Can The Blue Revolution Solve The Food Problem Of Mankind

Victoria Aly Author: Victoria Aly Time for reading: ~13 minutes Last Updated: December 02, 2022
Can The Blue Revolution Solve The Food Problem Of Mankind

Aquaculture has grown approximately 14-fold since 1980. In 2012, world production in this industry (from silver salmon to the unattractive-looking sea cucumber that only a Chinese chef could be tempted by) reached 66 million tons, confidently overtaking beef production for the first time, and accounted for almost half of all fish and seafood consumed on the planet . The population is growing

In a dark, dank warehouse in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Mountains, Bill Martin dumps a bucket of brown pellets straight into a long, cemented pool. Fat white tilapia, the size of a dinner plate, make a noise on the surface of the water.

Martin (president of one of the world's largest captive fish farms, Blue Ridge Aquaculture) just smiles at this frenzy of hungry fish.


"This is St. Peter's fish, with which Jesus fed thousands of people," he says, and his squeaky voice echoes like that of a preacher. However, unlike Jesus, Martin does not give away his fish. He sells 500 kg of live tilapia daily to North American markets from Washington to Toronto and plans to open another fish farm on the US West Coast. "I take poultry farming as an example," he says. "The only difference is that our fish feels great."

"When something goes wrong with a fish, it usually dies," says Martin. "I haven't lost a single pool yet."

An industrial area in the Appalachians is probably not exactly the place where you expect to see several million aborigines of the Nile River. But fish farms on an industrial scale are now growing like mushrooms. Aquaculture has grown approximately 14-fold since 1980. In 2012, world production in this industry (from silver salmon to the unattractive-looking sea cucumber that only a Chinese chef could be tempted by) reached 66 million tons, confidently overtaking beef production for the first time, and accounted for almost half of all fish and seafood consumed on the planet . Populations are growing, so are incomes, and in 20 years seafood's reputation as a heart-healthy food could increase demand by another 35% or more. Since the global catch of wild fish is not increasing, experts predict that almost all of this additional seafood will be farmed.


"Getting your protein from wild fish alone is completely unrealistic," says Rosamond Naylor, a food policy expert at Stanford University and a researcher on aquaculture systems. - But people are afraid that the same cattle pens will be created, only in the ocean. That's why they want everything to be right from the beginning."

There really is something to be afraid of.

The new "blue revolution," which has filled supermarket freezers with cheap vacuum-packed shrimp, salmon, and tilapia, has the same ills as land-based agriculture: habitat destruction, water pollution, and food security issues. In the 1980s, vast areas of tropical mangrove forests were bulldozed to make way for farms that now produce a significant portion of the shrimp consumed worldwide. Aquatic pollution—a nasty cocktail of nitrogen, phosphorus, and dead fish—is now a common problem in Asia, where 90 percent of farmed fish come from. To keep fish alive in overcrowded pools, some Asian fish farmers use antibiotics and pesticides banned in the US, Europe and Japan.

The modern salmon industry, which over the past 30 years has filled virgin fjords from Norway to Patagonia with cages of Atlantic salmon, suffers from parasites, pollution and disease. Scottish salmon farms lost nearly 10% of their fish to amoebic gill disease in 2012; in Chile, infectious anemia has destroyed $2 billion worth of salmon since 2007. An outbreak of infection in 2011 virtually wiped out the shrimp industry in Mozambique.

And the problem is not in aquaculture itself, but rather in the intensification of this ancient branch of the economy. Chinese farmers began breeding carp on rice paddies at least 2,500 years ago. But now, when 42 million tons of fish and seafood are grown in this country every year, fish farms stretch along many rivers, lakes and sea coasts. Farmers breed fish breeds that grow very quickly (carp, tilapia) and feed them with concentrated feed for rapid weight gain.


"I was greatly influenced by the green revolution in the cultivation of grains and rice," says Li Sifa, an ichthyologist geneticist from Shanghai Ocean University. Li is known as the "father of tilapia", who bred the fast-growing breed - the basis of fish farming in China, where 1.5 million tons of tilapia are grown every year. A significant part of the fish is exported. "Good breeding material is very important," says Lee. — On the basis of a successful breed, you can make a powerful industry and provide food for more people. This is my duty. To provide more and better fish so that farmers become wealthy and people have more food."

How to do this without spreading diseases and polluting the environment? For fish farmer Bill Martin, it's simple: grow tilapia in pools on land, not in cages in a lake or sea. "Mesh cages are also written with water views," explains Martin, sitting in his study hung with hunting trophies. - Here there are sea lice, and diseases, and the death of fish. And the fish can escape from the cages. Compare with 100 percent control of breeding in pools, with minimal, almost zero ocean pollution. If we don't give the ocean peace, Mother Nature will arrange a happy life for us."

However, the Martin fishing industry is not going to give peace to either the ocean or the atmosphere, and it is not cheap. To keep the fish from dying, a water treatment system is needed that can supply the needs of a small town, and it runs on electricity produced by a coal-fired thermal power plant. Martin reuses about 85% of the water in the containers, the rest — with a high content of ammonia and fish waste — is dumped into a local septic tank, and considerable volumes of solid waste are taken to a landfill. To replenish water reserves, more than 1 million liters are pumped from the underground aquifer every day. Martin wants to bring water recycling to 99% and generate his own low-carbon electricity from methane released from production waste.

But there are still several years before the realization of these plans. And while Martin believes in the future of recirculating systems, so far only a few companies are growing fish (salmon, cobia and trout) in above-ground tanks.

13 kilometers off the coast of Panama, Brian O'Tenlon, president of Open Blue, is doing the opposite. A massive diamond-shaped fish cage sits 20 meters below the cobalt blue surface of the Caribbean Sea. Unlike Martin tilapia or even salmon in industrial cages, 40,000 cobia have plenty of space.


O'Tenlon, a third-generation fishmonger from Long Island, grew up near the famed Fulton Fish Market. In the early 1990s, declining North Atlantic cod catches and import duties on Norwegian salmon drove the family business into bankruptcy. Brian's father and uncles always said that the future of this industry was in fish farms. So, even as a teenager, he began breeding in a huge aquarium in the basement of a Mexican lucian.

Now he manages the world's largest ocean fish farm, which employs about 200 people. The company has a large fish farm in Panama. And also — a whole fleet of orange cages that can accommodate more than a million cobia heads. A popular object of sport fishing, cobia made up a very small part of the commercial catch: in nature it is a hermit fish. But the rapid growth rate made it popular among farmers. Like salmon, it's high in essential omega-3 fatty acids, and its tender, buttery white fillet is perfect for the most discerning chef, says O'Tenlon. Last year, he shipped 800 tons of cobia to expensive restaurants in various parts of the United States. Next year, he hopes to double that number — and finally turn a profit.

Farming fish in the open sea is expensive. Mostly, salmon farms are located in sheltered bays, but 6-meter waves sometimes rise above Bryan's cages. But it is precisely in this turbulent sea that the whole point is: the movement of water helps to avoid pollution and prevents diseases. Brian's cages are not only stocked much less densely than typical salmon farms. At depth, they are constantly washed by currents and waves. So far, he has not had to treat his cobia with antibiotics, and scientists from the University of Miami have not found any trace of waste around the cages. They assume that washed-out waste products are picked up by hungry plankton, because in the open sea the waters are poor in nutrients.

"This is the future," he says. "This is what needs to be done in our industry in order to continue to grow - especially in the tropics." Systems based on recirculation (like Martin's) will never produce enough biomass, he says. "In those conditions, it is impossible to gain such momentum to satisfy market demand. And in order to make a profit, there, like on livestock farms, they simply pack as many fish as possible into one garden - so that they can survive. Such an environment cannot be called optimal."


Whether fish are raised in the open sea or in recirculating ponds, they still need to be fed. Fish has one big advantage over livestock and poultry: it needs to be fed much less. Fish need fewer calories because they are cold-blooded and, living in water, spend less energy fighting gravity. Approximately 1 kg of feed is needed to raise 1 kg of fish; the production of 1 kg of chicken requires almost 2 kg of feed, pork - about 3, beef - almost 7. As a source of animal proteins that can meet the needs of 9 billion people, with the least depletion of Earth's resources, aquaculture looks very promising, especially for omnivorous species (tilapia , carp, catfish).

But some of those species, which are especially loved by wealthy buyers, have their downside: they are voracious omnivorous fish. The rapid growth rates that make cobia great for farm breeding are achieved in nature by feeding on small fish or crustaceans. This diet provides cobia with an ideal blend of nutrients, including cardiologists' favorite omega-3 fatty acids. Fish farmers like O'Tenlon feed cobia pellets that are 25% fishmeal and 5% fish oil, with the rest mostly grains. Fishmeal and oil are produced from forage fish (for example, sardines), huge shoals of which are found in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America. These forage fish grounds are among the largest in the world, but populations here often suffer catastrophic collapses.

After 2000, the catch of forage fish for the needs of fish farms almost doubled. Currently, aquaculture consumes up to 70% of the world production of fishmeal and up to 90% of fish oil. The market is so hungry that many countries send ships to the Antarctic, where more than 200,000 tons of small krill — the main food for penguins, seals and whales — are caught every year. Although much of this catch is used to make medicine and other products, critics of aquaculture see the idea of ​​rooting out the very base of the food chain to produce relatively cheap proteins as ecological delusion.

In the fish farmers' defense, they have become more efficient by raising omnivorous fish (such as tilapia) and using feeds containing soy and other grains; salmon feed now usually contains no more than 10% fishmeal. The amount of forage fish per kilogram grown has decreased by about 80% over the past 15 years. That proportion could be even lower, according to Rick Burroughs, who has been developing fish feed for the past 30 years at a USDA laboratory in Bozeman, Montana. "Fish don't need fishmeal," says Burroughs. - She needs nutrients. We have been feeding rainbow trout mostly vegetarian feed for 12 years. Today, aquaculture could completely do without fishmeal if it wanted to."


It is more difficult to replace fish oil, because it supplies those valuable omega-3 fatty acids. In the sea, they are produced in algae, they are further transmitted through the food chain, gradually increasing their concentration. Some companies already obtain omega-3 fatty acids directly from algae to enrich eggs and orange juice with this component. This process has another plus — reducing the content of DDT, PCBs and dioxins, which can also accumulate in farmed fish. An even faster solution to the problem, according to Rosamond Naylor, could be genetically modified canola oil with an increased content of omega-3 fatty acids.

Deciding what to feed farmed fish may ultimately be more important to the planet than where to raise them. "The very idea of ​​moving farms into the open sea and onto land did not arise because there was no space left in the coastal zone," says Stephen Cross, a scientist from the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Who worked as an environmental consultant on fish farms for decades. He says that while pollution from coastal salmon farms has tarnished the industry's reputation, even salmon farms now produce 10 to 15 times more fish than they did in the 1980s and 1990s, and pollution has declined dramatically. In a remote corner of Vancouver Island, he is now trying something new, even less harmful.

The idea was suggested by ancient China. More than a thousand years ago, during the Tang Dynasty, Chinese farmers on their small family farms created a complex polyculture, growing carp, pigs and ducks in addition to vegetables. Duck droppings and pig manure were fertilizer for the pond algae that the carp fed on. The carp were then released into the paddy field, where this omnivorous fish destroyed pests and weeds and fertilized the rice before it made its way to the table. Such polyculture became the basis of traditional Chinese cuisine with fish and rice dishes. Millions of Chinese have eaten this way for centuries. It is still used in modern China on rice fields with an area of ​​more than 3 million hectares.

In a fjord on the coast of British Columbia, Cross created his own polyculture. He feeds only one species: coalfish, a curvy and hardy inhabitant of the northern part of the Pacific Ocean. A little downstream from the cages, he hung baskets with local species of molluscs (cocktails, oysters, scallops and mussels), which feed on small organic fish secretions. Near the baskets with shellfish grow long rows of sugar kelp, which is used in the preparation of soups and sushi, as well as for the production of bioethanol.; these algae filter the water, converting almost all remaining nitrates and phosphorus into plant tissue. And 25 meters deeper than the level of the cages, sea cucumbers pick at the bottom heavy organic waste that other species missed. According to Cross,

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