Keep Frankenfish Fiction

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the Boston Globe

Keep Frankenfish Fiction

I'M NOT getting anywhere near Frankenfish. I mean, do I really want to eat an aquatic Roger Clemens?

The Food and Drug Administration is close to approving a farm-raised salmon jacked up with enough growth hormone to come to market in 18 months instead of three years. In a publicity photo, the genetically-modified salmon is a battleship to the dinghy of a normal one. I do not care that the FDA says it is safe. We seethe at athletes on steroids and growth hormones, yet we're about to digest a food that is the equivalent of Shaquille O'Neal growing to seven feet by fourth grade? I don't think so.

But there is a far more important reason to shun Frankenfish. We need to rethink farmed fish, period. Aquaculture messes with Mother Nature far too much for the convenience of having fish available 24/7.

Farmed salmon are a classic case. For each pound it weighs, the fish consumed up to five pounds of smaller "forage fish'' caught around the world such as anchovies, sardines and herring, according to Stanford University researcher Rosamond Naylor, lead author of a 2009 aquaculture report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The reports says those forage fisheries "are either fully exploited or are in the process of recovering from overexploitation.''

That amplifies a 2008 report by Canadian and German scientists in Annual Reviews in Environment and Resources that said forage fish "play a crucial role in marine ecosystems,'' transferring energy from plankton to larger fish and marine mammals. The recent International Penguin Conference in Boston reported that 10 of 18 species of penguins were in decline, with the African penguin on an extinction track. A key reason is the commercial fishing of anchovies and sardines, which are penguin food.

Nothing about Frankenfish changes that. The Massachusetts inventors of the tinkered salmon, AquAdvantage, told the Globe editorial board recently that while its fish will come to market fast it will eat just 10 percent less fishmeal than a conventional salmon. That is virtually nothing when aquaculture's share of the world's fish meal and fish oil consumption has more than doubled in the past decade, causing the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to warn last year that "the amount of fish that can be produced annually from the world is finite.''

Besides salmon, another huge reason to rethink fish is the level to which aquaculture destroys mangroves and fouls coastal waters. In July, the United Nations Environment Program said the planet has lost nearly 20 percent of mangrove forests since 1980, equal to the size of Illinois, with aquaculture being one of the three big drivers for loss.

This is ironic, as mangroves are protective nurseries for wild fish. Studies say mangrove forests offer far more value for wild fisheries, hurricane protection, erosion control, and tourism than fish farms or development. The July UN report said, "Where vast tracts of mangroves have been cleared for shrimp aquaculture, fast profits often left a legacy of long-term debts and poverty, which are hard to reverse.''

If that is not enough, another 2009 Stanford study said the rapid expansion of marine aquaculture is a "major threat to ocean ecosystems'' because it is "expanding rapidly without reliable quantification'' of its waste. The study press release said, "All those fish penned up together consume massive amounts of commercial feed, some of which drifts off uneaten in the currents. And the crowded fish, naturally, defecate and urinate by the tens of thousands, creating another unpleasant waste stream.''

AquAdvantage grows its salmon inland, which could be an advance, but you still have to do something with all that poop. Those unpleasant facts had me avoiding farmed salmon long before Frankenfish. Aquaculture represents the illusion of an infinite bounty, our denial that our resources are finite. I love wild salmon in its summer season. Sustainability means accepting that there is a season and nothing more. Even if Frankenfish does not harm our bodies, it will continue the silent horror in our seas. 

Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe and can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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