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The case for farmed fish

Dan Farber, professor of law | April 29, 2016

It’s time to take a second look at fish farms. Environmentalists, not to mention foodies, tend to turn up their noses at fish farms.  It’s true that badly managed fish farms can be a source of water pollution and other environmental problems.  But sustainable fish farming would have major environmental benefits.

trout in fish farm

Rainbow trout in a fish farm (Narek75 via Wikimedia Commons)

To begin with, fish farming provides an alternative that may reduce pressures on wild fish stocks. Fish are a major source of protein in many parts of the world, and the result has been massive damage to wild fisheries and ecosystems.  But fish farming is a growing alternative.

In 2012, fish farming produced ninety million tons of fish at a value of $144 billion, and the amount continues to rise, with China as the largest producer. The World Bank projects that farmed fish could provide an increased role in providing protein to the also-increased world mid-century population.  For that reasons, a substantial expansion of sustainable aquaculture (primarily of herbivorous fish) could reduce pressure on wild stocks and could potentially also reduce demand for other forms of animal protein such as beef.

In terms of the United States, the food-guideline advisory group found that expanding aquaculture can provide sufficient seafood to comply with dietary guidelines. The advisory group called for sustainable productivity gains while maintaining the high nutrition level of wild seafood.  In addition, they concluded, “farm-raised fin-fish (e.g., salmon and trout) is more sustainable than terrestrial animal production (e.g., beef and pork) in terms of GHG emissions and land/water use.”

fish farm

Fish farm (Asc1733 via Wikimedia Commons)

Environmentally, there’s no free lunch. People need protein, and the main sources are (1) meat and other products from farm animals, (2) soybeans and other legumes, and (3) fish. None of these sources is free of environmental risks. But fish are a healthier and potentially more sustainable source than farm animals, and farmed fish may have fewer environmental costs than wild ones.

We shouldn’t let our sense that fish farming is “unnatural” get in the way of environmentally sensible choices.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “The case for farmed fish

  1. I really enjoyed this post, and agree that farming fish is a worthy path forward. Thanks for sharing this blog with us and I get to know Problems with Fish Farming.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, and agree that farming fish is a worthy path forward. As fish farming expands, however, it may encounter a similar common problem as wild fishing. Like sheep on a pasture, there is an optimal number of fish farms per unit of near shore ocean. Rather than over-consuming grass as an input, the dissipation of rents will likely take the form of environmental pollution as an output.

    With no barriers to entry, the level of pollution will quickly exceed efficient levels, as demand for farmed fish grows and more firms enter. Establishing institutions (perhaps long-term lease rights, or tradable pollution permits) that promote efficiency early on in the industry’s development will prevent reactive patchwork policies later.

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