Reflecting on impressions of Aquaculture in the “Slow Food” movement

By Kellen L. Parrish – Graduate Student – University of California Davis.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Slow Fish 2018 Californian conference, I was curious how they’d bring Aquaculture into the movement.  “Slow Food” is a movement and a mindset, coined in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, it focuses on the way we eat, with three core characteristics. Members believe food ought to have: Goodness, Cleanliness and Fairness.  As a disclaimer, I happen to love Slow Food’s take on how we ought to feed ourselves and, in the whole, they fight for change through discussion, rather than one directional criticism. As you will soon learn, this may not always be true.

I grew up in Sacramento, California, the self-proclaimed “Farm to Fork Capital of the World”.  That statement may well be up for debate, but my childhood access to healthy produce and proteins is very much something I would love to see scaled up globally. On the subject of wild-caught seafood, the Slow Fish conference addressed problems such as, access to capital for young fishers, overfishing, consolidation and harm to humans and environment from unsafe fishing practices.  These were all poignant conversations that included, in my view, as someone less knowledgeable of the fishing industry, an appropriate amount of detailed consideration.  I learned a great deal, and the conference gave fishermen and women a great platform to speak about their experiences, successes and difficulties.

The same cannot be said for the conference’s stance on Aquaculture. There was a noticeable wariness towards aquaculture that permeated the conference, most noticeably towards net pen Aquaculture.  Much of this seemed to stem from recent legislation passed in Washington State that requires the phasing-out of salmon farms over the next couple years in response to strong lobbying efforts after an escape of several thousand salmon from net pens in Puget Sound.  Upon reading up on the issue, I certainly agree that there be heck to pay for the salmon escaping, but I caution against viewing the net pen industry as incapable of improvement to mitigate further problems.  In fact, I’ve heard this described as a PR disaster for the offending company but truly not and environmental one.

It could be fair to say, the development of aquaculture in the United States has not always been without it’s challenges.  One can sympathize with those still suspicious of the industry, that garnered such a dirty reputation for many years with unsustainable and polluting practices.  Having been involved in aquaculture for many years and having studied a variety of methods at length, I would freely admit the industry still has progress to make. My frustrations with the conference were not with the criticisms of aquaculture but with the quality of the arguments.

The first speaker, after the keynote address, immediately drew a line in the sand for net-pen aquaculture industry.  Again, many of the former problems with aquaculture have been associated with net pens in the ocean and suggestions for improvement are welcomed and invested in constantly.   Had there been a robust scientifically-informed dialogue on the concept of net pen salmon, I would be informing you on something more positive, like the development of new, sustainable feeds.

Alas, an otherwise innocuous photo of a salmon farm was displayed while the speaker called to the crowd “Who likes that?” and received resounding groans and jeers from the attendees.  He listed, with disappointingly little detail, the bullet points so often used to criticize aquaculture: antibiotics, stocking density, sedimentation, threats to native species, etc.; these are the traits of net pen farming that have, for this group, rendered it an irredeemable practice.

Where the speaker lost me was in the failure to mention of improvements in these specific issues which a quick internet search would have revealed. The next attack centered on the recent harmful algal bloom (HAB) that killed millions of farmed salmon in Chile in 2017. The scientific evidence for which, is patchy and difficult to corroborate – unusually warm waters for that time of year, are likely a more critical factor.

We moved swiftly to panel discussions. The aquaculture panel opened with disappointing predictability.  Our speakers asked us to sign a petitioned for an outright ban on ocean finfish farming in California, presenting us with an unambiguously biased handout proposing the industry alter its name to “Industrial Ocean Fish Farming” and unscientifically citing the death of one monk seal in Hawaii that drowned tangled in a net pen.  While obviously not a positive outcome, the unfortunate death of one pinniped is not adequate evidence to indict and entire industry. Most frustratingly, the logic of anti-aquaculture activism throughout the conference continued to ignore progress.

Given the conferences hardline attitude towards domestically produced ocean aquaculture (or mariculture), it’s hard not to ask why we were also advised to avoid imported seafood because of food safety risks or immoral labor practices.  If we are limited to only shellfish aquaculture (which the group hadn’t many problems with) and wild-caught fisheries it’s difficult to divine how the US multi-billion dollar seafood budget deficit would be resolved (the second largest debt owed by the USA). The United states has the ability to significantly reduce this deficit through sustainably designed aquaculture projects.

I’ll readily concede that no industry, including aquaculture, is beyond reproach, and some of those in attendance at the conference readily conceded aquaculture’s positive impact on food security and poverty alleviation in the developing world (my particular field of interest) and rate some practices as better than others, notably the success of shellfish aquaculture.  However, save for the presence of two noisier dissidents (myself included) I doubt that any in-depth discussion of aquaculture would have occurred.  My last straw was learning of the disinvitation of a speaker who was originally going to speak about successes with net pen farming.  This was the most potent signal of a conference concerned with ideology rather than actual progress, at least when discussing aquaculture.

In the case of aquaculture, Slow Fish 2018 missed the mark. I still have a great deal of faith in the Slow Food movement but would say that this conference was a missed opportunity to discuss in-depth the future of seafood. Aquaculture is not only here to stay but will continue to expand and thoughtful dialectic will do more to create a successful seafood system than bias-driven criticism.  Pitting fisherpeople and aquaculturists against each other only serves to confuse consumers more and lines up uncomfortably consistently with today’s media trend, knowing where to go to get the facts that support your ideology rather than dining on facts and digesting them without spin or bias.  Many uncomfortable discussions may be on the horizon, and I look forward to scientifically informed and honest debate about the sustainability of our seafood production systems.



Kellen is a graduate student in the International Agricultural Development Program at UC Davis.  His academic interests include aquaculture’s role in economic development and food security and the synergisms that exist in the integration of aquaculture waste streams and land agriculture.  His primary concern is creating content to promote broader understanding of aquaculture by consumers and young students interested in aquatic sciences.

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