Farming the Seas
Aquaculture is an industry in transition—for the better.
BY BARTON SEAVER / WOOD CUT GRAPHIC BY MICHAEL PIZZA
When I was a young chef, I had a first opportunity to share my story with my guests. You see, writing a menu is a very personal undertaking. Through it chefs describe their own histories. They share viewpoints on ingredients and cultures. And increasingly, they share their views on the ethics surrounding the ingredients that in sum allow them to be chefs, serving not only meals that sustain their guests, but meals that share with them a little bit of themselves.
My narrative was my history in the Chesapeake. My menu was to proudly include flavors of my youth, but reality struck the day before I was to launch my menu. When ordering the fish, I was told those species that I so identified with were gone. And by gone I don’t mean by some magical and passive act. We had eaten them. We had eaten them all.
I realized then and there an axiom that has come to define my career and become the compass by which I have followed my own path of learning: The guiding hand of natural selection is quite firmly holding a fork and the choices we make as chefs and consumers truly do define the relationship we have with our natural world. “How we eat largely describes how this world is used,” says the great Wendell Berry. Already we have seen how the prevalence of species such as bluefin tuna and orange roughy on restaurant menus has led to their near extinction.
As I dove deeper into the world of sustainability, I encountered an issue that had never been part of my narrative: aquaculture. The farming of the seas is an industry new to the discourse of large-scale food systems and one constantly under fire for its sustainability practices.
On the surface, there was a lot of damning information—much of it true—about aquaculture, specifically as it applied to farming species such as salmon. But as my learning expanded, I began to see the industry in a broader context that went beyond environmental metrics. And I began to include in my evaluations the culture and economies of once proud and powerful maritime communities. And most importantly, I began to consider the positive health impacts of seafood consumption and the incredible opportunity available to the aquaculture industry to increase quality of life and health outcomes of Americans by facilitating its increased seafood consumption.
When aquaculture is viewed in this larger context, the acute measure of its environmental impact is no longer a good measure of its value to us and our society. As a chef who once quite vociferously and loudly preached that aquaculture by broad brushstroke was “farmed and dangerous,” I don’t regret the passions that drove me to that position but I do proudly sing a redemption song. The advantage of learning is not only that we accumulate knowledge, but oftentimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we find humility.
Some leading health experts recommend that we eat two servings of seafood per week. Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood such as salmon are among the very best tools we have to improve and lengthen our lives. Research done by my colleague Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, found that consuming just three-and-a-half to four ounces of salmon (farmed or wild) a week has been shown to reduce the risk of death from coronary heart disease by 36%, making seafood so important that Mozaffarian declares “the three S’s of public health to be: wear your Seatbelt, don’t Smoke and eat Seafood.”
If we are to follow this advice, aquaculture simply must be a part of our food system. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that without it, the world will face a seafood shortage of 50–80 million tons by 2030. I do not suggest farmed seafood as a substitute for, but an addition to, wild-capture seafood. And though aquaculture still has many obstacles to overcome, as the industry itself seeks sustainability in its processes, the plain fact is that aquaculture on the whole has advanced in sustainability far past what consumers, chefs and media often allow credit for.
Farmed salmon, which has been a problem species, was only introduced as a global industry less than 50 years ago. Its negative reputation, somewhat rightfully earned in those early years, has unfortunately stuck with it.
In the early days of fish farming, sites were not fallowed (allowed periods of rest between productive periods), so salmon waste built up. The excess of natural fish waste polluted the waters. Farmers had not yet benefitted from hundreds of generations of selective breeding to raise fish best suited for the conditions of farming. Overcrowding of pens led to sick fish, and prophylactic use of antibiotics became the norm. Faulty pens also allowed for fish to escape into the surrounding waters, sometimes introducing non-indigenous species into new environments. Solutions to these early shortcomings have been developed and now best aquaculture practices are pervasive in the industry.
In my home state of Maine, a leading example of how aquaculture can restore the pride, prudence, profitability and permanence of marine communities and economies, aquaculture at its best is on full display for everyone to taste. Businesses such as Cooke Aquaculture provide us with great examples of companies committed to constant improvement and to forging ahead with innovations that answer many of the environmental issues that their farms have evolved past. Operating since near the dawn of the farmed salmon era, Cooke is based in Maine but now global in its reach. The company grows salmon ranging from a competitively priced commodity product to True North salmon, a branded product of rarified quality that has captured the attention of the very best chefs in America and beyond, including Rick Moonen, a former farmed-salmon adversary. These salmon, grown in traditional offshore net-pens, are a product of improved practices.
Cooke locates and manages farms in deep-water tidal areas, using scientific methods to ensure minimal impact on the environment while maximizing production of healthy, wholesome seafood for consumers. Innovations in farming techniques such as their unique, three-bay management system of crop rotation protects and preserves their ocean sites. Two of the three bays are divided into areas for smolts (juvenile salmon) and adult, market-ready salmon. The third area is kept fallow for a period of time. These nonproductive periods allow the ocean floor to rest, protecting the environment as well as the fish.
Cooke also stocks its fish at relatively low densities, which allows the fish substantial room to swim freely and does not overwhelm the surrounding environment. Current feed conversion ratio—the amount of feed needed to produce one pound of salmon—is 1.2:1, with improvements consistently lowering the food requirements. (Compare this to land-based proteins such as chicken, 1.7:1 or beef, 6.8:1.) No hormones are used and Cooke allows two years for a salmon to mature from smolt to market.
Modern technology has allowed for the development of ocean net-pen systems, including cages, moorings and netting that ensure stock containment. In another evolution in their farming process, Cooke has pioneered a unique Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture approach by which the nutrients released from the salmon pens act as fertilizer and feed for mussels and seaweeds produced in the same waters. By reimagining ocean-farming to mimic the natural diversity of marine ecosystems, not only are we moving towards operations that produce more food per area, but augmenting the environmental benefits while increasing the positive impact these businesses have on our environment, our health and the number of my neighbors they sustainably employ.
Another Maine producer, Acadia Harvest Inc., uses a newer model called a recirculating aquaculture system. This land-based technology exists in many locations across the globe. Part of what makes Acadia Harvest unique and exemplary is their partnership with University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research. The commitment to research and further development is visionary and has thus far proven very productive as well.
A series of tanks filled with seawater are stocked with healthy, juvenile fish, maintained at healthy densities, at consistent temperatures year round, fed at scientifically proven optimal intervals. As the fish grow they are moved to progressively larger tanks. The company is committed to using no antibiotics and no hormones. The RAS system, combined with its own Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture, allows for the treatment and removal of fish wastes by a variety of species of algae and shellfish, creating a closed-circuit low- to zero-waste system free from predation and outside threats to fish health.
The process also yields an amazing product. Acadia’s California yellowtail, sold as Maine Hiramasa, named for its similarity to the high-quality Japanese yellowtail, is a luxurious, high-fat fish so rich as to be nearly like foie gras, its healthy fats melting just by the touch of a hand even before they melt in your mouth. It is delicate in flavor and is as well suited to sushi and sashimi as it is to grilling whole.
These two production models and others, ranging from my friend Bren Smith’s Thimble Island Oysters in Long Island Sound and his apprenticeship organization GreenWave, which trains new aquaculturists into the industry, to the entrepreneur Samuel Chen of Hudson Valley Fish Farms, who operates one of the world’s largest indoor aquaculture facilities in Hudson, New York, to countless others all over the U.S. and the world, attest to an ever-growing host of delicious and ever more sustainable species becoming available to us.
But aquaculture is a far bigger industry than just fin fish. Oysters, clams and mussels are to a significant majority a farmed product in the United States. And these industries have been a large part of the story of shellfish for hundreds of years. The production of bivalves is one form of aquaculture that I have long heralded, as the impact of these systems is not only sustainable in that they do not negatively impact ecosystems; they are restorative, as they increase the health of ecosystems in which they are raised and provide opportunity for proud American traditions to endure.
My sermon to the masses regarding these foods goes so far as to proclaim it our patriotic duty to consume as many farm-raised clams, mussels and oysters as possible. It is the only food I outright recommend over-consumption of, as our encouragement and support of the industry only increases its presence and thus its impact on our health, our heritage and our waterfront communities.
Aquaculturists are a part of our food system. They are our neighbors and they are as noble in their pursuit of providing us with healthy, regional foods as are any of our traditional agrarian heroes we so venerate and celebrate through conversation about good food. It’s time that the environmental community—chefs, consumers and media alike—allow them credit for the services to our community that they provide.
This is not a plea to award them a free pass or to hold them any less accountable for responsible production and constant improvement. This is merely presenting the case that we look anew at an industry that by plain reasoning and objective consideration must be embraced and encouraged by consumers and chefs, its narrative fairly reported on by media, held to account for its abuses, but equally celebrated for its advances and contributions. And as participants in the good food dialogue discuss how to strategize on resilient and thriving human economies, we must develop avenues for investment and capital to finally bring aquaculture to its potential.
One of the failures in our efforts to judge the sustainability of aquaculture has been that we have not measured it against other protein choices. In the United States we eat more than 250 pounds a year of beef, pork, chicken and lamb, and 14.6 pounds of seafood. It has been documented that too much meat is making Americans sick, and adding seafood to our diets can improve health.
Furthermore, if we compare seafood with terrestrial proteins, measuring each by land use alterations, greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotic use, freshwater use and feed conversion ratios, seafood is clearly the environmental choice. And while I am by no means anti-beef, or any other properly raised farm animal, our health and that of the environment depends on diversity. If we are to be a healthy society, both wild and farmed seafood must be part of our healthy and sustainable choices.
Not all farmed seafood is alike. When you are shopping, here is what you should look for:
- Look for domestically produced product. America has some of the very best regulations and practices anywhere in the world.
- Make sure you are getting Aquaculture Stewardship Council certified product. This provides a guarantee of provenance and practice.
- Diversify the species you’re looking for beyond just salmon and shrimp. Try Australis barramundi, sustainably farmed in western Massachusetts or cobia produced by Open Blue, for example.
- Reduce portion sizes. It’s not enough to just sustainably farm seafood. We have equal responsibility to sustainably use that product. There is sustainably produced shrimp but there will never be a sustainable “All you can eat shrimp buffet.”