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A sustainable idea for fish farms

As a student of the food system, I think there are few things as complicated as the debate over aquaculture. Is farming fish better than plundering the ocean or depleting wild species? Or are the risks such as pollution too great? Should we avoid carnivorous farmed fish such as salmon and tuna and favor herbivores such as tilapia instead? It’s all enough to make me want a burger -- or a drink.

But here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s annual Cooking for Solutions conference, I learned about a kind of aquaculture that seemed to make a lot of sense. It’s called Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture, or IMTA. But the concept is a lot simpler than it sounds.

In a nutshell, the idea is that rather than farming just salmon or just tilapia, you farm a range of species from different levels of the food chain (that’s what multi-trophic means). These species work together to make the system more sustainable. Scientists might build a farm that raises salmon and mussels and seaweed, for example. The salmon excretes organic particles and soluble nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, as waste. The mussels filter the particles and the seaweed absorb the nutrients. All types of seafood can be sold commercially, giving the producer new revenue streams and an incentive to create a more sustainable environment.

Of course, re-creating the balance of nature is no easy feat. There is much more research to be done on how such techniques can work and at what scale. But the concept is gaining traction. Thierry Chopin, the scientific director of the Canadian Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture Network at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, is working with seafood giant Cooke Aquaculture. The project began in 2001. By the end of the year, between 13 and 16 of the area’s 96 salmon farms will be using IMTA.

Growth must be measured for several reasons, Chopin told me. First, scientists want to know more about how to design IMTA farms. But equally important, new markets must be developed. While plenty of Americans eat mussels, fewer of them eat seaweed. And if the system is to work, the markets and the environment have to work in harmony.

Seaweed salad, anyone?

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  May 21, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Sustainable Food  | Tags: Jane Black, sustainable seafood  
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This is an interesting piece about innovations in environmental practices in aquaculture, but I don't understand the premise that, currently, it is a Hobson's choice between eating wild caught or farm-raised fish. Both methods of producing seafood can be sustainable, and there are eco-labeling programs to guide and inform consumers on that subject.

The most prominent wild capture fisheries in the U.S., for example, occur in waters off Alaska. Virtually all of those fisheries, which account for half of all seafood landed in the U.S., are certified as responsibly managed by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC, which was formed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) ten years ago, sets a global sustainability standard for wild capture fisheries, and independent scientists evaluate fisheries against that standard.

Similarly,WWF is developing an Aquaculture Stewardship Council that will enable operators of fish farms to have their operations certified as sustainable.

Promising innovations such as the Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture initiative are exciting, but please don't suggest to readers that sustainability is not practiced presently in many wild capture fisheries and on fish farms.

Posted by: jgilmore1 | May 21, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for sharing your learnings from the conference. Here in British Columbia there are scientists working on that same idea of collaborating shell fish and salmon farms to help reduce the waste in the waters below the farms. Ideas such as this are the type of methods we need to be discussing as this hot topic progresses. We need to work together to find a common ground to assist in relieving the stress off wild stocks feeding the masses.
Kind Regards,
Molly W.
Vancouver B.C

Posted by: mollyW1 | May 21, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

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