Swimming in Circles is an unflattering exposé on salt water aquaculture and the mindset that promotes it. Author Paul Molyneaux has watched Maine's fishing industry go from boom to bust in his lifetime. Old timers lament that the coast was once so crowded with big fish that you could almost walk across the water on their backs — no more. In recent years there has been a growing exodus of ex-fishermen, and many communities are in the process of becoming boarded-up ghost towns. Buying a pair of shoes can require a 100 mile round trip.
Maine’s seafood industry was driven into the ground by perpetual overfishing. Despite sharply declining catches, the industry vigorously resisted stronger regulations and better enforcement. Instead, they got bigger boats, and they fished harder. They bought the latest technology, which allowed them to locate and land surviving schools of fish. Powerful magical thinking insisted that abundant fish were still out there, somewhere, regardless of the increasingly empty nets. Economic growth was their one and only sacred objective, and they were committed to pursue it by any means necessary.
Just in the nick of time, the Technology Fairy appeared and filled the coast with salmon farms — a new fish industry! Hooray! These were huge cages in which salmon were raised in high density, and spent their miserable lives swimming in circles in filth and pesticides. Of course, when any creatures exist in unnatural crowding, diseases hear the call to duty. The farms were owned by multinational corporations and they did an excellent job of spreading pests and diseases to other sites around the world. They also excelled at automation — producing more fish while shrinking their workforce to barebones, much to the displeasure of impoverished coastal communities.
A virus called infectious salmon anemia (ISA) has killed millions of captive fish, and it readily spreads to wild fish communities outside the pens. Farm salmon receive vaccine, but the virus displays an impressive ability to rapidly mutate and evade silver bullet cures. Each rise and fall of the tides flushes the toilet for the fish farm, sweeping pests, pathogens, antibiotics, and poop soup out into the open sea, much to the displeasure of the wild ecosystem.
Salmon farming seems to be on a collision course with disaster. Industry boosters boast that salmon convert two pounds of feed into one pound of fish, which is far more efficient than chicken or pigs. But farm salmon consume feed made from fish meal and fish oil, which come from low-value wild fish that are being harvested at unsustainable rates. Rising energy costs, combined with over-fishing, ensure rising prices for fish feed, and raise questions about its future.
Cattle consume the primary production of the land: grass. Likewise, wild salmon consume the primary production of the sea: plankton, which provides 85 percent of their diet. But feed made from fish comes from higher on the food chain, so its ecological footprint is far greater than the normal healthy diet that majors in plankton. Thus, the amazing efficiency of salmon farms is based on expensive feed that is the equivalent of super-charged rocket fuel.
Feed pellets for salmon contain processed low-value fish (and their pollutants), dye (to make the flesh orange, like wild salmon), pesticides (for sea lice), and vaccines. Salmon that consume this fish-based feed have been found to contain 13 organic pollutants at levels ten times higher than in wild fish — and half of them remain in your body ten years after dinner. Because of the high PCB levels, pregnant women, and women who plan to become pregnant have been advised not to consume farm salmon. Slice, the sea lice pesticide, contaminates the scallops living in the region.
Several chapters in the book discuss shrimp farming, which is popular in warmer regions. It’s extremely profitable, extremely vulnerable to viral diseases, extremely harmful to traditional subsistence fishing, and it ravages coastal ecosystems, especially mangroves. Many of these farms have gone belly up because of bad management and disease. Tyson lost a billion dollars when it tried to cash in on shrimp farming. Some folks are experimenting with land-based operations, where the shrimp are raised in aerated tanks. This isolates the process from the disease pathogens that frequently ravage coastal shrimp farms.
Salt water aquaculture is not about producing low-cost protein and reducing world hunger. It’s about providing highly profitable seafood products to a well-fed (and poorly informed) elite. Profit is the keyword here. Problems could greatly be reduced by raising the critters in lower densities, but stockholders won’t trade profits for quality. They demand perpetual growth and maximum profits. In its current mode, this is not an industry with a long-term future.
Salt water aquaculture is fundamentally unsustainable, and Molyneaux sees no light at the end of the tunnel. Wild fish are also in poor shape. In 1992, the famous Newfoundland cod fishery crashed, and Canada banned cod fishing. The cod have yet to recover. Possible reasons include pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing. The tsunami of human overpopulation is causing severe damage to aquatic ecosystems. Some worry that growing acidity may make the oceans uninhabitable for most forms of sea life, which may lead to a golden age for jellyfish.
Freshwater aquaculture is beyond the scope of this book, but it is rapidly growing, producing fish like carp, tilapia, and catfish. Chinese peasants have been farming fish for 3,000 years, using a time-proven, low-tech system that recycles wastes and produces fish in a manner that may actually be sustainable. Modern profit-driven corporate freshwater aquaculture is an entirely different matter, of course.
Molyneaux concludes: “The only hope springs from a sober realization of how far off course the ship of humanity has strayed, and how absurd the suite of technological solutions we are presented with really is. If the future belongs to everyone, then it requires new models and a different way of thinking.”
I cannot disagree, but I think Peak Cheap Energy is going to be a godsend for the oceans. Fish mining is resource-intensive, especially in its twenty-first century mode of energy-guzzling, high-tech floating seafood factories, towing miles-long nets. The transition to sailboats and rowboats will sharply reduce fish-mining efficiency, and will likely destroy corporate fish mining as we know it. Oceanic ecosystems will never return to what they were 500 years ago, but it seems likely that Peak Cheap Energy will sharply cut current forms of destruction, and this fills me with limited optimism, sort of.
Molyneaux, Paul, Swimming in Circles — Aquaculture and the End of Wild Oceans, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2007.