Monday, May 19, 2008

The fresh fish myth: fish farming in the desert

[Source: Ashli Woods, Inside Tucson Business] - Kevin Fitzsimmons’ passion for aquaculture is evident, right down to the blue fish swimming on his tan collared dress shirt.

The University of Arizona professor has devoted his career to correcting what he believes is a stigma placed on fish farms based on misconceptions that have been amplified by environmental groups.

"We can no more feed the world by hunting and gathering fish out of the ocean than we can by hunting and gathering on land. I mean if we were all out there hunting deer and buffalo we’d be in pretty bad shape," he said laughing at the notion.
Fish farming and aquaculture, the method of harvesting fish in farms for commercial sale, is quickly taking over the seafood market and replacing commercial fishermen. Though it has been practiced in Asia for hundreds of year, American aquaculturists have struggled to convince environmentalists, health experts, and the general public that farmed fish is equal in quality and health to wild fish.

Arizona alone is home to more than 30 fish farms that produce an average of 500,000 pounds of fish a year, according to the Arizona Aquaculture Association. Arizonan fish farms produce mainly catfish, tilapia and trout.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) estimates last year nearly 50 percent of fish consumed in the world was farm-raised, with the amount increasing each year.

Certain demographic trends have led to soaring numbers of seafood consumption in the United States in recent years, most importantly numerous studies suggesting the health benefits of fish. Fish are high in protein, low in fat, and full of Omega-3 fatty acids as well as polyunsaturated fatty acids, making them a staple in a diet-crazed society.

In an attempt to maximize the health benefits, consumers have been wary of farmed fish which many believe are inferior to wild fish.

Fitzsimmons explains: "Quality-wise there is very little difference. If anything the farmed fish typically is better quality because you schedule the harvest, you schedule the processing, you can have trucks there with ice, it’s much better. If you go take the fish out of a cage or a pond or a tank and take it right to the processing plant, that’s going to be better than someone who’s going to drag it under water for a couple of hours dead, bring it up on the boat then take it to shore and process it. I mean it’s several days old. You’re calling it fresh and it’s been dead for a long time."

He adds that although farmed fish have been shown to have less Omega-3s than wild fish, it is still the second-highest source. Farmers have improved the feed given to the fish to add more of the fatty acids, but increasing them more would further increase the cost by around 3 percent, an increase farmers try to avoid.

"All fish is healthy," Victor Banda, fishmonger at the 17th Street Market, said while showing off his selection of fish, a good portion of which is imported from fish farms from out of state. Dressed head to toe in a fisherman’s gray rubber gear and bathed in fishy cologne, he explains that even wild fish can contain pollutants depending on which waters they are taken from.

Not all fish sold at the 17th Street Market, or other markets around town, are brought in from the ocean by fishermen. In fact, at Banda’s market there is nearly the same amount of farmed fish as there are wild. You can’t beat the cost of farmed fish, Banda explains.

Rincon Market customers Eugenia Bas-Isaac and her husband Raymond Latchman buy their fish from fishmonger Yuri Rabayev, and don’t mind paying extra to buy fresh caught salmon.

"Farmed fish is yuck," she said while scrunching up her face like a child refusing to take cough medicine. "You can really taste the difference and it’s so much better for you."

However Rabayev believes "farming preserves the wild fish," and there is little difference in taste and quality.

Farming continues to be, in Fitzsimmon’s opinion, the only realistic and financially sustainable way to meet the increasing consumer need. UNFAO also estimates that an additional 40 tons of seafood will be needed by 2030 to meet consumer demand. This has the potential to be terribly detrimental to ocean life if farming is not implemented, Fitzsimmons said.

For Arizonan fish farmers, using the amount of water needed for farming would not be practical. However the idea is to combine two industries – aquaculture and agriculture – to increase profitability. In the desert especially, water is an expensive commodity making fish farming impractical. However, if fish farmers team-up to share water used for crop farming, both can increase profit.

Commercial fishing as an occupation is quickly being replaced by fish farms and fishing is becoming a sport rather than occupation. According to the American Sportsfishing Association, the sport of fishing created 14,729 jobs in Arizona in 2006 and brought $849,711,854 to the state in retail sales. The sport has taken over as a more lucrative business than the occupation.

"If you’re looking purely at the economics," Fitzsimmons said, "the sportsman will pay more to catch fish for entertainment than the commercial boat ever would."
Safe and cost-effective fish farms are replacing commercial fisheries. High costs to insure fishing boats and the fishermen they carry, coupled with high fuel costs and increased real estate on coast-line-producing high dock fees have left fishing companies unable to compete with fish farms.

"I feel bad for the shrimp guy in Louisiana who can’t go out and catch shrimp now in the morning and come back to the dock in New Orleans and sell them cheaper than some guy can go to Ecuador, build a farm, hatch out all the larvae, feed them for four months, process them and fly them to New Orleans," Fitzsimmons said. "If he can put them there cheaper than a fisherman can go out and catch them, then obviously there is something wrong with the economic model of fishing. You feel sad for them."
He added: "I had a grandfather who had a trunk company who sold trunks to cars and then they started building the trunks in the cars so he went out of business. Granted fish farming is no where near as romantic as going out to sea like these guys, but I guess that’s progress."

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