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April/May 2007
Below the Surface: Aquatic Factory Farming
By Christine Morrissey

On a cool January morning, the tulle fog lingers quietly over the aquatic embankments along East Sandy Mush Road in Merced, California. The occasional Chevy Silverado blazes down the side road, indifferent to the rural, saturated landscape. The only other sound within audible range is the squawking of snowy egrets who gracefully stalk the nearly 50 rectangular-shaped levee ponds, ten-to 20-acres each.

In the murky pond waters, blue catfish, largemouth bass, white sturgeon and common carp swim at the inland commercial aquaculture site, Dutchman Creek Fish Farm. Nearby, a large-scale dairy farm and 54-shed chicken farm both operate. The three neighboring producers have the unifying task of feeding California with industrialized animal products.

While agriculture-zoned flatlands are common to the terrestrial farming methods of milk and meat production, the presence of a controlled environment for food fish-rearing in “John Deere Country” is a betrayal to the term seafood.

A Farmed-Fish in Every Pot
The Dutchman Creek Fish Farm may seem like an odd site for seafood production, but American pesce-consumers today are more likely to be eating catfish, trout, shrimp and salmon from an inland aquatic dynasty like Dutchman or coastal confinement farm, than their aquatic cousins in the wild.

Due to decreased wild fish stocks, increased consumer stipulation for seafood and substantial government promotion of farm-raised fish, aquaculture has earned the key spot as the most rapidly expanding sector within the U.S. agriculture industry. Annual growth of the aquaculture industry is expanding by an impressive five to 10 percent.

On a global scale, the SeaWeb Aquaculture Clearinghouse affirms, “While catches in capture fisheries have leveled off, reported production of aquaculture has grown dramatically. Between 1985 and 2000, global aquaculture production grew fourfold.”

Trouble on Inland and Offshore
In his video presentation, “California Marine Aquaculture,” Dr. Fred S. Conte, a leading aquaculture specialist at University of California Davis, contends, “The development of marine aquaculture should only be allowed under conditions that do not harm the marine ecosystem.”

However, aquaculture is commonly operating to the detriment of marine environments, human health and animal welfare simultaneously.

With over 100 species of aquatic organisms produced in U.S. aquaculture, factory fish farmers raise aquatic animals in controlled systems, such as cages, netpens, ponds, raceways and tanks.

The controlled environments used for farmed fish production are similar to confinement practices in land animal food production. Critics of industrialized meat, egg and dairy production lament over the systematic lack of public visibility of the animal husbandry practices within these industries. In seafood production, a public view of aquatic animal care is even more opaque because the living subjects are below the surface—literally and figuratively.

According to the Southern Regional Aquaculture Center (SRAC), “operating a fish farm is similar to operating a cattle feedlot. High density aquaculture has been described by the USDA as the most intensive form of agriculture practiced on a large scale in this country today.”

Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver told The Los Angeles Times that industrial fish farms are “like floating pig farms. They consume a tremendous amount of highly concentrated protein pellets and they make a terrific mess.”

Coastally farmed salmon are raised in single pens of 15,000 to 90,000. The living conditions of these carnivorous fish are “equivalent to keeping a strongly migratory, two-foot-long salmon in a bathtub,” GRACE Factory Farm Project reports.

In his 2001 Mother Jones article, “Aquaculture’s Troubled Harvest,” Bruce Barcott observes, “A salmon farm of 200,000 fish releases an amount of fecal solids roughly equivalent to a town of 62,000 people.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium operates, a resource for consumers detailing seafood-related concerns. Seafood Watch details the environmental impact of inland farms: “The construction of shrimp ponds in mangrove forest has destroyed more than 3.7 million acres of coastal habitat important to fish, birds and humans. The discharge of untreated wastewater from the ponds can pollute the surrounding environment and contaminate groundwater.”

Consumer-driven concerns of factory fish farming circle around the use of antibiotics, which are used to control disease within crowded rearing set-ups. A fact sheet by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy reports, “There is no rigorous monitoring of on-site antibiotic drug use practices on feedlot fish farms. It has been documented that antibiotic-laced fish have been sold in the U.S. market.”

Conte offers a sink-or-swim sanction for the industry’s future: “Aquaculture development should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

If the aquaculture industry continues its proliferation, Conte’s wishful recommendation will surely dry-dock.

Christine Morrissey is Director of East Bay Animal Advocates and a Satya contributing writer. To learn more about the expansion of the aquaculture industry and its impact on animals, humans and the environment, visit East Bay Animal Advocates’ new web source:


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