What's a responsible seafood lover to do? On the one hand, environmentalists caution that the world's oceans have been massively over-fished. But fish farming, a large and growing industry in B.C., has been dogged with controversy. A judicial inquiry is currently underway to study the erratic numbers of the Fraser River wild salmon stocks, and some believe aquaculture may have been part of the problem, either through pollution or the escape of non-native species. The farming industry adamantly denies that it has any impact on wild stocks, and insists it helps to relieve the pressure on ocean fisheries.
Kelly Roebuck is a representative for SeaChoice, a joint initiative of several environmental groups, including the Living Oceans Society and the David Suzuki Foundation, that helps consumers pick the most sustainable seafood options.
"When it comes to aquaculture, it's not all created equal," she said. "It really depends on the farming method. We look at the management, we look at whether there are escapes, diseases or parasites. We look at if there is effluent from the farm, either feed or fish feces. There are a number of different criteria."
But Roebuck admits that it's difficult to say if a farm has had fish escape or not. Many overseas farms are poorly regulated and difficult to assess from a distance.
In B.C., Roebuck said, there is also a spectrum of sustainability.
"Shellfish aquaculture, such as mussels, is a good example of a best choice," she said. "We also have rainbow trout and tilapia that are farmed inland in closed containment and are also ranked as best choices. At the other end of the spectrum, we do have open net pens that have quite a few environmental concerns. We rank those as an 'avoid.'"
Not all salmon farms are created equal either, said Roebuck.
"We really want to see a transition from open net pens to closed containment. There are a couple of good examples. There's Bruce Swift in Agassiz, who's been around for a few years. He provides Coho salmon to a few high-end restaurants in Vancouver. There's also Sweet Spring just across the border in Washington State and they supply Overwaitea Foods. They only sell that product in their stores. We'd like to see government and industry support that innovation and move to the land instead."
Land-based farming is still only done on a small scale right now, although larger projects are in the planning stages. But there are trade-offs - closed containment farms require substantially more energy to operate, which drives up the price and contributes to climate change.
What's more, it's difficult for consumers to know the details of how a given fish was raised.
"The labeling laws in Canada are so weak, they're not even required to say if it's farmed or wild," Roebuck said. "We'd like to see a few more things on the label like the species and how it was caught."
SeaChoice offers some help for concerned shoppers with their ranking program, which lists various choices as Best, Some Concerns, or Avoid. The SeaChoice website, www.seachoice. org, has an extensive searchable database and also has a wallet-size guide that can be printed off and taken to the store.
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