Something Fishy Going On

On a recent episode of CBS’ 60 Minutes, an update on “fish farms” had me scratching my head. What the heck are we doing? Are we coming up with safe and creative ways to have our salmon and eat it too, or are we distorting the natural order and endangering all salmon just to profit from increased demand? The answer is “both”, and consumers will need help in making smart shopping decisions going forward. Let me summarize two scenarios for you to digest.



Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Salmon demand – in response to sushi cravings, a belief that we need more Omega-8 in our bodies, and possibly a greater number of people turning to fish and away from red meat – has doubled in the past 10 years. Doubled. That’s a lot of salmon. And while we once naively believed that our oceans were all-you-can-eat buffets, we now know that – oops! – they aren’t. We’ve seen the cod disappear from the east coast of Canada, wild salmon off the coast of BC is in serious decline, and the world’s oceans have lost a stunning 90% of tuna, swordfish and marlin, since industrialized fishing began. Talk about the consequences of greed.

One fish farmer in BC maintains that farming is just the responsible thing to do. He says that we’ve been farming our other food for centuries, from cows to corn. We’ve cleared space to grow crops and let animals graze, why not do the same with our oceans? His “fish farms”, which constitute a netted area of the ocean itself, help supply world demand without impacting the wild fish. Eat farmed fish, according to him, and you save the real fish from extinction. Of course, his fish are real fish too… taking into account that they can barely swim an inch without bumping into each other, are eating pellets of food prepared to “optimize” their pink colour, and are swimming lethargically over a toxic dump of their own waste, before they’re culled for our dining pleasure.

In Alaska, in stark contrast, the emphasis is on “fish hatcheries”, where fish are bred and raised for a short while before being released into the ocean as “wild salmon”, effectively repleting and possibly over-stocking the numbers in the ocean. The intent here, of course, is to make more for us to take, in order to justify our taking it. It’s like pouring candy into a big bowl while all the children snatch at it, and hoping that there is some left over after the swarm.

Scientists and naturalists are alarmed by both. Fish farms in the ocean habitat run the risk of becoming bacterial hot-beds; the effects on large numbers of fish in such close proximity could be catastrophic if an infection is introduced. As happened off the coast of Chile, a fast-spreading infection would not only slaughter the entire fish population within the nets, but the water-borne germ could then infect the wild fish, and possibly wipe out entire regions of the species. Fish hatcheries, on the other hand, introduce the element of “man” into the equation of nature’s balance, raising questions as to whether or not we’re just perpetuating and possibly exacerbating an already-bad situation.

Speaking of farming…

Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, warned us long ago that the agricultural revolution was the beginning of the end. According to his fascinating insights, we should never have started farming anything. We should just be consuming what we need from the wild, each of us, as we need it. It should never have become a business. As soon as farming plants and animals became a for-profit venture, this gave rise to territorial disputes, the need to protect said farms and their harvests, and the sense of “ownership” that we have since maintained over fertile land as the ultimate cash crop. Supply and demand means someone gets to profit and someone gets to eat. Repeat as necessary – until all supplies are gone?

In the course of these discussions, no one suggests that we stop eating salmon. But you might consider doing just that, until you know where your salmon is coming from, and what the long-term impact is going to be on the planet. The ONLY area where we consumers have some control is in the “demand” side of the equation. As long as we’re willing to fork out big bucks for that trendy sushi, that chef-inspired la-dee-da delicacy (to say nothing about paying a small fortune to eat their eggs, how bizarre is that, when you really think about it?) or buy cooked-in-the-can salmon that relies on huge netting operations dredfishging the ocean floor…. well, if you’re part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution.

Think about it. Come to your own conclusions. I’m still scratching my head and feeling bad for the fish, who are the real victims here.


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