Friday, June 14, 2013

The Farm That Doesn't Feed Its Animals

Our world has reached a limit, with an ever-rising demand for seafood; we can no longer ignore the depletion of natural food sources.  In the past, we did not have to deal with such problems due to a lower interest in fish as food. However due to a renewed, voracious appetite for seafood, pressure on the fishing industry to meet the high demands has increased.  The average consumption of fish set a new record average in 2011 with 37 pounds of fish per person being consumed each year. Even though global fish supply continues to decline, people are now eating four times as much fish than in 1950 (1).

Figure 1 - Trends in annual fish capture
Worldwide, 154 million tons of fish are harvested annually, 90 million of which comes from the oceans. This amount of harvesting is resulting in an over-exploitation of our marine fish populations (2). They are in serious trouble due to overfishing, ecosystem degradation, and inept fishery management, that have resulted in 52% of fish stocks being fully exploited, 20% moderately exploited, 17% overexploited, 7% depleted, and 1% recovering from depletion (3, Seen in Figure 1 below). Unless we begin to make significant changes in the way that we harvest and consume seafood, we could eventually lose a valuable food source many depend upon for social, economical or dietary reasons.
Clearly, a change in the methods of fish harvesting is necessary, but implementation is not as easy as it seems. Industrialized countries are the main source of problem with their modern methods of fishing that produce such high return on investment that it is impossible to return to traditional methods. Methods such as trawling or dredging use nets as large as football fields to scrape the sea floor for fish that reside there. Dredging is extremely successful, but it damages the natural sea floor ecosystem by scraping the bottom while also resulting in significant bycatch (4).  There are much more efficient methods of fishing, but each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Figure 2 - Global Fish Production
A new, exceptionally sustainable fishing practice has rapidly increased recently called aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming (see Figure 2 below). Primarily used in to raise specific valuable species of fish that are in larger demand than what the environment can produce, essentially succeeding with help from human interaction. This labor-intensive farming method is not exactly natural, thus containing a large amount of negative consequences.  Between using hatcheries (Picture 1 below), to pond developments, or just plain fish ranching, they all produce high levels of biomass production using a methodology known as intensive farming.  Intensive farming can be greatly beneficial to producing these high harvest numbers, because it benefits the environment in various ways. Significantly increasing yield per acre has made food more affordable to the consumer as it costs less to produce more. Intensive farming uses high labor and high amounts of food, chemical, and other resource input to create amazingly high input (5).  While it may produce a lot of food from little land thus being able to save it from conversion, it is also poisoning the nearby area with this high amount of human influence.  Chemicals leak into the nearby ecosystem, and deteriorate the soil and other organisms' health. This high food, chemical, and labor input method is not easy to manage, between the price and the work it becomes difficult to manage the farm. This is why intensive farming tends to separate itself from the outside ecosystem, in order to maximize efficiency in that area.
Picture 1- Conventional Fish Farming
However as intelligent human beings, we know that we cannot look upon an ecosystem by itself, but rather observe its role on the global perspective.  Bringing in chemicals and highly profitable invasive fish species creates new environmental factors that alter that of natural ecosystems. The possible problems range from the escapement of genetically modified or foreign outcompeting fish, to pollution, species extinction, or even entire ecosystem collapse. These problems are what created an increased interest in this other form of aquaculture called extensive farming. Using extensive farming, the human impact upon both fish production and the environment can be minimalized. In a method that relies more heavily on healthy ecosystem relationships than anything else, they can produce high amounts of quality fish at surprisingly efficient levels.  
In a TED talk I watched recently by a chef Dan Barber (link below), he explains how fish aquaculture has reached a difficult challenge of maintaining the stability of the aquatic ecosystem. The biggest problem arises from the demand for certain fish species. Tuna, for instance, is an extremely valued product, and this causes fish farms to be put up all over the world to increase the annual production of this fish. However, this fish takes a conversion of 15lbs of wild fish to create 1lb of tuna (6). This drive for tastier fish has pushed us to feed these organisms, despite the immense damage done to biodiversity and nutrient cycling in ecosystems.  Now this isn’t always the problem as some fish species, like the one Dan Barber first fell “in love” with, have very good conversions such as 2.5lbs of feed to 1lb of meat for an aquaculture company he once promoted. This first farm’s intensive method was still thought to be the best in the business, no one was as sustainable as them. Their ecological damage was thought to be perfect since they operate the farthest out to sea, so that pollution was dispersed instead of being concentrated near the shore. This first fish seems like a dream almost, it tastes good, it’s easy to farm and for food it is fed cheap chicken pellets…Chef Dan noticed something here. Why are we feeding chicken to fish? The only response he got, “There’s too much chicken in the world (6).” All right, it seems like a reasonably sustainable method for fish farming, but not necessarily as sustainable as it sounded before.  Dan didn’t accept this either, it ruined the taste, and he fell out of “love” with this fish.
One man, Miguel Midialdea, who was raising fish on his own natural aquaculture farm called Veta la Palma, was able to renew Dan’s love for a fish. His farm (Video 1, right) fully endorsed extensive farming techniques to create an 27,000 acre ecosystem that enhances the environmental quality of the surrounding area.   
Using ecological relationships between species on all levels of the food web, he was able to bring all of the species that he needed into the environment without putting them there himself. In fact almost 600,000 birds of almost 250 different species are attracted to the farm annually simply because the food is better there. Miguel views the fish lost to birds as a sign that the entire ecosystem is balanced and thriving, because they are eating and the food is available and good. Flamingos travel 150 miles everyday to eat at the farm (7). These thriving conditions also result in a natural aquatic vegetation filtration of the water, leaving water cleaner of toxins and contaminants when it leaves the system than when it came in. 

The greatest part of this aquaculture farm is not how friendly it is to the ecosystem, rather the incredible sustainability of not only the fish, but also the whole system.  When asked how much the food input ratio was, Miguel told him that, due to all the organisms functioning so well together within the system, that they didn’t feed the fish anything.  Extensive farming at La Palma is completely sustainable (6). 
Miguel Midialdea proved that farming of any kind is about the relationship of organisms to their environment. With methods like these, we would be capable of creating our own sustainable food sources that no longer deplete the limited sources that we were granted. Rather, we can start giving back to the environment with healthy systems that grow and recover from the damage we have already inflicted.  It may be a long road to bring more farms up to this form of regulation, but it all starts with small farms like La Palma. If we continue to grow and incorporate our simple understandings of organism relationships, then we can reverse many of the effects of overfishing in an ecosystem. We will be able to grow the amount of sustainable fish harvested now that they work together in an ecosystem instead of at the expense of one another.

TED Talk: Dan Barber (6)
Nature Ecosystem view of Veta La Palma (7)!
Extra video to show a visit to the farm and interview with Miguel (8)  
Works Cited:
1)    Vince, Gaia. "How the World's Oceans Could Be Running out of Ish." British Broadcasting Corporation, 21 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 May 2013. <>.
2)    FAO. World Review of Fisheries and Aquaculture. N.p.: n.p., n.d. FAO. Food and Agriculture Organization, 2012. Web. 27 May 2013. <>.
3)    Overfishing. "Why Is Overfishing a Problem." Overfishing., n.d. Web. 27 May 2013. <>.
4)    Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program. "Fishing & Farming Methods." Monterey Bay Aquarium. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program, n.d. Web. 29 May 2013. <>.
5)    "Intensive Farming." Lifeofearthorg RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2013. <>.
6)    Barber, Dan. "How I Fell in Love with a Fish." TED: Ideas worth Spreading. TED, Mar. 2010. Web. 29 May 2013. < >.
7)    "Browne Trading Company." Veta La Palma Seafood Comments. Browne Trading Company, n.d. Web. 29 May 2013. <>.
8)    "Veta La Palma - 'Algae-Culture' Fish Farm - Earthrise - Al Jazeera English." Video blog post. Veta La Palma - 'Algae-Culture' Fish Farm - Earthrise - Al Jazeera English. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2013. <>.


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