This past January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in an attempt to lessen America’s dependence on imported seafood, ruled large-scale offshore fish farming legal. Many see this ruling as beneficial, given both the comparatively high prices of domestic seafood and widespread slave labor within the supply chain. The United States, for instance, currently imports 90 percent of its shrimp. Much of this shrimp is sourced from Thailand, where trafficked human labor is rampant and workers are treated extremely poorly, working long hours and nearly starving every day. In addition, with disasters like the BP oil spill having such far-reaching effects, wild-caught fish are often contaminated. American fisheries are also welcoming the move, as these new regulations hold the potential to increase their profits by tens of millions of dollars.
Despite its supposed benefits, fish farming has some serious drawbacks. For example, farmed fish have the potential to contaminate local fish populations, which are already in rapid decline. NOAA’s new ruling allows for fish to be raised offshore, inside large nets in conditions comparable to factory farms on land. This form of aquaculture produces excessive waste including uneaten food, feces, and other toxic materials, and often contaminates local habitats. Forcing thousands of fish into crammed, artificial environments provides the perfect breeding ground for disease that travels through both escaped fish and ocean parasites, contributing directly to ocean dead zones. Due to rampant disease in such conditions, drugs are commonly injected into the farms, filling the animals with pollutants that can affect human health.
Besides these issues, current seafood farming practices are unsustainable, especially among carnivorous species like salmon. Salmon feed consists of undesirable wild fish, and the organization Slow Food estimates that it takes 2.5 to 5 kilograms of fish to produce 1 kilogram of salmon. Many farmed fish are also fed soy, which is problematic not only due to soy’s lack of nutritional value in comparison to a natural diet, but also because the soy production required to sustain aquaculture has contributed to mass deforestation in both the U.S. and Latin America. In South America, export-oriented soy production has severely damaged local economies and often uses slave labor.
Modern aquaculture practices are not only detrimental to the environment, but to both human and animal welfare. NOAA’s new rules may have pleased American fisheries, but as consumers we need to be aware of the unseen consequences of a rapidly growing aquaculture industry.
As UChicago Dining Services transitions from Aramark to Bon Appétit, it would do well to reduce its preparation of fish and other animal products. Doing so would directly contribute to the University’s sustainability efforts and work to reduce its contribution to environmentally destructive animal agriculture. As students, we must ensure the University takes measures to meet our demands for a more sustainable University.
Jacob Elkin is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.