Mekong delta blues

I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I’m not here for the sushi.

As difficult as it is for sushi snobs such as myself to accept, there is a whole world of fish and seafood outside of our comfortable little tatami rooms.  In fact, it’s because of trouble on a distant front – the murky waters of the catfish industry – that I’ve crossed the Pacific to participate in a series of meetings here in Southeast Asia.

Endangered species

Endangered species

The fisheries that we have traditionally relied upon for our fish sticks, surimi, and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are showing signs of distress.  First it was Atlantic cod, which we fished to death in 1960s and 1970s.  In the years following, various stocks of haddock, plaice, and similarly uncharismatic fish began to flag, mainly in the Baltic and North Seas.  As I mentioned in a recent post, even Alaska Pollock, which had for years been heralded as an inexhaustible source of cheap, mediocre fish protein, is starting to tank.  This ominous pattern spells trouble for the oceans, but it’s also worrisome for those megacompanies that have built their empires atop a foundation of inexpensive, lightly breaded marine life.

The question has become a manner of simple logic for these large corporations.  Ocean conservation and ethics aside, companies like Bird’s Eye, Gordon’s, and McDonald’s want to be able to sell their whitefish products throughout this bright new 21st century of ours.  This becomes a rather unlikely possibility when one considers that there may be virtually no whitefish left to sell in the coming decades.

So what do these seafood buyers do?  Boundlessly pragmatic, they begin to look for a new source of comparable whitefish, one that can withstand the demand pressure from all the people out there that are shaking their fists in the name of fish sticks.

In other words, these companies need a sustainable fishery.  For this is indeed the very essence of the word’s meaning, in a literal sense – a resource that can be exploited without compromising its capacity for similar exploitation in the future.

Thus do the eyes of the world’s seafood merchandisers turn to the smoky, motorbike-infested streets of Can Tho, Vietnam.

Catfish country

Catfish country

Can Tho is the center of the Vietnamese pangasius catfish farming industry, a burgeoning enterprise if ever there was one.  Two distinct species of pangasius are farmed in any significant amount: Pangasius hypopthalamus (marketed as tra or swai) and Pangasius bocourti (sold as basa).  These South Asian river fish are much like our Mississippi-born domestic channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), with a similar bewhiskered countenance and the same muck-dwelling habits.  They are raised in ponds, enclosures, and cages all along the muddy banks of the creeping Mekong River, and over the past five years or so have been snapped up in exponentially increasing quantities by a European Union that is starving for whitefish.  In fact, with crashing cod and Pollock stocks contributing to a flood of unanswered demand, pangasius is quickly becoming one of the main fish fingers in the dyke.


Bad kitty

Unfortunately, the pangasius industry is fraught with all manner of problems.  Abuse of chemicals and antibiotics, unchecked resource use, massive environmental negligence and rampaging cascades of effluent are threatening the entire ecosystem of the Mekong delta.  Concerns about health issues related to pangasius products are common, and western consumers are meeting the incoming catfish with anything from light skepticism to blaring sirens and biohazard-level health alerts.

Catfish cascade

Catfish cascade

Luckily, there is a ray of hope for both the eco-loco and the health nuts.   Championed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the creation of a new aquaculture certification body known as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is underway.  It is the hope of all concerned that this standard will separate the wheat from the chaff within the industry, as well as raise the quality bar in general.  A farm’s acquisition of the standard is theoretically linked to its production of a more desirable product on the market.  This type of commodity differentiation would then lead to higher profits for those that invested in running a cleaner and more responsible operation.

This is the fourth meeting of what is known as the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD), a subset of the ASC process.  I will be posting an update on the progress of this round of meetings later in the week.

I know catfish is far from the most interesting subject out there, but this industry has grown by orders of magnitude in the last decade, and we must give it the attention it deserves.  The creation of a strong and defensible certification standard for pangasius farming is absolutely critical if we are to save the ailing Mekong River from a fishy free-for-all.

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The Bad, the ugly, and really really really ugly

Posted by Casson in Fishing and Farming

Hey! What did I do??

I am no fan of farmed salmon.  This is no secret.  Having grown up in a community that prides itself on its legacy of healthy wild salmon runs, I am particularly sensitive to the creeping demise of these marvelous fish.

The connections between salmon farming and the collapse of wild salmon in areas like British Columbia and Norway are now beyond debate.  I cannot count the number of panels I’ve been on and presentations I’ve given where I do my utmost to strip the veils from this industry and expose it for what it is.  The vast majority of the farmed salmon consumed by the United States has been produced in a greed-driven, environmentally negligent manner that has polluted our oceans, endangered our native salmon, and hoodwinked the consumer public into thinking that they’re actually eating a healthy product.

Sea of green

Sea of green

I protest the British Columbia farmed salmon industry because of its politics, its parasite and waste problems, and for its heartbreaking effects native salmon runs.  I avoid the Scottish and Irish industries because of their greenwashed, boutique-farm marketing schemes, their misleading regulations (organic salmon? From a net pen?), and their farmers’ thuggish habit of blowing seals’ brains out when they come anywhere near the salmon pens.   I object to the Norwegian industry for the staggering volume of farmed salmon that they pump onto the world market, and for the unbearable pressure these farms place on wild Norwegian salmon runs.

But what makes me physically ill is the farmed salmon industry in Chile.

Farmed salmon can be a potential hazard to human health.  This post concerns an extremely alarming bit of news about the Chilean salmon farming industry.  Until very recently, Chile provided the lion’s share of all farmed salmon imported by the United States.

Something's fishy

Fish pharm

A recent report by the Chilean Ministry of the Economy (and thrust into the limelight by Oceana, a science-based conservation group) has disclosed that the Chilean salmon farming industry used 325.6 metric tons of antibiotics in the year 2008.  Compare that to Norway’s salmon farms.  The Norwegian industry used 649 kilograms of antibiotics while producing more farmed salmon overall than Chile.  That means that Chile used over 350 times more antibiotics per kilogram of salmon produced than Norway.

If this weren’t horrifying enough, hey, it gets worse!

Throughout 2008, the two most popular antimicrobials used used by Chilean salmon farmers were florfenicol (used in 56.7 per cent of the total, or 184 tonnes) and flumequine (in 9.9 per cent, or 32.2 tonnes).  This latter chemical belongs to the quinolone family of synthetic antibiotics.  Not only is flumequine absent from the US Food and Drug Administration’s list of approved chemicals for use in fish farming, but the FDA has banned the use of most quinolones for their negative effects on human health when used excessively.

Chilean roulette

What do you think?  Do usage levels hundreds of times higher than Norwegian competitors qualify as “excessive”?

And finally, just to add insult to grave potential injury, you’re not going to be able to tell which Chilean salmon were produced the most egregious offenders.  The report does not offer guidance as to the amount of antibiotics used by any particular farm, claiming a lack of information.  So it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not the salmon at your local grocery store has been stuff to the gills with toxins by overzealous salmon farmers.


Don't you trust me?

Don't you trust me?

Luckily, Hugo Lavados, the Chilean Minister of the Environment, soothed all of our fears when he announced that “companies do not medicate fish in the period before commercialising their products.”

Um… wait a minute.  I don’t understand — you raise a fish.  You give it large amounts potentially harmful antibiotic that is prohibited under US law.  Sometime later, you sell it to me.  I eat it.  How is that not “the period before commercialising the product?”

Personally, I don’t care how much time passes between this chemical barrage and my dinner — it’s not going to be long enough.  Moreover, it’s not just about the antibiotics reaching the end consumer.  Where else do they go?  Do the salmon farmers filter these chemicals (and all the fish detritus containing them) out of the water column that flows uninterruptedly through these open-net fish pens?  Somehow, I doubt it.  So how many organisms end up consuming or absorbing insane amounts of these chemicals merely because they inhabit nearby real estate?

This industry has always been a monster, but this statistic is simply shocking.  If you care about the welfare of our planet, don’t buy any open-net farmed salmon.  Don’t buy Chilean farmed salmon regardless of whether you care or not.

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