Dark Seas – the muddy truth behind farmed fish

by Eva Douzinas

Fish farms in the Saronic Gulf.  Photo by Michael Sampey.

What was the last fish you ate? If it was a carnivorous species, such as salmon, sea bass (aka branzino), sea bream, shrimp, tuna or trout, where and how was it produced? Could your salmon filet effectively be starving West African families of their traditional diet of anchovies and sardinella and destroying centuries-old livelihoods?

Aquaculture is a broad term that refers to everything from industrial carnivorous fish farming to more sustainable options like small scale bi-valve, seaweed and symbiotic rice patty herbivore fish farms. As a whole, it is the fastest growing sector of food production, attracting billions in investment as the world population grows. But are all forms worthy of being touted as the solution to feeding the planet? A new documentary by award-winning investigative filmmaker, Francesco De Augustinis, ‘Until The End Of The World’, takes the viewer on a journey through Europe, Africa and South America to address just this question for the types of farmed fish most commonly consumed in the United States and Europe.

‘Until the End of the World’, which will be screened on May 9 in Woodstock, asks if industrial fish farming is making food systems more sustainable or is instead an industry predicated upon the depletion of natural resources. The Rauch Foundation is co-sponsoring the screening with Sustainable Woodstock and Billings Farm to bring public awareness to the burgeoning carnivorous fish farming sector.

In 1970 about 5 per cent of the fish we ate came from fish farms, while today that number has grown to over half. Here in the northeast, we see the same few types on fish on every menu despite their foreign origin. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization and other international bodies continue promoting aquaculture as a sustainable breakthrough to, in their words, “feed the world.” Yet, as the film exposes, the exponential growth of carnivorous fish farming is profoundly impacting food insecure nations as the industry transforms enormous quantities of pelagic fish such as sardines, anchovies and mackerel, into fish feed. And, starting with sea bass and sea bream farms in Greece and Spain, the documentary shows how pollution from fish farms is transforming natural paradises into dead zones from excess waste, antibiotics and chemicals used to treat the parasites and diseases often present in the tightly packed farms.

Widely unknown to the public, carnivorous fish farming requires and consumes more wild fish than it produces, a fact that directly contradicts the industry’s claim to be the solution to overfishing and feeding the growing population.  It takes 5 kilograms of pelagic fish to produce just 1 kilogram of meal, and on average over 1.2 kilograms of wild fish to produce one kilogram of farmed fish, an unsustainable ratio of what is called ‘fish in to fish out’ (FIFO). A report published by the non-profit Feedback Global shows that in 2020 an astounding 2 million tons of wild fish – 75% of which were commonly consumed species such as anchovies and sardines – were used to produce fish oil just for Norway’s farmed salmon industry.

Serious questions are increasingly being asked about the ethical and environmental impacts of using fish perfectly edible for human consumption to feed fish destined for distant first world European and North American consumers. In many places, resistance to industrial fish farming is taking root. In 2021, Argentina became the first country to ban open-pen salmon farming based on the destruction evident in neighbouring Chile, the world’s second largest producer of farmed salmon. In Iceland, where thousands of non-native farmed salmon escaped into fjords last summer, opposition is intensifying, and Washington State is embroiled in lawsuits after banning open-net fish farms in 2022. In Maine, northern communities such as Frenchman’s Bay are fighting to protect their environment, livelihoods and identity. Nonetheless, as explored in De Augustini’s compelling documentary, aquaculture expansion continues in a dearth of public awareness, placing local citizens and our common wealth, our waters, at the mercy of multi-national companies.

Eva Douzinas is the president of the Rauch Foundation, a family foundation based in Woodstock, VT.

What Can You Do?

Join us for a screening and Q&A of ‘Until the End of the World’ on Thursday May 9th, 6PM at Billings Farm and Museum. Register at sustainablewoodstock.org


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