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Diseased Fish_____Raping the Oceans_____

On the surface, fish seems like the omnivore’s answer to reducing saturated fats and calories in the diet. We believe that fish ought to be the perfect alternative for those of us eschewing meat and dairy foods in a well-rounded health-promoting diet Health-conscious Americans are choosing seafood as a low-fat alternative, but fish isn’t the perfect food. Like other meats, fish has no carbohydrate or fiber. Fish is also very high in protein, too much of which could hamper kidney function and bone mineral absorption. Some particular catches are exceptionally fatty: in certain fish, the calories from fat can be as high as 50%. The benefits to cardiovascular health from fish oils comes from omega-3 fatty acids, which are more abundant in flax seed oil, soybean oil and pumpkin seeds. Dark green vegetables, healthy flax seed oil and walnut oil, tofu, walnuts, pumpkin and flax seeds and wheat germ possess the prized heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids found in the famous cold water fish.

Moreover, plant foods contain no cholesterol, unlike fish. A three-ounce serving of salmon, for example, contains 74 milligrams of cholesterol, about the same as in a comparable serving of T-bone steak or chicken. The fish they’re swallowing may take a worse toll on their health than high fat or cholesterol. According to the CDC, contaminated fish caused 24% of all food-borne illness outbreaks, where the source could be traced. Before fish make it to your dinner table, they swim, breathe, eat and mate in the same lakes, rivers and oceans that we’ve grown used to polluting. In both fresh and saltwater habitats, like other animals high on the food chain, fish ingest pesticides, poly chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic metals (lead, methyl mercury, cadmium, arsenic and chromium), and other chemical contaminants from their environments and from other forms of marine life that are lower on the food chain.


The Environmental Protection Agency has fingered agriculture as, far and away, the leading source of pollution flowing into this nation’s waterways, contributing significantly more pollution than either municipal or industrial sources. Sediments are the worst. They smother eggs and newly hatched fry, and they block sunlight, killing aquatic plants that provide cover for fish and the orgnaisms fish subsist on. Nutrients from fertilizers and manures can have an acutely toxic effect on aquatic organisms. Nutrient overloading from animal and human waste, and fertilizer runoff promotes algae growth, depriving fish of life-giving dissolved oxygen. As soil erodes, polluting aquatic habitats, soil fertility is lost. Farmers “replenish” topsoil with added applications of chemical fertilizers, but these are quickly leached because the soils now are less able to hold nutrients. Runoff and pollution worsen as a result. Soil productivity plummets, beginning the vicious cycle again. Freshwater fish like trout are the first to suffer from agriculturally tainted water because they are close to the point of contamination and are keenly sensitive to pollution. But marine fish are by no means immune. More than 75% of the U.S. commercial catch of ocean fish is comprised of species that depend upon North America’s large rivers, estuaries and near-ocean waters for some portion of their lives. It has reached a point where fish don’t even have to come close to shore to be sickened or killed by agricultural runoff. Researchers are monitoring the growth of a lifeless expanse at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico now covering roughly 7,000 squrare miles, nearly the size of New Jersey. this “Dead Zone” is the end result of an ecological “chain reaction” set in motion by all the agricultural fertilizers, animal manures, sediments and pesticides that end up in the Mississippi River. Excess nutrients flush from the river into the Gulf of Mexico and trigger exponential algae growth. When the algae die and sink to the bottom, their decomposition depletes the water of oxygen, creating a death trap for any fish or shrimp that cannot escape.

Seven of ten farmed salmon purchased at grocery stores in Washington DC, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon were contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at levels that raise health concerns, according to independent laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group. These first-ever tests of farmed salmon from U.S. grocery stores show that farmed salmon are likely the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the U.S. food supply. On average farmed salmon have 16 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in wild salmon, 4 times the levels in beef, and 3.4 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in other seafood. The levels found in these tests track previous studies of farmed salmon contamination by scientists from Canada, Ireland, and the U.K. In total, these studies support the conclusion that American consumers nationwide are exposed to elevated PCB levels by eating farmed salmon.

Levels of a little-known class of neurotoxic chemicals found in computers, TV sets, cars and furniture are building up rapidly in key indicator species of San Francisco Bay fish, according to tests by the Environmental Working Group (EWG.) Analysis of six species of Bay fish, conducted for EWG by a California state toxics lab, detected polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in every fish sampled. The tests compared fish caught by local anglers with archived samples caught in 1997, and found that PBDE levels more than doubled in halibut and more than tripled in striped bass. Striped bass and halibut are the two most commonly eaten species of Bay fish, and as large, mobile, carnivorous species, are good indicators of overall toxic contamination in the Bay.

These are the first findings for PBDEs in Bay fish. They add to the evidence that the Bay Area is a hotspot for exposure to bromine-based chemicals, widely used in commercial flame retardants, that many scientists warn are “the next PCBs” — a notorious class of chemicals banned in 1977 after evidence that they cause cancer and build up in people and the environment. The European Union has banned two of the most commonly used PBDEs, effective 2004, but in the United States they remain virtually unregulated by either state or federal authorities.

PBDEs and other brominated fire retardants (BFRs) are similar in chemical structure to PCBs, which are still found in the bodies of people and animals more than 20 years after they were removed from commercial products in the United States. Recent research on animals has shown that exposure to low levels of PBDEs can cause permanent neurological and developmental damage including deficits in learning, memory and hearing, changes in behavior, and delays in sensory-motor development. Most at risk are pregnant women, developing fetuses, infants and young children, and to a lesser extent, the 10 million Americans with hypothyroidism. Every day, a typical American comes in contact with dozens, if not hundreds, of consumer goods that contain PBDEs, including electronics, electrical cables, carpets, furniture, and textiles. Although the pathway by which PBDEs and other brominated fire retardants get into the environment is largely still a mystery, the chemicals are now found worldwide in house dust, indoor and outdoor air and the water and sediments of rivers, estuaries and oceans. PBDEs have been found in the tissues of whales, seals, birds and bird eggs, moose, reindeer, mussels, eels, and dozens of species of freshwater and marine fish.

Rapid Increases in Humans

PBDEs are also building up rapidly in the bodies of people. Levels in Swedish breast milk samples were 55 times higher in 1997 than in 1972. The few breast milk samples collected from U.S. women indicate even higher levels of PBDEs in the bodies of first-time mothers than found in Europe and Canada. Already, scientists say, most Americans may carry in their bodies levels of PBDEs that have been found to cause serious, permanent neurological damage in laboratory animals. Though still limited, the data on elevated levels of PBDEs in the Bay Area are disturbing. The levels of PBDEs found in San Francisco Bay fish are much higher than those found in commonly eaten fish species from Europe, Japan, the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes. Consumption of contaminated fish is believed to be a major route of PBDE exposure for adults. Earlier studies of PBDEs in the blood and breast tissue of Bay Area women, and of harbor seals from San Francisco Bay, have found levels from three to 60 times higher than levels measured in people and animals in Europe. Ninety-five percent of the type of PBDEs that bioaccumulate most readily is used in North America, and much of that amount goes into polyurethane foam sold in California, but it is unknown exactly why contamination is so high in the Bay Area.

In the fall of 2002, EWG researchers collected 22 fish from six of the most commonly eaten species at 10 locations around San Francisco Bay. Analysis conducted under contract by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Hazardous Materials Laboratory in Berkeley found that every sample contained seven different PBDEs, in concentrations ranging from trace amounts to more than 60 parts per billion (ppb) in fish tissue. They also tested for PBDEs in fish samples archived from 1997, and found that in five years, levels of the chemicals had increased in four of six species tested. The California Legislature is considering a ban on some types of PBDEs in consumer products by 2008. AB 302 by Assemblywoman Wilma Chan of Alameda, which passed the Assembly in May 2003 and is pending a vote in the state Senate, would make California the first state in the nation to regulate PBDEs. The bill is an important first step, but additional action will be necessary to fully protect public health. Some industries, notably many computer makers, are already moving toward safer alternatives, but the rapid buildup of PBDEs in people, animals and the environment makes it imperative that all brominated flame retardants must be phased out quickly.


A new hazard for fish is surfacing in American waters as rivers and streams throughout the nation are becoming laced with a variety of prescription drugs, from antidepressants to birth-control pills, which originate in human wastes, according to recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey. The agency found evidence of drugs in 80 percent of the 139 streams it tested in 30 states. With doctors issuing more than 60 million prescriptions yearly for antidepressants, it’s no wonder that a toxicologist in Texas found evidence of Prozac in the brains, livers and muscles of bluegill, a common freshwater fish, caught near a water-treatment plant.

The effect of hormones and other chemicals on fish has not been thoroughly studied, but experts are certain that antidepressants relax fish and other water species just as they do humans. Results can include delayed sexual maturity in fish and delayed metamorphosis in frogs, with potentially fatal results.

Improper Handling

Microorganisms and parasites that are or grow to be in hazardous proportions due to improper handling of fish also contribute to illnesses such as hepatitis A, paralytic ciguatera poisoning and scombroid poisoning. And, on board and after reaching port, fish is exposed to another level of unregulated treatment, which can include inadequate temperature control and washing with toxic chemicals. About 2/3 of fish sold in the U.S. are imported. In 1989, Prepared Foods magazine reported that approximately 1.7 million tons of seafood is imported annually through more than 200 ports of entry. Countries that send us fish include Canada, Norway, Korea, Mexico, Ecuador, Iceland and New Zealand. Generally, their waters are no less polluted than ours. Despite its potential for contamination, seafood is the only flesh food not subject to a mandatory federal inspection program. No comprehensive program even exists. Most conmmercial fish goes from water to consumer without any government intervention. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the Department of Commerce, inspects and grades fish on a voluntary basis. Very simply, this means the processors and packagers themselves must request and pay for government inspectors to visit their plants. Only about 7% of the 1,900 seafood processors in the U.S. participate in the federal seafood inspection program. In one recent year the FDA examined only 5% of the 167,000 seafood import shipments.

Much of the agency’s testing was for chemical contamination–in particular, high mercury levels in swordfish. The FDA reports the agency routinely checks only 25% to 35% of seafood processors, packers, shippers and related businesses, and the actual percentage of fish inspected is even lower. The spottiness of the program applies to both domestic and imported fish. So far, fish and shellfish with cancer have been found in 25 locations across the country–from New York’s Hudson River to Washington State’s Puget Sound. The number of cases is growing, according to John Harshbarger of the Smithsonian Institution. The worst polluted areas, Harshbarger says, are the Hudson River, Ohio’s Black River, Puget Sound, Boston Harbor and Lake Ontario’s Hamilton Harbor. In the fall of 1989 from a study co-sponsored by the Conservation Foundation, researchers found that the Great Lakes are so badly polluted, it is recommended that girls and women of childbearing age should eat virtually no fish coming from them. They said that eating Great Lakes fish could impair development in fetuses, causing lower birth weight and smaller head size. The study revealed that up to 90% of the toxins had most likely traveled through the air from other sources—for up to thousands of miles—before falling into the lakes as rain/snow.

The Public Voice for Food and Health Policy analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The analysis showed that during a recent five year period, seafood is 25 times more likely than beef and 16 times more likely than poultry to cause an illness outbreak. The CDC figures show approximately 5,000 reports of food poisoning traceable to seafood during this period; but because not all illnesses are recorded, these figures represent only 1 to 5 percent of the actual illnesses.

In one recent year, only 11.3% of fish eaten in this country underwent the NMFS program, which serves industry-marketing purposes more than public health needs. If NMFS standards, which include tests for wholesomeness, safety and proper labeling are met, the fish gets a Packed Under Federal Inspection and/or a U.S. grade mark. On the other hand, NMFS does not have the authority to seize or prevent the sale of fish that does not meet its standards, even if this fish poses a potential health threat. In addition, NMFS tests for poison levels—but only if asked to do so by a client. If a tolerance or action level set by the FDA is exceeded, it must be reported to the FDA, who can take legal action. However, the FDA has identified action levels for only 14 out of the hundreds of potentially harmful substances in our waterways. Consumers Union’s investigation revealed that nearly half the fish tested from markets in New York City, Chicago and Santa Cruz, CA, were contaminated by bacteria from human or animal feces. Inspectors examine a scant one percent of the domestic catch and three percent of the imported catch for chemical or bacterial contamination. No wonder the Centers for Disease Control reports an average of 325,000 food poisonings annually from contaminated seafood. In fact, this figure may severely undercount the true number of poisonings, since many sufferers, and their doctors, attribute their flu-like symptoms to something other than contaminated seafood.

All fertilizers and pesticide residues eventually get into our lakes, streams, rivers, coastal waters and, increasingly, even the ocean depths. Nitrates and inorganic phosphates from inadequately treated sewage cause excessive algal growth in slow-moving waterways. The malodorous decaying algae are toxic to fish, shellfish and other wildlife living or passing through these areas. After reaching the water, these and other poisons get absorbed by plankton and travel up the food chain. Scientists know that toxins become more harmful the further they travel up the food chain. Because toxins are concentrated in fat tissue, they become most concentrated in the tissues of large, fatty predatory fish, like tuna and swordfish, which are in turn eaten by humans. Leaner, smaller and younger fish are preferable to fatter, larger or older fish. Consumers should steer clear of bottom feeders such as grouper, flounder, catfish and carp, which are particularly vulnerable to toxic sediments at the bottom of a water source. Our seafood is caught by day boats owned by small fishermen and fishing vessels that go out to sea for as long as 16 days at a time. Naturally, fish caught the first day of a long trip will not be as fresh as fish caught just before returning to port. Fish that isn’t frozen when caught is put on ice, but here again, there are no regulations and no mandatory inspection.

One hundred pounds of flounder might be packed in a box with ice on top and bottom; the bulk of the fish in the middle never really gets cold. Unless your merchant hand-picks the fish, you may get fish a few weeks old that was never properly iced. Fish flesh is fragile. Turning over and dumping, all at once, a 50-pound box of fish for washing and filleting is equivalent to pounding it into mush. Not only is the texture ruined, the damage to the flesh accelerates bacterial growth; fish so treated have short keeping times. Frozen fish is yet another story. Enormous freezer boats resembling factories go out to sea for six months to a year. Fish are caught, filleted, packaged and frozen right on board. Smaller vessels deliver iced fish to processing plants for similar treatment. The first stage of processing is washing. Fish are generally dipped in a tank of water or salt solution for five to eight minutes.

According to an NMFS inspector, the brine may contain any of several chemicals the FDA has approved for use at recommended levels, known as GRAS—Generally Regarded As Safe. Processors are advised by the FDA to use these chemicals “according to instructions,” but right now neither the FDA nor any other government agency is around to ensure that they do.

Chemicals are added to the brine tank such as chlorine; sodium tripolyphosphate to protect fish from freezer burn, texture loss during storage and moisture loss when thawed; and potassium sorbate, a preservative that prevents bacteria from growing. These chemicals may have the added effect of bleaching old fish, making it appear to be fresh. To the discerning palate, all chemicals affect the subtle combination of texture, taste and aroma that makes a fish a fish. In the case of shrimp, a more controversial chemical is applied to prevent black spot on the shells, sodium bisulfite, a preservative that makes wilted lettuce look fresh-picked, which has recently been outlawed for use on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Tuna, swordfish, striped bass and bluefish are the most commonly sold of fatty species high on the food chain. Consumer beware: these fish live on smaller fish and thus tend to concentrate pollutants such as mercury, dioxins, furans and PCBs in their fatty tissues. The most toxic and cancer-causing substances yet discovered—Dioxins, released by pulp mills along many rivers and tributaries, have shown up in fish samples and pose a health risk to humans, according to the EPA.

According to a September, 1989 report by the EPA, the dioxin 2,3,7,8-TCDD “is the most potent animal carcinogen ever tested.” The EPA has found that only 0.07 parts per trillion (PPT) of dioxin in fish could cause a risk of cancer. The agency’s information shows that fish collected downstream from pulp mills using chlorine bleaches accumulated dioxins “at levels which represent significant threats to human health and the environment,” wrote Robert Burd, acting deputy regional EPA administrator, in March, 1989 to Washington and Oregon state environmental agencies. Since then, the EPA has collected one of the highest dioxin reading in a bottom fish ever recorded in the nation. The dioxin level of 92.89 ppt was found in a carp taken near the Boise Cascade paper mill at Wallula, WA.

Other high readings were taken from carp in the Columbia River slough in Portland, Oregon and crayfish in the Willamette River, also in Portland. Catfish from Michigan’s Saginaw Bay (dumped by Dow Chemical Co. in Midland) were found to contain dioxin concentrations of 28 to 69 ppt. Dioxin concentrations led to a recent ban on shellfish harvesting near pulp mills on Vancouver Island and the British Columbia coast. Ultimately, the problem is not dioxin, but use of chlorine. The Columbia and its tributaries in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have seven pulp mills that use chlorine bleaching to whiten paper. The bleaching releases dioxins into rivers. There are also residues in the bleached paper that migrate into food wrapped in it and in disposable diapers, coffee filters, napkins, paper towels, etc. The question is, will the public continue to endure a cancer risk so industry can continue making paper white?

At first sight, the fishing industry looks angelic next to most of agribusiness. Yet, fishing harbors its own list of evils. For one thing, the world’s waters are dangerously over-fished. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s fisheries may be approaching their maximum sustainable yield–that is, the amount of fish that can be caught yearly without depleting the natural breeding stock. Counting the number of fish caught every year by recreational or local fishermen, we have already achieved a rate of fishing that threatens the existence of several species. In the waters off New England, one of the world’s richest fisheries, years of over-fishing have depleted cod, flounder and haddock populations to half of what they were 10 years ago and less than a quarter of the level of the 1960s. Besides over-fishing, the fishing industry often poses a danger to animals that are “accidentally” killed along with the fish destined for the dinner plate. The classic example is the routine yearly killing of hundreds of thousands of dolphins and porpoises in tuna nets. Because yellow-fin tuna swim with these mammals, fishermen almost exclusively set their nets over the highly visible herd of dolphins. Shrimpers annually kill tens of thousands of sea turtles in their trawler nets. Another common fishing practice that kills hundreds of thousands of non-target fish, seabirds and marine mammals is the use of driftnets. Not only do these mammoth nylon nets strip the ocean of commercial species (salmon, tuna, marlin and squid) at a breathtaking rate; they also entangle other species (including seals, dolphins and even whales) that can’t detect them. Fishermen lose or discard more than 1,000 miles of this non-biodegradable netting every year. Such lost nets continue to “ghost-fish” for years, ensnaring fish and other animals.

Catching fish may soon be an obsolete term at least for salmon in the Pacific Northwest. There, salmon are raised in farms and harvested more like seaweed than fish. But the growing practice is raising serious health, environmental and economic questions. Thirteen commercial salmon farms currently are operating in offshore waters leased from Washington State. Although not as conspicuous as meat and dairy factory farms, fish farms are hazardous to surrounding environments. A typical farm consists of a huge raft containing several dozen “pens.” Each pen holds thousands of fish, primarily Atlantic salmon imported from Scandinavia. The fish are fed pellets and hormones, doused with chemicals to control algae, bathed in drugs to prevent disease, and left to swim in circles for the three years they take to reach harvest size. Then they are scooped out and taken to a plant for processing. The fishermen worry that imported eggs will carry new diseases against which indigenous fish have no immunity. (An outbreak of one such disease in February, 1990 caused fishery officials to order 4 million fish and eggs destroyed.) Consumer advocates are concerned with toxic chemicals and antibiotic residues in the fish. And environmentalists worry that escaped farm fish may compete or interbreed with wild fish, rendering indigenous species extinct and upsetting the area’s ecological balance.

Fish Farming

Like cattle pens, the salmon operations bring product to market cheaply. But harm to ocean life and possibly human health has experts worried. If you bought a salmon filet in the supermarket recently or ordered one in a restaurant, chances are it was born in a plastic tray here, or in a place just like it. Instead of streaking through the ocean or leaping up rocky streams, it spent three years like a marine couch potato, circling lazily in pens, fattening up on pellets of salmon chow. It was vaccinated as a small fry to survive the diseases that race through these oceanic feedlots, acres of net-covered pens tethered offshore. It was likely dosed with antibiotics to ward off infection or fed pesticides to shed a beard of bloodsucking sea lice. For that rich, pink hue, the fish was given a steady diet of synthetic pigment. Without it, the flesh of these caged salmon would be an unappetizing, pale gray. While many chefs and seafood lovers snub the feedlot variety as inferior to wild salmon, fish farming is booming. What was once a seasonal delicacy now is sometimes as cheap as chicken and available year-round. Now, the hidden costs of mass-producing these once wild fish are coming into focus.

Begun in Norway in the late 1960s, salmon farming has spread rapidly to cold-water inlets around the globe. Ninety-one salmon farms now operate in British Columbian waters. The number is expected to reach 200 or more in the next decade. Industrial fish farming raises many of the same concerns about chemicals and pollutants that are associated with feedlot cattle and factory chicken farms. So far, however, government scientists worry less about the effects of antibiotics, pesticides and artificial dyes on human health than they do about damage to the marine environment. “They’re like floating pig farms,” said Daniel Pauly, professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “They consume a tremendous amount of highly concentrated protein pellets and they make a terrific mess.” Fish wastes and uneaten feed smother the sea floor beneath these farms, generating bacteria that consume oxygen vital to shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures. Disease and parasites, which would normally exist in relatively low levels in fish scattered around the oceans, can run rampant in densely packed fish farms. Pesticides fed to the fish and toxic copper sulfate used to keep nets free of algae are building up in sea-floor sediments.

Antibiotics have created resistant strains of disease that infect both wild and domesticated fish. Clouds of sea lice, incubated by captive fish on farms, swarm wild salmon as they swim past on their migration to the ocean. Of all the concerns, the biggest turns out to be a problem fish farms were supposed to help alleviate: the depletion of marine life from over-fishing. These fish farms contribute to the problem because the captive salmon must be fed. Salmon are carnivores and, unlike vegetarian catfish that are fed grain on farms, they need to eat fish to bulk up fast and remain healthy. It takes about 2.4 pounds of wild fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon, according to Rosamond L. Naylor, an agricultural economist at Stanford’s Center for Environmental Science and Policy. That means grinding up a lot of sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring and other fish to produce the oil and meal compressed into pellets of salmon chow. “We are not taking strain off wild fisheries. We are adding to it,” Naylor said. “This cannot be sustained forever.” In British Columbia, the industry, under pressure from environmentalists, marine scientists and local newspapers, is taking steps to mitigate some of the ecological problems. “We have made some mistakes in the past and we acknowledge them,” said Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Assn. “We feel the industry is sustainable, if well-managed, and we have a code of practices that is followed by all of our member companies.” Nearly 30 farms are preparing to move to less ecologically fragile areas, under orders from Canadian authorities. Some farms have installed underwater video cameras to detect when fish quit feeding, so workers can stop scattering food pellets.

Many farms are switching to sturdier nets to stop fish from escaping and keep out marauding sea lions, which are shot if they penetrate the perimeter. The industry now recognizes that it will soon be pushing the limits of the ocean. “There will come a time when our industry will use more of the fish oil and fish meal than is available,” said Odd Grydeland, an executive at Heritage Salmon in British Columbia. “Our biggest challenge is to find substitute grains for fish meal and fish oil.” Farm-raised salmon now dominates West Coast markets, arriving daily from Canada and Chile. About 80 percent of the salmon grown in British Columbia goes to markets from Seattle to Los Angeles. The salmon industry took off so fast in British Columbia in the 1980s that the provincial government, worried about the environmental toll, imposed a ban in 1995 on any new farms. The industry responded by stuffing, on average, twice as many fish into each farm. Today, farms typically put 50,000 to 90,000 fish in a pen 100 feet by 100 feet. A single farm can grow 400,000 fish. Others raise a million or more. The moratorium on new farms was lifted by the provincial government after voters elected a pro-business slate of lawmakers and administrators. As a result, 10 to 15 farms are expected to open each year in the next decade.

Five international companies — three of them based in Norway — control most of the existing farms. Nearly all are situated around Vancouver Island, which begins outside Seattle’s Puget Sound and extends up the coast for 300 miles. It’s a lightly populated place of stunning beauty. Cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir grow right down to the high-water mark. Massive tides flush rich blue-green waters through the archipelago of islands, straits, bays and inlets, nurturing five types of wild salmon. These, in turn, attract seals, sea lions, white-sided dolphins and the world’s best-known pods of killer whales. Residents rely on boats and seaplanes to reach surrounding islands that host many of the farms. Each farm is a cluster of pens, often interconnected by metal walkways and tethered offshore by a lattice of steel cables, floats and weights. In the midst of this idyllic setting, signs of strain on the marine environment are bubbling to the surface much as diseases and parasites, incubated in European salmon farms, fouled the fiords of Norway and the lochs of Scotland.

In Norway, parasites have so devastated wild fish that the government poisoned all aquatic life in dozens of rivers and streams in an effort to re-boot the ecological system. “The Norwegian companies are transferring the same operations here that have been used in Europe,” said Pauly, the fisheries professor. “So we can infer that every mistake that has been done in Norway and Scotland will be replicated here.” Dale Blackburn, vice president of West Coast operations for Norwegian-based Stolt Sea Farm, said his staff works very closely with its counterparts in Norway. But, he said, “It’s ridiculous to think we don’t learn from our mistakes and transfer technology blindly.” Still, more than a dozen farms in British Columbia have been stricken by infectious hematopoietic necrosis, a virus that attacks the kidneys and spleen of fish.

Jeanine Siemens, manager of a Stolt farm, said, “It was really hard for me and the crew” to oversee the killing of 900,000 young salmon last August because of a viral outbreak. “We had a boat pumping dead fish every day,” she said. “It took a couple of weeks. But it was the best decision. You are at risk of infecting other farms.” Farms are typically required to bury the dead in landfills to protect wild marine life and the environment. But Grieg Seafood recently got an emergency permit from the Canadian government to dump in the Pacific 900 tons of salmon killed by a toxic algae bloom. The emergency? The weight of the dead fish threatened to sink the entire farm.

About 1 million live Atlantic salmon — favored by farmers because they grow fast and can be packed in tight quarters — have escaped through holes in nets and storm-wrecked farms in the Pacific Northwest. Biologists fear these invaders will out-compete Pacific salmon and trout for food and territory, hastening the demise of the native fish. An Atlantic salmon takeover could knock nature’s balance out of whack and turn a healthy, diverse marine habitat into one dominated by a single invasive species. Preserving diversity is essential, biologists say, because multiple species of salmon have a better chance of surviving than just one. John Volpe, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Alberta, has been swimming rivers with snorkel and mask to document the spread of Atlantic salmon and their offspring. “In the majority of rivers, I find Atlantic salmon,” Volpe said. “We know they are out there; we just don’t know how many, or what to do about them.” His research focuses on how Atlantic salmon can colonize, if given a chance. It has terrified the U.S. neighbors to the north. Alaskan officials banned fish farms in 1990 to protect their wild fishery. So they don’t take kindly to British Columbian farms creeping toward their southern border. Although native Pacific salmon are rare and endangered in the Lower 48, Alaska’s salmon fisheries are so healthy they have earned the Marine Stewardship Council’s eco-label as “sustainable.”

The council’s labels are designed to guide consumers to species that are not being over-harvested. Recently, the prospect of genetically modified salmon that can grow six times faster than normal fish has heightened anxiety. Aqua Bounty Farms Inc., of Waltham, Mass., is seeking U.S. and Canadian approval to alter genes to produce a growth hormone that could shave a year off the usual 2.5 to three years it takes to raise a market-size fish. Commercial fishermen and other critics fear that these “frankenfish” will escape and pose an even greater danger to native species than do the Atlantic salmon. “Nobody can predict just what that means for our wild salmon,” Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles said. “We do see it as a threat.” Canadian commercial fishermen, initially supportive of salmon farms, have grown increasingly hostile. They were stunned in August when their nets came up nearly empty during the first day of the wild pink salmon season in the Broughton Archipelago at the northeast end of Vancouver Island. “There should have been millions of pinks, but there were fewer than anyone can remember,” said Calvin Siider, a salmon gill-netter. “We can’t prove that sea lice caused it. But common sense tells you something, if they are covered by sea lice as babies, and they don’t come back as adults.”

Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist and critic of salmon farms, began examining sea lice in 2001 when a fishermen brought her two baby pink salmon covered with them. Collecting more than 700 baby pink salmon around farms, she found that 78 percent were covered with a fatal load of sea lice, which burrow into fish and feed on skin, mucous and blood. Juvenile salmon she netted farther from the farms were largely lice-free. Bud Graham, British Columbia’s assistant deputy minister of agriculture, food and fisheries, called this a “unique phenomenon.” “We have not seen that before. We really don’t understand it,” he said. “We’ve not had sea lice problems in our waters, compared to Scotland and Ireland.” Salmon farmers point out that the sea louse exists in the wild. Their captive fish are unlikely hosts, the farmers say, because at the first sign of an outbreak, they add the pesticide emamectin benzoate to the feed. Under Canadian rules, farmers must halt the use of pesticides 25 days before harvest to make sure all residues are flushed from the fish. If that’s done, officials said, pesticides should pose no danger to consumers. European health officials have debated whether there is any human health risk from synthetic pigment added to the feed to give farmed salmon their pink hue. In the wild, salmon absorb carotenoid from eating pink krill. On the farm, they get canthaxanthin manufactured by Hoffman-La Roche. The pharmaceutical company distributes its trademarked SalmoFan, similar to paint store swatches, so fish farmers can choose among various shades. Europeans are suspicious of canthaxanthin, which was linked to retinal damage in people when taken as a sunless tanning pill. The British banned its use as a tanning agent, but it’s still available in the United States.

As for its use in animal feed, the European Commission scientific committee on animal nutrition issued a warning about the pigment and urged the industry to find an alternative. But in response, the British Food Standards Agency took the position that normal consumption of salmon poses no health risk. No government has banned the pigment from animal feed. Scientists in the United States are far more concerned about a pair of preliminary studies — one in British Columbia and one in Great Britain — that showed farmed salmon accumulate more cancer-causing PCBs and toxic dioxins than wild salmon. Scientists in the U.S. are trying to determine the extent of the contamination in salmon and what levels are safe for human consumption. The culprit appears to be the salmon feed, which contains higher concentrations of fish oil — extracted from sardines, anchovies and other ground-up fish — than wild salmon normally consume. Man-made contaminants, PCBs and dioxins make their way into the ocean and are absorbed by marine life.

The pollutants accumulate in fat that is distilled into the concentrated fish oil, which, in turn, is a prime ingredient of the salmon feed. Farmed salmon are far fattier than their wild cousins, although they do not contain as much of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. The industry complains that environmental activists have misinterpreted the contaminant studies, needlessly frightening consumers. “The concern is that people will stop eating fish,” said Walling, of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Assn. “Salmon is a healthy food choice. Our Canadian government says this is a safe food.” Environmentalists in British Columbia and Scotland recently launched campaigns urging consumers to boycott farmed salmon until the industry changes many of its practices. At the least, they want the farms to switch to solid-walled pens with catch basins to isolate farmed fish — and their diseases, pests and waste — from the environment. The ideal solution, they say, is to have the farmed stock raised in landlocked tanks. Protests notwithstanding, the industry is expected to get a lot bigger. Demand for seafood is rising and will double by 2040, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Nearly half the world’s wild fisheries are exhausted from over-fishing, thus much of the supply will likely come from farmed seafood. “Aquaculture is here to stay,” said Rebecca Goldburg, a biologist who co-authored a report on the industry for the Pew Oceans Commission. “The challenge is to ensure that this young industry grows in a sustainable manner and does not cause serious ecological damage.”

Fish farming is a major polluter: The 50,000 to 100,000 fish raised in each two-acre salmon farm produce as much organic waste as a town of 10,000 people. Where water circulation is poor, fecal matter and food from the farm can settle to the bottom and form a veritable toxic sewer—deadly to life both in the immediate water supply and surrounding areas,, where it kills clams oysters and other creatures that live there; it also causes algae to flourish. To control the algae, as well as fungi and parasites, farmers douse the fish and water with chemicals such as formalin, malachite green, acriflavine and copper sulfate. These chemicals also kill other varieties of marine life. Fish farmers use an enormous array and huge quantities of antibiotics and other drugs, many of which are highly dangerous, carcinogenic and teratogenic (causing birth defects), to keep the fish healthy.

According to a report commissioned by the Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission, improper administration of antibiotics to fish could have serious health consequences for consumers of fish. Possible side effects are hypersensitivity and toxicity, fetal damage (if the fish is eaten by pregnant women), discoloration of infants’ teeth and interference with their bone growth, infections by resistant bacterial strains, and interference with normal immune response. The FDA does no testing whatsoever for the use of drugs and chemicals in fish farms. Farm raised fish are fed grains like corn and these grains do not form the beneficial fatty acids DHA and EPA.

Without these beneficial fatty acids, you will not receive all the benefits that many studies ascribe to eating fish. This is similar to wild crafted vs. cultivated (with fertilizer) herbs. e.g. Wild-crafted echinacea is ten times more active in a bio-assay system than the cultivated variety. Looks the same, but there's a big difference. Farm raised fish may also be exposed to tremendously high pesticide levels, which results from run-off coming from nearby agricultural crops that are usually heavily sprayed.

Innocent Bystanders

Today’s fishing industry is incredibly wasteful. For every fish, crustacean or mollusk that ends up on a dinner plate, several other sea creatures are likely to have perished in the process. The innocent victims include fish having little or no commercial value, juvenile fish, turtles, diving seabirds and marine mammals like the dolphin. Shrimp fishing is particularly indiscriminate. For every pound of shrimp sold, upwards of 20 pounds of other sea creatures are caught; their remains are returned to the sea, either dead or dying. Methods of catching tuna have become more dolphin-friendly, but they still ensnare and kill thousands of sharks, turtles, and billfish like swordfish. Similarly, for every king crab sold from the fish case, five or six others (mostly juvcenile) are caught and tossed overboard. The United Nations reports that all 17 of the world’s major fishing areas have reached or exceeded their natural limits. Once among the most productive fishing grounds on Earth, the Grand Banks off Canada and New England’s Georges Bank are closed and considered commerically extinct. The World Conservation Union lists 1,081 fish worldwide as threatened or endangered. Roughly 106 Pacific salmon stocks are already extinct and dozens more are seriously depleted. There are so many pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay that it takes the few remaining shellfish more than a year to filter the entire esturary. When Europeans first explored the Chesapeake, the shellfish population filtered it three times every day. Research indicates that at present the biodiversity of the oceans rivals that of the tropical rainforests. What we are effectively doing is clearcutting these precious underwater environments with our appetite for fish.


Currently, there are some 13 million fishers in the world. Twelve million use simple tranditional technologies to land about half the world’s fish catch. The remaining one million fishers crew 37,000 industrial fishing vessels and account for the other half of the fish caught. These fishers deploy highly sophisticated contrivances, ranging from sonar and spotting planes to fishing nets large enough to swallow twelve 747 jumbo jets. As humans have learned to easily vacuum fish from the sea and fleet sizes have ballooned, fishers have achieved the once unimaginable–they’ve begun to strip the seas of their genetic wealth. Industrial innovations permit fishers to scoop an astounding 80 to 90 percent of a given fish population from the ocean in any one year. Individual species have been ushered to the brink of extinction, and predator-prey relationships that evolved over millennia have been grievously disrupted.

Catch 22

As preferred species are overfished and lose commercial viability, fishers switch to less-desirable species, lower in the food web. This robs larger fish, marine mammals and seabirds of food, creating additional havoc. And, since less-palatable species earn fishers less money, they must catch more of these fish just to maintain their incomes. As harvest plummet, jobs are threatened and governments step in to prop up faltering fishing industries. In 1994, according the the United Nations, fishers worldwide spent $124 billion to catch fish valued at only $70 billion. The difference–$54 billion–was covered by governments and hence, taxpayers. Currently one-third of all the fish caught in the world are turned into fishmeal and fed to livestock...

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