Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Aquaculture Navigates through Troubled Waters

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Aquaculture Navigates through Troubled Waters

Article excerpt

Industrialized aquaculture (an umbrella term for various methods of domesticated fish production) is the world's fastest-growing animal food production system and recently surpassed wild catch as the source of the majority of the world's fish consumption. Around the world, fish consumption averages 16.4 kg per person per year, according to Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics 2006, the latest yearbook from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The glory days of global wild fish catches--which increased from just under 20 million metric tons in 1950 to more than 90 million metric tons in 2005--are over. According to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), wild populations of 46 fish species in U.S. waters were overfished as of late 2008, meaning the capacity of these fisheries to continue producing maximum sustainable yield is in jeopardy.

Critics of the aquaculture industry say it has no place in sustainable food production, pointing to its record of overusing wild fish to feed farmed stock and its effects on surrounding marine systems. Others say many of these criticisms are unfounded or no longer applicable, and that in the face of growing demand for food--for both basic sustenance and the unique health benefits attributed to seafood--aquaculture is a necessary part of any long-term solution. Despite many environmentalists' misgivings about the industry, the only option for providing more healthy seafare while possibly relieving the pressure on ocean stocks is a better aquaculture, says Mike Rust, who supervises the aquaculture research program for NOAA in Seattle.

Pressure to Produce

On 21 January 2009 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released for a 90-day public comment period a draft report on the risks and benefits of commercial fish consumption. According to the draft report, a review of various studies led the authors to conclude that fish oil consumption slightly decreased the risk of major coronary events and had significant secondary prevention benefits. For instance, in one 2004 study fish intake once a week was associated with a 13% decrease in stroke risk. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids appeared to be responsible for the benefits, and the authors of the draft report wrote that these benefits outweighed the considerable risks of neurodevelopmental damage to children caused by prenatal exposure to methylmercury in fish.

But a 17 March 2009 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by David Jenkins and colleagues from the University of Toronto took another view of the science. These authors concluded that weaknesses in study design rendered even the strongest evidence for the benefits of increased fish oil consumption--including findings from a 1999 study suggesting a 15% benefit in the prevention of cardiovascular disease that could be reduced even further with the incorporation of other healthful lifestyle changes--far from conclusive. The authors questioned, moreover, whether these inconclusive findings were worth the damage that increased fish consumption would wreak on wild fisheries. Moreover, they wrote that aquaculture was "unlikely to resolve the problem," citing environmental damage caused by fish farms and the risk of exposure to elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins in farm-raised fish.

These arguments also lie at the heart of the debate on a proposed organic standard for fish products. In November 2008 a working group of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on criteria for adopting an organic standard for wild and farmed fish. Besides codifying "best practices," an organic standard represents an effort to create a market niche and thus a basis for commercial investment in healthier options for managing fish production. For many skeptics, however, any organic standard that includes aquaculture is suspect. …

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