying to make an artificially efficient modified salmon, Chopin is trying to make a more efficient system where multiple crops radiate out from a single feed source. Because mussels, sea cucumbers and sea weed can all metabolize the wastes from salmon, they have a potential to neutralize and reuse the effluent that has plagued salmon farms in the past.
Another place I might put my salmon dollars would be the development of alternative feeds that are synthesized from soy and algae and might eventually obviate the need for using wild forage fish in salmon feed.
Finally, I might consider investing in a different fish altogether. Some critics of the aquaculture industry believe we should do away with the farming of salmonids altogether. But to my eye, there is a very entrenched market for salmon flesh and we might be better served finding a different salmon-like fish that has a smaller footprint. The most hopeful alternative I’ve come across is a fish called the arctic char. The arctic char is from the same taxonomic family as salmon, has pretty good feed conversion ratios, rich flesh, and most interestingly of all, because it frequently finds itself crammed into close quarters when its natural arctic lakes freeze, it has high disease resistance and takes extremely well to high stocking densities—densities that are necessary to make out-of-ocean aquaculture operations profitable. And this is exactly what’s happening with char. Most are grown in re-circulating, above ground tanks in Iceland and Canada.
Of course some people will never embrace a farmed solution for fish. There is a camp that feels very strongly that farmed fish are uniformly bad for the world and inferior on the plate. I have to confess that I don’t always share this opinion. Arctic char strike me as a good environmental compromise and to my palate, they’re pretty tasty.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Read a Q&A with author Paul Greenberg [PDF].
Top Customer Reviews
The four fish of the title are salmon, bass, tuna and cod, which are today the world's dominant wild-caught and farmed fish. Mr. Greenberg devotes a long chapter to each of these finned culinary staples. He ties their stories together by showing how each represents one discrete step that humanity has taken, sometimes over hundreds or thousands of years, to increase and control the tasty, nutritious largess of the sea. Salmon, for example, depend on clean, cold, free-flowing freshwater rivers, and was likely the first fish that early northern-hemisphere humans exploited. Sea bass, which inhabit shallow waters close to shore, were the catch of choice when Europeans first learned how to fish in the ocean. Cod live further out, off the continental shelves many miles offshore, and were the first fish subject to industrial-scale fishing by mammoth factory ships. Tuna live yet further out, in the deep oceans between the continents, and represent the last food fish that has not yet been "domesticated."
Mr.Read more ›
Paul Greenburg has written an excellent and surprisingly readable book about our relationship with the sea and its bounty. He does this not from a solely environmentalist perspective, but also as a fisherman and one who enjoys eating fish. He discusses the advantages of wild vs. farmed fish - the destructive practices of each which imperil future stocks. With farming, in particular, the four are very poor candidates for captive rearing (although the lessons learned so far have been essential and can be applied elsewhere). He also explores potential replacements against a checklist of qualities that should ensure greater success (the same qualities that have been proven in terrestrial farming).
I was *very* surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I've never been a huge eater of seafood, although I've recently begun ordering it more often when we eat out. But I most appreciated the scientific aspect of the book that seeks to find the best possible balance, moving beyond the simple red or green seafood cards to maximizing a sustainable harvest while protecting resources. He acknowledges there are no easy answers, but leans a little too heavily on regulation as if illegal poaching wouldn't increase with such measures. But overall, an important read for all those who are concerned about the future of the oceans and the last wild food.
The last time I found a natural history that was so compelling, it was Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma." While I don't think this book will become another worldwide nonfiction bestseller like that one did, I would not be surprised to see it turned into a feature National Geographic Channel documentary. After all, the author is extremely engaging and a writer who frequently writes for that magazine.
The author's writing is personal, direct, honest, and easy-going. Reading the book felt like sitting down with a brilliant, enthusiastic buddy and listening to him tell you about the subject that commands his greatest passion. The book is full of delightful stories based on fascinating people who Greenberg interviewed and observed during the course of researching this book. Much of the scientific and technical information is passed on to the reader through artful, true-to-life storytelling. His stories unfold naturally and often overflow with humor and wit. There is a comfortable balance between the light and serious section.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Very helpful to understand the evolution of catching and farming fish.Published 1 month ago by LucyA
This important topic needs more attention and Greenberg does a great job of informing and entertaining. Read morePublished 3 months ago by mplyons
Good read, the author took his personal experiences and magnified them as acprofessional. The future of humankind dependscon how we manage our oceans!Published 3 months ago by alex
A thoroughly researched, well written book on a very timely issue.Published 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
Very well written. Good narrative style to explain the crisis of our fisheries & oceans.Published 5 months ago by HEIDI from NYC
Great book! I have read it in the past and just purchased as a book.Published 6 months ago by M. M.
A really good read....in fact, I have read it twice and require that my fisheries students read it. Greenberg very succinctly places four fish: tuna, salmon, cod, and bass in... Read morePublished 8 months ago by David Argent
The tragedy of the commons, as we race to take all the wild fish out of the sea. The only hope is fish farming, but even it has many problems.Published 9 months ago by Thomas Adams