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Why Fish Farming is Unsustainable and Harming the Planet

There’s something fishy going on between the soy industry and new fish farming methods, and there is little news coverage of this growing relationship. A report titled Factory-Fed Fish: How the Soy Industry is Expanding Into the Sea by Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Europe highlights some of the potential dangers created by the unexpected relationship between soy and fish, and looks at the harm that is being caused to the global environment by this unnatural coupling.

What’s The Problem?

As with many foods people consume, there are hidden costs to consuming fish, even fish from supposedly ‘sustainable’ sources. Roughly half of the seafood people consume is produced using aquaculture, or ‘factory’ fish farming, methods, and it’s no accident that the former term has been adopted by the bodies involved. The term ‘aquaculture’ suggests a natural approach to producing fish, while the term ‘fish farming’ indicates exploitation, and is an apt term since fish farms involve cages on huge scales in order to maximize profit. Some fish farms use small, overcrowded cages akin to battery hen method, which ‘open ocean’ or ‘offshore aquaculture’ involves growing fish in isolated large cages in the ocean, far from the coastline.

The Environmental & Animal Impacts

Both of these methods of fish farming create problems for the planet. Farmed fish escape and contaminate other sea life, spreading diseases and parasites to wild fish and marine life. Farmed fish also breed with wild fish, which contaminates non-farmed sources of fish and leads to decreased genetic pools. Farmed fish also out-compete wild fish in some cases, leading to population decline of healthy, natural fish.

There’s a less obvious problem to do with the relationship between fish and soy. The farmed fish are being fed soy, which they would never encounter in their natural environments and is likely causing them long-term damage. Soy is nutritionally poor compared to the variety of smaller fish and other sea creatures that an average fish would consume, but it’s a very cheap option for the fish farmers, who require cheap food to feed over 200 million fish in offshore cages each year. The soy industry insists that soy is ‘sustainable’, which may be true in comparison to feeding fish their natural diets, which would require more than the world’s fish and other sea life as fish feed, however the other impacts of soy-fed fish have not been explored, and the method cannot be dubbed as sustainable until more is known about the impact feeding soy to fish has on the environment long-term.

Farmed soy-fed fish also produce more waste than wild fish, which leads to an increase in oceanic pollution and again raises contamination risks of other sea life species.

Soy farming on the scale required to feed the number of fish kept on underwater farms also requires mass deforestation. In several U.S. states, underground drainage pipes are required to dry out land needed to grow soybean crops, and the water collected by the pipes, which contains nitrogen fertilizers, and end up in the Gulf of Mexico. The nitrogen fertilizer carried by the drainage pipes is a major source of nutrient pollution in the Gulf. The fertilizer-contaminated water creates pockets of oxygen-depleted areas known as ‘dead zones’, which cause marine animals to suffocate and die.

In addition, the soy that is being fed to farmed fish is predominantly from genetically modified sources. Sources indicate that 94 percent of the soy grown in the United States is genetically modified, and 98 percent of soybeans grown in the United States is used to feed livestock, again demonstrating that farming methods in general are unsustainable and environmentally damaging practices.

There is also evidence that consuming soybeans seriously harms fish. Soy can be indigestible for some fish and consuming it harms their digestive systems over time, and in some cases leads to an inflammation of the lower intestine. The further implications of this are not yet known. Another study found that when a group of eels was fed on soy, 11 times more eels became females than in the control group.

The Human Impact

Mass soy farming in Argentina means that an estimated 300,000 peasant and indigenous families have been displaced front heir natural habitats, in the last decade alone. Soy farming pollutes the land people need to live on and thereby destroys local communities. Local activist groups including La Via Campesina and the National Indigenous Campesino Movement of Argentina are attempting to regain control and attain rights over their homelands.

On soy plantations in Brazil, there have been documented cases of forced labor akin to slavery methods. A registry of agricultural firms undertaken by the government found that 6 soy companies were responsible for enslaving 241 workers.

Since soy plantations produce goods purely for export purposes, they also damage local economies. National food security in South America is compromised by the ‘soybean economy’, which diverts much-needed agricultural capacity to foreign lands.

There’s no doubt that fish farming has negative impacts on our planet’s land, oceans and the animals and communities that inhabit it, but as with other examples of big business, fortune favors the rich. There are no signs that fish farming methods, and feeding fish soy products, will come to an end in the near future.

Who’s The Culprit?

Soy and fish farming are immensely profitable businesses for those involved. Soybean companies and trade associations benefit from soy-fed fish farming. The Illinois Soybean Association stated that fish farming that will ‘revolutionize sustainable agriculture’, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also support fish farming methods.

Large corporations have large stakes in the fish farming industry. Monsanto was involved in a study on soy diets for salmon; the company provided GM and non-GM soy for the researchers to use in the trials. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soy plants are designed to be resistant to the corporate giant’s controversial herbicide Roundup, which has proven negative effects on the environment.

In 2010, Monsanto, through smaller owned companies, controlled approximately 62 .5 percent of soybean seeds and seed trait licenses in the U.S.

Cargill is a soybean-crushing firm which created a team focused on fish feed products in the 1990s. A decade later, the corporate giant manages several firms which together own 178 animal nutrition factories, and its company Agribrands produces different lines of fish feed today.

What Can We Do?

Share this article on social media sites, and read the Factory-Fed Fish report. It’s essential that people learn about fish farming, the unnatural soy diets the fish are fed on, and the impact these things are having on our land and oceans.

Spread the word. Write a blog post, email your friends, write to your governor to highlight the issue. Form local focus groups to transition from fish diets to fish-free living. Together communities can press for and help to draft bills that prohibit federal agencies from allowing fish farming operations to take place in federal waters. You can also demand that U.S. farm policy is changed to stop overproduction of commodity crops like soy, and join ocean-protection organizations and those that are anti-overfishing our seas.

Use your consumer vote. The three types of omega-3 fatty acids that people obtain by consuming fish come from algae. Algae is a potentially less environmentally destructive way of meeting human nutritional needs directly that would eliminate the need for soy-fed fish and for fish farming. Instead of consuming fish from questionable sources you can consume algae in supplement form as capsules or powder, and ensure that it is from efficient small-scale growing projects, which will eliminate the need for fish in your diet altogether. The power to stop the fish farming industry and the big businesses involved lies with the consumer.

The health of the world’s oceans, animals and humans depends on individual consumers eliminating their consumption of fish, as there is simply not enough wild fish available to meet global demand. Soy-fed fish will exist so long as people continue to buy from unsustainable, unethical sources, and the human health impacts of consuming soy-fed fish are not yet known. Eliminate unknown risks by helping to end this industry, and let other people know what they are contributing to and consuming. The planet will thank you for it.

Image Source: Ivan Walsh/Flickr