Factory Farms of the Sea

World Watch Magazine: September/October 2003


Washington, D.C.— Sea-based farming has made salmon one of the cheapest and most plentiful protein products on the world market. But as prices drop, the real costs of this one-time delicacy are widespread environmental damage and threats to human health, reports John Ryan in the September/October issue of World Watch magazine.

In Feedlots of the Sea, Ryan reports how an industry that grew its annual production 16-fold between 1985 and 2000, to more than one million tons of fish, also pollutes waters, spreads disease, consumes massive amounts of energy and raw materials, and threatens the survival of wild stocks.

“Aquaculture's ecological impacts might be less problematic if they were the cost of providing healthy protein sources to a hungry world or reducing the impact of over-fishing on the world's seas,“ writes Ryan. “But salmon farming is in fact putting greater strains on the world's fish stocks and their ability to meet human needs.“

The production of farmed salmon results in a net loss to the world's total fish production, as it takes four pounds (1.82 kg) of ocean fish, turned into feed, to yield one pound (.45 kg) of salmon. Excessive harvesting of small, bony fish in Peru and Chile has meant loss of prey for birds and marine life. This harvesting of fish for feed also has adverse effects on human health. In the coastal town of Chimbote, Chile, fish waste in the air and waterways from fishmeal factories has reduced the inhabitants' life expectancy 10 years below the national average.

In addition, salmon crowded into net pens become susceptible to outbreaks of parasites and viral and bacterial diseases, perpetuating the need for heavy applications of antibiotics and pesticides. To give these pellet-fed fish the pink flesh typical of wild salmon, farmers administer doses of food colouring.


Number of different algaecides, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemical additives normally fed to farm-raised salmon in 1989: 3

Number being used in 2000: 26

Time it takes, in a catfish pond producing 5,000 kilograms of fish per year, to drop 10 tons of waste into the water: 1 year

Average period of time a pond is used in raising catfish for human consumption, before draining and refilling with fresh water: 6 years

PCB concentrations found in wild salmon, in a recent study, in pg/g: 5,302

PCB concentrations found in farmed salmon : 51,216

Percentage of global production of fish and seafood coming from aquaculture in 1970: 3.9

Percentage coming from aquaculture in 2000: 27.3

Estimated amount of beef produced, worldwide, in 2002, in metric tons: 49,700,000

Estimated amount of farmed fish produced in 2002: 52,700,000


Sustainability― the ability to meet our needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs― has become a catchphrase of the progressive sector. But what will it really take for our species to thrive, not just survive, ask Thomas Prugh and Erik Assadourian in What is Sustainability Anyway?

“Ecosystems are extraordinarily complex and dynamic,“ write Prugh and Assadourian. “It's not easy to create a robust, productive, hospitable, and long-lived life-support system for ourselves. We are very foolish if we ignorantly compromise the one we've got.“

“Returning to a cyclical system—harvesting renewable resources sustainably, reusing and recycling materials in preference to mining virgin ones, rebuilding and nurturing agricultural soils, weaning ourselves off fossil fuels—along with respectful husbanding of biodiversity, will start us down the path.“


POPULATIONS OF LARGE FISH DECIMATED: Industrial fleets have fished out at least 90 percent of all large ocean predators—tuna, marlin, swordfish, sharks, cod, halibut, skates, and flounder—in just 50 years. According to the May 15 edition of Science, industrial fishing has “scoured the global ocean, leaving no blue frontier.“

RESCUING THE GREAT REEF: Australia has taken a significant step toward protecting the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world, announcing in June that the area of the reef protected from fishing would be increased from 4.5 percent to 30 percent.

DESALINATION GETTING SERIOUS: The prohibitive cost of desalination—making fresh water out of sea water—once left this an option for only a few arid but oil-rich nations, yet the opening of the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere is giving this technique a new place in the supply picture. The new $100 million plant opened in Tampa, Florida, in May 2003 is expected to produce about 10 percent of the Tampa Bay region's water supply by 2008.

WOMEN GO INTO POLITICS: Women accounted for only 14 percent of all members of the world's national parliaments in 2002, according to a report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). The report notes an encouraging trend towards female political participation in several countries between 2000 and 2002. But unlike other indicators of progress, women's political participation is not tied to income. In three of the world's richest countries—the United States, France, and Japan—the female share of political seats is between 10 and 12 percent, while in 38 developing countries, it is higher.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES ALLOW FOR LESS INVASIVE STERILIZATION: Men who want to undergo sterilization now have an alternative to the vasectomy. Vasclip, a device about the size of a grain of rice, was launched in April exclusively in the United States. The procedure takes less than 10 minutes. Women, too, have a new option for permanent birth control. The U.S. FDA approved Essure, a device that permits sterilization without surgery, in 2002.