A Fishy Tale

This is my 27th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.

On Christmas eve we were treated to a stunning entrée of smoked salmon and caviar which left such a lasting impression on my taste buds, that I still savour it now. Unfortunately since then I have been slapped by some unsavoury facts.

Salmon has become ubiquitous on most restaurant menus in either its Norwegian or Canadian incarnations. It’s flesh has a healthy looking pink colour which lends itself to sushi. It’s common knowledge that that fish, especially salmon, is healthy and has high levels of omega 3 fatty acids. It’s no wonder this pink fish is high on the popularity lists. But, is it all it purports to be?

Unfortunately the truth is less than appetizing. The majority of all the salmon on the market is farmed in a system that is fraught with health and environmental problems. Wild salmon stocks have dwindled due to over-exploitation and are now being further affected by salmon farming itself. Salmon farming is touted by the industry as the answer to overfishing of wild stocks but unfortunately this is not the case. Salmon farming is done in the ocean, not in tanks such as trout or tilapia. It is done intensively in a way that makes battery chicken farming look tame.

When any animal is crowded together with others of its kind in unnatural conditions there are two major consequences, disease and pollution. This is bad enough on dry land, but when it is in the sea there are no means to contain these two consequences. The fish are attacked by various viruses, bacteria and by a crustacean, the sea louse. The combat these infestations the fish are vaccinated and fed antibiotics. The sea louse is killed by the administration of extremely toxic pesticides. Of course these substances find there way easily into the wider environment and in to the flesh of the fish.

These fish farms are situated in the estuaries of major rivers which the wild salmon use for spawning and have a deleterious effect on the wild fish. The concentration of pathogens and pests in these nursery areas are infecting the wild fish and are placing an additional pressure on their already dwindling populations.

The sea bed under the farms is a dead zone, with piles of fish manure that constantly bubble with methane gas. Manure cannot be composted as on dry land and can only decompose anaerobicly, resulting in methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, being produced.

The feed for these fish is also problematic. They are fed pellets made from a mix of plant products and animal protein. Salmon, being carnivores have to have animal protein and especially that from other fish. Wild bait fish such as sardines are exploited to serve this need. It can take between 3.5 and 9 kilograms of wild fish produce 1 kilogram of farmed salmon. This refutes the assertion that salmon farming is helping save wild fish stocks.

That pink colour that is so distinctive of wild salmon has to be artificially created in farm salmon by feeding them a dye called canthaxanthin. Because of their artificial diet, farmed salmon would have a grey flesh, but thanks to canthaxanthin we can have an appetising shade of pink. There is even a colour fan called a “salmofan” that is used to gauge the resulting colour. The deeper the pink, the better the price on the market.

Forgive me for this diatribe but a lover of good food and a farmer this whole tale distresses me. I remember the days when all restaurants had fresh line-fish on the menu. There was never the thought of serving imported farmed fish. We have only ourselves to blame for allowing our own wild fish stocks to be decimated through overfishing and environmental degradation. Next time you order fish, try to be mindful of how it got to your plate.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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