Sunday Classic / I’ll Have The Fish

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Spawn or Die? The Choice is Yours. Photo by Louis Cahill

Is Aquiculture Wrong?

I got into a discussion with a friend the other day that put a burr under my saddle. We were talking about what fish is OK to eat and what isn’t. Not in the way that I refuse to eat a catfish from the Chattahoochee but rather how no one should be eating wild steelhead. My friend, who is not a fisherman, asked “what about farm raised fish?” Without thinking about it I said, “sure, that’s fine”. He then went on to explain that he did not eat farm raised fish because it was cruel to take a fish that was meant to be free and confine it in a pen. ( I’m not going to dwell on this idea for too long for reasons that I think are obvious. If that’s the story you want to hear, click here! ) I am unashamedly opposed to the idea of causing unnecessary pain and suffering to any living thing but I also understand what these teeth were put in my head for. I could write a couple of thousand words on this but instead I’ll leave it at this. I remember standing on a gravel bar in Alaska watching a salmon struggling in the current. The fish’s tail was missing along with the last eight inches of him. Two trout were following taking turns eating him while he was still alive. My point being, if we are going to get into the business of attaching human emotions like happiness to fish, let’s be sure we’re choosing the correct emotions. Nobody cares about fish more than me, but that’s their nature. If you hold still long enough, they’ll eat you. I’m really not sure what happiness is to a fish but most of them will choose to stay in one spot if there is plenty of food so I’m not worried about the pen.

Still, this got me thinking. Did I give the right answer? Is fish farming OK? With recent outbreaks of Infectious Salmon Anemia in the Pacific Northwest spreading from fish farms and threatening wild Pacific salmon I had to wonder. Hundreds of thousands of farm raised fish escape into the ocean spreading, not only disease, but their scientifically altered genes, wreaking god knows what kind of havoc on wild populations. Sometimes these escapees are non-native species that out compete native fish. In fact, these fish don’t even need to escape to do their damage. With massive fish farms at the mouthes of some of the world’s best steelhead and salmon rivers wild salmon, steelhead and smelt must run a gauntlet of disease every year to spawn. And what of the impact of all those penned up fish on the ecosystem? It’s clearly a mess but what’s the answer?

The world’s rapidly expanding demand for seafood is greater than the oceans can sustain. Popular species like tuna are under immense pressure. Fish size and numbers are way down in the open ocean. Clearly we can’t all eat wild fish. I spoke to my friend Michael White about this. “Whitey” is now a sales rep for the biggest names in the fly fishing business but for many years he guided. He’s one of the best steelhead and salmon anglers I know. Interestingly, Whitey doesn’t eat fish. He loves it but he doesn’t eat it. I’ve known that for a long time but we had never talked about why exactly. Here’s what he told me. After guiding for six or seven seasons in Alaska and watching the average angler kill upwards of a dozen fish a day he started feeling uneasy about it. Every year seeing more and more anglers and fewer and fewer fish he started to worry. When the guides fished for the camp kitchen, Whitey put down his rod and took on the responsibility of personally killing the fish. “So it could be done properly, and with respect,” he told me. He continued,”after personally killing thousands of fish I feel I have a debt to pay. For me not eating fish is part protest and part payback. Protest for what’s being done to our fisheries and payback for the fish I’ve killed. As a person who’s entire life and livelihood comes completely from fly fishing, I’m so grateful for that resource. I think those of us in the industry have to do everything we can to protect it. I’m afraid we don’t do enough.”

We are stuck with Aquiculture, like it or not. We are likely also stuck with over-fishing and diminishing fish numbers and size. I certainly don’t have the answer. I do, however feel pretty certain that the answer is not to be found in either ignorance or apathy. As the world population continues to skyrocket we need to start thinking hard about our decisions and how they impact the resources we enjoy and depend upon. We have to think about how we fish and what fish we eat. I’ll doubtless take some heat for saying this, but I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want better fishing the best thing you can do is use a condom! That’s the real issue. There are too many folks in this world for us to all make selfish choices. Like Whitey, we all need to start thinking about the debts we owe. We need to realize that the choices we make, on the stream and at the table, effect the quality of our future fishing experience. Of our future period, for that matter. We must make smart decisions. As for me,

I’ll have the fish.

Here’s a great site to help you choose.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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10 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / I’ll Have The Fish

  1. Louis,
    Thank you for addressing the human overpopulation issue. It seems to be the “third rail” of the environmental community.
    Aquiculture, as indeed all of modern agriculture, needs to be regulated as a polluting industry. All CAFO’s , from poultry houses to hog feed lots and hatchery raceways are point source pollution.Whilst we all benefit from the efficient production of animal protein , these industries must pay for the true cost of production.As long as we allow a market to ration resources by price, that price must reflect all costs incurred in extracting or cultivating that resource. The myth of “the family farm” has allowed producers,large and small, to hid behind a cloak of “stewardship” to use our rivers and small streams as rural sewer systems.
    I believe that one of the objections by West Virginia producers to the establishment of forested buffers along the Potomac headwaters ; is that such buffers would prevent them from driving along the stream banks and directly spreading poultry litter into the waterway.
    Proper regulation, inspection and enforcement will be required as aquiculture expands as an industry. Such expansion will happen as demand increases from a growing population.

  2. It all depends upon how the aquaculture operation is set up. There have been some very good results with entirely contained systems that utilize all of the water and all of the waste in a continuous loop, utilizing the natural processes of adjacent aquatic plant communities to purify the water for the fish. But net pens and open water net farms are an abomination to the ecology of the waters and marine life and wild fish.

  3. Over population is a myth. It’s not too many people that’s the problem it’s the people in charge. The US alone has enough resources to feed the entire world but politics and poor leadership is the real problem. So let’s not just take the easy road and say overpopulated.

    • How does the fact that the world’s population continues to grow not have a direct effect on the need for more food resources? Whether it be aquiculture or agriculture. This isn’t just a government issue. It’s Cause/Effect. The cause is the growing population. If there were only a few thousand people on the planet, do you think we’d be having this conversation? Doubtful. Lord knows there are issues with politics, but it’s not the cause. We’re talking about fish here. Sure, we have some resources that may be underutilized on our home turf. Maybe we do have enough food resources to feed the entire world, however, Louis is specifically talking about aquiculture, the effects that it may have on our ecosystem, and more specifically on our wild populations of fish. I would have to disagree with you and say blaming it on the government is taking the easy road.

  4. Large scale Saltwater Aquacultre give sustainable fresh water aquacultre a bad name too. We have a pretty neat spring fed trout farm right here in Ohio providing locally raised Rainbows for restaurants in the area. This place proves that there are ways to farm fish that don’t destroy anything and provide good healthy sustainable protein for people. IMHO this will be the way fish for the table is produced when we finally realize that wild things need to stay wild. If we want fish to eat, we need to breed fish for farming in ways that don’t destroy the ecosystem too badly and produce a reasonable return of protein when input costs are factored in.

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