Life on a Fish Farm: Food Safety a Priority

Article excerpt

In bold yellow letters the supermarket ad proclaims, "Save on Catch of the Day." Beneath the message is a fisherman's oversized dip-net teeming with thick sliced lemons, red snapper, trout, mussels, a red onion, succulent shrimp, a sprig of parsley, and a luscious lobster. The picture creates an intense hunger for seafood. It also commands a closer look.

The ad's fine print lists the usual information: the price of the product, its common or usual name, whether it is fresh or frozen, and its place of origin. But a few products are identified with a term that implies an additional distinction--"farmraised." This means it's a product of aquaculture.

What's Aquaculture?

Aquaculture means "water culture" or, more exactly, farming in water. Simply explained, it involves the intensive production of fish and shellfish for human food, plants such as seaweed, and even bait fish and fish for aquana, in a closely managed habitat.

The aquaculture industry has been described as "fragile" because it's still young, yet "on the cutting edge of science" because of its use of technology. Both descriptions are appropriate for an industry that has experienced explosive growth in the last 20 years, but is still immature.

Aquaculture is considered by many to be the aquatic counterpart of agriculture, with water substituting for land. But aquaculture is more akin to animal husbandry, the science of animal breeding, than agriculture in general.

Farm-raised fish mature in areas called rearing units or rearing areas either offshore or onshore. Ponds, large circular tanks, and raceways--rectangular concrete enclosures that make use of flowing water--are common onshore rearing units for fin fish. Coastal lakes and estuaries can be common sites for offshore systems raising fish and crustaceans in cages or netpens. Shellfish may be held in floating baskets or suspended on ropes hanging from rafts.

The aquaculturist takes species of aquatic plants and animals naturally grown in nature's waterways or in the "wild" and reproduces them in a habitat where the operative word is "control."

The farmer can monitor and control every aspect of the fish's environment--from the quality of pond water to the specially formulated fish diet. Fish farmers believe that it's the element of control that makes a farm-raised fish a better-quality product because it's easier to regulate and guarantee its wholesomeness.

Fish farmers rely on good management and a host of products to prevent health problems. They use chemicals as disinfectants and to kill bacteria; herbicides to prevent the overgrowth of vegetation in ponds; vaccines to fight certain diseases; and drugs--usually combined in the feed--to treat diseases and parasites.

The supervision of this new industry is shared by several federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Fish and Wildfire Service (FWS), and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with state and local authorities. Their common goal is to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of aquaculture products.

USDA has the overall responsibility for promoting the development of aquaculture as an industry. FWS provides developmental research and advice to fish farmers. EPA safeguards the environment and municipal water systems by regulating the discharge of water from aquaculture facilities and registering the chemicals used as pesticides and herbicides. NOAA, for a fee, provides an inspection service that guarantees fish are packed under federal inspection.

FDA works with the individual states to ensure the safety of seafood products, especially molluscan shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels. It also approves the drugs and feed additives used in aquaculture; monitors the manufacturing, distribution and use of fish drugs; provides technical assistance and training to the states; conducts research; and provides the necessary oversight to ensure that fish food products are safe, wholesome and properly labeled. …