Aquaculture: Interview with Silvio Greco

We must begin with saying that when we speak of aquaculture we indirectly speak of 4 types of fish: salmon, sea bass, sea bream, and the turbot.

I was interested in writing about aquaculture since The Guardian posted a video with a long article unveiling the horrific world of fish-farms, which reminded me of intensive animal farming. A month passed from that article and the irony is I haven’t read anything about it ever since, like a “shock wave”… it came, it stung, it left. This time though I think it didn’t leave a trace in people’s minds and hearts because it’s yet another problem we must face in a world of problems. Also, why would we ever be touched by how fish if treated… it’s just “fish”. Right? No. Fish and the way fish is being farmed is part of the current inhumane farming system which then falls upon us. Please read this interview and allow yourselves to be touched even by this in order to move into a more conscious direction and a more human one.
Silvio Greco is a world renowned marine biologist and currently research manager of the International Zoological Station Anton Dohrn. We speak about Italy and the overall situation of aquaculture.

What is the situation in Italy regarding aquaculture?
Currently in Italy we breed two species: the sea bass and the sea bream. In the Mediterranean, Italy is a leader in the production of mussels and clams. We don’t do much oysters though. As far as sweet water fish is concerned we have the trout and a bit of tench fish (or doctor fish).

As far as I know, aquaculture is not regulated. There are some guidelines but there is no law, why?
It’s correct to say that the UN has some guidelines on aquaculture but there is not international regulation so every nation decides for itself.
Generally zoology norms cover aquaculture because we are talking about animal breeding/farming. Our national aquaculture has an extensive control system but the real problem of aquaculture is related to its sustainability: or rather the unsustainability of it. We are breeding carnivorous species, so for example for 1kg of farmed fish we need to provide 4-5kg of wild fish (under the form of fish meal). When humans started to domesticate and breed animals it was important that these animals were not predators, instead had to have certain characteristics such as living in herds etc. Imagine if they were to breed tigers, they would’ve had to have another farm raising sheep just to feed the tigers. Imagine the costs energy wise.
Well with aquaculture that is exactly what we are doing: we bread fish that in the wild are predators. The system is showing some problems of course.

Besides the sufferance inflicted to the fish, what are the negative aspects of consuming farmed fish?
There is a problem on which we still reflect very little and it’s the animal wellbeing. It may be strange but we started to acknowledge the animal wellbeing only in 1992 in England. And still over 20 years later we have intensive factory farming! Gandhi said that the greatness of a nation can be viewed by the way they treat its animals, so…
It’s even worse when we talk about fish because if we are starting now to recognise mammals somehow, fish is not remotely considered. We think of fish like animals to which we can do anything.

We should go toward a world where we are a piece of this huge ecosystem that is the Planet. Hence we must care of how we treat other animals and other creatures.

Is it possible to have a sustainable aquaculture?
Having said previously that we breed carnivorous fish, to me there is no sustainable aquaculture. The only sustainable aquaculture is that of mussels because they don’t consume energy, I mean they live off of what they find in the water. It is currently being developed a non-carnivorous fish farming (i.e. the tilapia) which could be a valid protein alternative.

I understand fish farming is not sustainable, but is there a certification of sorts that certifies that a certain fish has not been fed chemicals? Is there anything equivalent to the “organic” certification we use to label land farming?
Again there are guidelines on fish meal and the non-use of chemicals because chemicals are a big part of aquaculture. For example, ocean fish farms need to protect the nets by spraying them with a certain chemical that may become part of the food chain.

What is your opinion on algae farming? There is a new spirulina farm in Puglia I know of…
Nothing new to be honest. Spirulina was already farmed in Ancient Egypt for its outstanding protein quantity. Moreover it’s sustainable to farm.

What is the main reason for fish-farming? 
Fish farms exist so that we could have the availability of fish protein all year-round. Later it became a profitable industry.

“The Fish” book

We are currently facing a global pollution emergency. How much does the aquaculture practice rage on it?
Of course it weights on the problem of environmental pollution. Especially in the areas where there are large implants, such as in the Norwegian Fiords or in Chile, there is a huge impact on the environment. First of all coastal marine environment is impacted due to the animal waste, the fish meal and the medicinals that end up on the seabed. As a matter of fact in Norway they had to move the farms in further away because the great quantity of fish and their waste was burning the seabed.
Furthermore there is a biodiversity problem because, say for example, in Chile the salmon which escapes the cage becomes a fierce predator and destroys much of the environment and local ecosystem. In fact, salmon is not even a native fish of Chile! Every year it’s calculated that something like hundred thousand salmons escape the farms in Chile, you can imagine how that impacts on the coastal marine biodiversity.

Does it happen in every fish farm that fish is given pesticides mixed with fishmeal?
That is not correct. There were a few cases brought to light about poor quality fish meal. In this fishmeal it was found chicken flour which was contaminated with dioxin. Of course in a system like the EU, with a rigorous control body, things like these are hard to happen…still not impossible but difficult that the organism are fed with dioxin. In other parts of the world where controls are different this is possible.

We know that the farming industry had used growth hormones to grow faster and bigger (fatter)animals. Does this happen in fish farming too?
It’s valid the answer to the question above. Of course farmed fish is fed with great quantity of protein. In rigorous control systems it’s unlike that growth-promoters are used. But if you think of South East Asia where pangasius is bread, there can be a possibility that fishmeal is enriched.

My last question is a personal one because after reading your answers, listening to your conferences and also reading your books… I realise you are someone who has seen a lot, heard a lot and who has done a lot of research. Now, where do you find hope? In a sea full of s*** where is it possible to swim? How can we clean it up?
It’s possible to “clean up” of course because the sea is the receptor of the land activity. About plastic for example, it’s ridiculous to think it’s enough to suck some water to clean it because the floating plastic is only 3% of the total… the rest 97% is laying on the seabed. We can surely take advantage of the trawler fishing, which is very damaging but because it works on the sea floor it collects also a lot of plastic. It would be enough to convince all trawler-fishing fishermen to unload on the coast the plastics they collect during the day. The Mediterranean would benefit so much in a couple years from this work. We could eliminate 40-50% of the plastic on the sea floor.
You see, the ecosystem can do without our species. What I mean is that Earth doesn’t have a problem, she will keep on living, she is resilient. Today the question is about humanity because the system the way it’s created cannot endure these mechanisms. And aquaculture is part of those activities that enhance the CO2 levels.

Trawler fishing

Links you might find interesting:
Silvio Greco on jellyfish as food
Interview to Cinzia Scaffidi
On fish-farms in Asia
National Geographic 
World Wildlife Org on shrimp industry
Time 2007 article

Enjoy! 🙂

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