The Blue Food Revolution


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The bubbles from our regulators rise up to meet them; one pauses to stare into my mask. In the early s the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery and the import tariffs imposed on Norwegian salmon bankrupted the family business. Now, off Panama, he operates the largest offshore fish farm in the world. He has some employees, a big hatchery onshore, and a fleet of bright orange vessels to service a dozen of the giant cages, which can hold more than a million cobia.

A popular sport fish, cobia has been caught commercially only in small quantities—in the wild the fish are too solitary—but its explosive growth rate makes it popular with farmers. Last year he shipped tons of cobia to high-end restaurants around the U.

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Next year he hopes to double that amount—and finally turn a profit. Maintenance and operating costs are high in offshore waters. They suspect the diluted waste is being scavenged by undernourished plankton, since the offshore waters are nutrient poor. Public concerns over pollution and fierce opposition from commercial fishermen have made coastal states leery of any fish farms. His four cages left each produce 5 to 13 tons of shrimp every four to six months. They have less impact than a conventional shrimp farm, but they require Mexican government subsidies. They have one big advantage over land animals: You have to feed them a lot less.

It takes roughly a pound of feed to produce a pound of farmed fish; it takes almost two pounds of feed to produce a pound of chicken, about three for a pound of pork, and about seven for a pound of beef. Different sources of animal protein in our diet place different demands on natural resources. By this measure, farming salmon is about seven times more efficient than raising beef. The rapid growth rate that makes cobia a good farm animal is fueled in the wild by a diet of smaller fish or crustaceans, which provide the perfect blend of nutrients—including the omega-3 fatty acids that cardiologists love.

The meal and oil come from forage fish like sardines and anchovies, which school in huge shoals off the Pacific coast of South America.

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These forage fisheries are among the largest in the world but are prone to spectacular collapses. So hot is the market that many countries are sending ships to Antarctica to harvest more than , tons a year of tiny krill—a major food source for penguins, seals, and whales. Though much of the krill ends up in pharmaceuticals and other products, to critics of aquaculture the idea of vacuuming up the bottom of the food chain in order to churn out slabs of relatively cheap protein sounds like ecological insanity.

In their defense, fish farmers have been getting more efficient, farming omnivorous fish like tilapia and using feeds that contain soybeans and other grains; salmon feed these days is typically no more than 10 percent fish meal. The amount of forage fish used per pound of output has fallen by roughly 80 percent from what it was 15 years ago. It could fall a lot further, says Rick Barrows, who has been developing fish feeds at his U.


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Department of Agriculture lab in Bozeman, Montana, for the past three decades. Aquaculture could get out of fish meal today if it wanted to. Replacing fish oil remains trickier, because it carries those prized omega-3 fatty acids.


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Some feed companies are already extracting omega-3s directly from algae—the process used to make omega-3 for eggs and orange juice. Such farms help China grow 12 million tons of food a year with no soil or fresh water and no fertilizer except runoff from the land. Oceans cover 71 percent of Earth yet provide less than 2 percent of our food—for now.

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Photograph by George Steinmetz. Figuring out what to feed farmed fish may ultimately be more important for the planet than the question of where to farm them. Though pollution from coastal salmon farms gave the whole industry a black eye, he says, these days even salmon farms are producing 10 to 15 times the fish they did in the s and s with a fraction of the pollution. His inspiration comes from ancient China. More than a thousand years ago, during the Tang dynasty, Chinese farmers developed an intricate polyculture of carp, pigs, ducks, and vegetables on their small family farms, using the manure from ducks and pigs to fertilize the pond algae grazed by the carp.

Carp were later added to flooded paddies, where the omnivorous fish gobbled up insect pests and weeds and fertilized the rice before becoming food themselves. In a fjord on the British Columbia coast, Cross has devised a polyculture of his own. He feeds only one species—a sleek, hardy native of the North Pacific known as sablefish or black cod. Slightly down current from their pens he has placed hanging baskets full of native cockles, oysters, and scallops as well as mussels that feed on the fine organic excretions of the fish.

Next to the baskets he grows long lines of sugar kelp, used in soups and sushi and also to produce bioethanol; these aquatic plants filter the water even further, converting nearly all the remaining nitrates and phosphorus to plant tissue. On the seafloor, 80 feet below the fish pens, sea cucumbers—considered delicacies in China and Japan—vacuum up heavier organic waste that the other species miss.

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Minus the sablefish, Cross says, his system could be fitted onto existing fish farms to serve as a giant water filter that would produce extra food and profit. With demand rising and many marine fish stocks already overfished, nearly half of all seafood now comes from aquaculture, which has grown at a double-digit clip for decades. Most of the growth is in Asia, home to 90 percent of fish farms. China, the world leader, imports additional fish to make fish oil, fish food, and other products.

A key to sustainability, these groups say, is learning to eat farther down the food chain. Shellfish are just one step up from the bottom. And besides producing a healthy product low in fat and high in omega-3s, shellfish farms clean the water of excess nutrients. He started his farm his senior year and was soon selling his oysters at farmers markets.

That stuff was good. Meanwhile the University of Rhode Island has sent him on teaching trips to Africa, where aquaculture is exploding—and where people desperately need affordable, healthy protein. A few hundred miles north, in the clear, frigid waters off Casco Bay, two Maine watermen, Paul Dobbins and Tollef Olson, have stepped down the food chain even farther. They started with 3, linear feet of kelp line and last year farmed 30,, harvesting three species that can grow up to five inches a day, even in winter.

Their company, Ocean Approved, sells kelp as fresh-frozen, highly nutritious salad greens, slaw, and pasta to restaurants, schools, and hospitals along the Maine coast. Investor urges aquaculture to align with the "food revolution".


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By Jason Holland. Published on September 16, Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. Jason Holland.

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Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK. Want seafood news sent to your inbox? You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Aquafeed disrupter scales up with consumer needs in mind. September 26, Corbion partners with chef Sammy Monsour to highlight algae-fed salmon. March 18, January 31, Following TerraVia takeover, Corbion expanding with new shrimp feed additive.

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