By Neil Anthony Sims*
We asked them – and they asked of themselves - why do journalists always feel so pressed to present such opposing viewpoints? What if you convened an argument, and everyone agreed? (Or almost everyone … there is always some bleating in the background, but it is rarely based on anything but anger and bitterness).
This question is not just for American political ethicists (if that’s not an oxymoron), but it is also germane to those of us who are deeply committed to furthering the cause of offshore aquaculture. And we have seen this issue in stark relief in recent months: a number of news stories that addressed the issue of advancing aquaculture in U.S. Federal waters – both in the Gulf of Mexico and the Western Pacific regions – have drawn heavily on carping criticisms from the Recirculating Farms Coalition, yet have widely and blithely ignored the preponderance of opinion from most respected academics, and most of the science-driven conservation NGOs.
The tipping point for aquaculture’s image – when the veil was finally lifted - was most probably the publication of the Blue Frontiers study in 2012, by Conservation International and Worldfish Center together. Prior to that, aquaculture – and fish farming, in particular – had been the whipping boy of most of the marine-focused NGOs, maligned for every imaginable ill, and many that were unimaginable. Blue Frontiers was the most visible manifestation of the conservation community’s collective re-think; an objective review of what the data truly meant. This full Life-Cycle Assessment of the whole range of animal protein production systems had concluded that hands down, far and away, aquaculture was the least impactful of all. This conclusion was incontrovertible, and overwhelming in terms of its implications for future land use, water use, energy use and – most compellingly – greenhouse gas emissions.
Extrapolation from the study’s findings left no room for continued vilification of fish farming. If the 3 billion people projected to rise into the middle class in the next 35 years are eating beef, then the planet is, to use the French, screwed. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from terrestrial farm animals – particularly cattle – would push the Earth’s atmosphere closer to Venusian. And water and land use would …. well, they wouldn’t. They couldn’t. There simply is not enough arable land or fresh water to support that many cows.
Those environmental and conservation organizations that allow science to drive their agenda took very good note. (And we do need to give them credit for that!) In a meeting soon after the publication of the study, the head of one leading ocean-focused conservation group even recited to me – pretty much line and verse – the extrapolation of outcomes in the paragraph above. He, too, saw the importance of expanding responsible aquaculture, to meet global protein needs, while avoiding these consequences. They had to follow the logic to these conclusions. It was solid science, and it was published by Conservation International: there is no finer pedigree for objective assessment of environmental policy. Any conservation group or environmental activist who might exhort a cleaner, greener energy policy for the planet (“Yay, wind! Boo, coal!”), based on the best available science was therefore now compelled, to remain consistent, to also embrace the previously unfashionable notion of promoting farmed fish over GHG-belching bovines of our past pastoral idylls.
Ever since, there has been growing momentum behind the movement for more fish farms. Or, more correctly, for more better fish farms. WWF had long ago led with the formation of the Aquaculture Dialogs. These then evolved into the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standards – a mechanism for unbiased assessment of the impacts of aquaculture operations, and of mitigating and eventually minimizing those impacts. ASC then also provided a mechanism for rewarding the farmers for their efforts by according them market recognition – a little blue logo on their retail package, and better market access, or shelf position, or perhaps price.
And what about standards for marine fish?
Back in 2008, the Ocean Stewards Institute – the open ocean aquaculture trade association - and other fish farming advocates suggested to WWF that standards should also be developed for marine fish, to allow offshore aquaculture to be accorded this “gold standard” of approval. We in the industry were keenly conscious of our need for objective air-cover; for multi-stakeholder-endorsed science to demonstrate how well we could do this. Seriola and cobia were identified as “the most likely to succeed.” Some eight years later, and our collective perseverance has been rewarded, with the recent release of the Seriola-Cobia Standard for ASC certification. This now provides opportunity for marine fish farms to have unbiased audits affirm the minimal footprint of their operations.
There are also efforts now under way to use the Seriola-Cobia standard as the template for other farmed marine species. Snapper and grouper stakeholders have held a dialogue, and barramundi farmers are keen to move forward as well. This is all good news; this is real science, applying meaningful metrics, where previously there had been much misinformation and deliberate distortion.
A partial point of view…
Unfortunately, not all NGOs are truly interested in the environment, or conservation. Some seem to be steadfastly committed to fostering fractiousness, simply to justify their own existence. There is little other possible explanation for the persistent fearmongering and fish-farm-smearing by Food and Water Watch and their shill, the Recirculating Farms Coalition (RFC). In the above-referenced newspaper articles and blog-posts over the last month or so, the RFC has chosen to deny the abundant science, and to instead trundle out the same, tired old tropes that have been proven so profoundly wrong. They essentially stand on the same side of the science fence as the climate deniers.
This is not an excusable ignorance: Price and Morris; Rust, et al., and Blue Frontiers are all frequently and widely cited. RFC’s attitude is evidently just a single-minded, mendacious venality. They work the web-rabble into a frenzy of fear and anger. Instead of pitchforks and firebrands, they urge the reader to send a form letter to a Senator and … oh, yes, please also donate!
The RFC argues that we can have our fish, and eat them too, simply by relying on aquaponics. Now, I’m a big fan of aquaponics; some of my best friends are aquaponickers. I would never think to malign their pastime, or impede their enjoyment. Some of the tastiest lettuce and tomatoes I have ever eaten have come from aquaponic systems. But aquaponics will not solve the seafood crisis, nor will it address the pressing animal protein needs we face as a planet. Consider: when was the last time that you heard someone in a sushi bar order tilapia, or carp? If it is not farmed, then sushi patrons will happily pay for wild marine fish, and ignore the Monterey Bay Aquarium color code. If it is not marine fish, then folk will choose the beef.
RFC would then instead suggest that we just need to focus more on RAS (recirculating aquaculture systems) to provide us with abundant marine fish. Now, I’m a big fan of RAS; some of my best friends …. etc, etc. RAS is a great way to provide improved biosecurity for broodstock, larval rearing and nursery production of marine fish. But RAS systems are capital and energy intensive (see box). And – as a leading RAS expert pointed out to me, when I asked him why he was now working for a hatchery for a net pen operation – there is (neither to my knowledge, nor to his) not a single RAS system for marine fish anywhere in the world that is consistently producing more than 1,000 tons/year. RAS, currently, simply cannot scale.
I would never for a moment suggest that we should stop research on aquaponics or RAS systems, or that we should sue NOAA to stop them from issuing RAS permits. We need all hands to the pumps, here! Every available option for producing tasty marine fish should be pushed and prodded, invested in and endorsed. Our planet depends on it. Unless and until we can find a way to scalably produce the marine fish that we crave, then those 3 billion future diners will be ordering steak, rather than seafood. And that makes for a very crowded, much drier, less green, much warmer earth. And that will truly be a tragedy.
We need our intrepid journalists to bring that truth to the fore in any discussion on open ocean aquaculture policies, and to focus more on – and to quote - the earnest environmentalists and fact-founded conservationists among the NGO community, instead of seeking out the loudest-screaming science-denying fringe. There is good press … and then there is public good. They’re not always the same thing.
Neil Anthony Sims is co-Founder and CEO of Kampachi Farms, LLC, based in Kona, Hawaii, and in La Paz, Mexico. He’s also the founding President of the Ocean Stewards Institute, and sits on the Steering Committee for the Seriola-Cobia Aquaculture Dialogue and the Technical Advisory Group for the WWF-sponsored Aquaculture Stewardship Council.