Written and photographed
by Douglas Gayeton
AT 4 AM EACH MORNING, the Commercial Fishing Village on Honolulu’s Pier 38 presents a chaotic scene. Banks of halogens spotlight a dozen battered fishing trollers tied to either side of a short pier. Just in from weeks spent on open-water in the South Pacific, their weary ship hands now hoist tons of fish out of icy holds and onto trolleys they push the trolleys away from the dock and into a series of warehouses in preparation for the Honolulu Fish Auction—the largest, most active fish market between Tokyo and Maine.
When you think of fish auctions, images of picturesque fishmongers tossing cod at Seattle’s Pike Place Market usually come to mind, or the bustle of Tsukiji in Tokyo; blocks long, the market featured a startling array of fish, most of which could be eaten at hundreds of tiny restaurants lining the market. Sadly, the market is now closed, replaced by a modern facility in nearby Toyosu.
Pier 38 is a decidedly more low key affair. Six days a week, before dawn, men slowly stream into these warehouses, bundled in sweaters and down vests—despite the tropical clime—carrying their thermoses of coffee, nodding silent, distracted hellos to fellow buyers, their attention reserved instead for trolleys carrying ono, big-eye tuna, long-tail red snapper, and mahi mahi. If you eat tuna in the US it likely passes through this warehouse, an amazing feat for such a small, unassuming market.
Rows of tuna packed in ice crowd the main room’s concrete floor. Notches etched out of each tuna’s tail fin, along with core samples taken from the belly, are placed atop each fish. Buyers jostle each other to closely study the flesh’s color and how it reflects light, then hold the samples up to their noses. From these limited sensory cues, an experienced buyer can deduce a fish’s health, vitality, and state of preservation. Each tuna also has a tag stapled to its tail. Its barcode contains information about the catch location, total fish weight, and how much time has passed since the fish left the water.
Since international fisheries often operate without sufficient government oversight, some players in the seafood industry, like Norpac, have implemented their own traceability programs. The fishermen who sell to Norpac tag each fish as it comes out of the water. This catch information travels with the fish when it is offloaded from a fishing vessel, cut into filets, logged, weighed, vacuum packed, then shipped to a restaurant or market. The same fish. The same verified information. Traceability means transparency, independent third-party verification, and a thorough accounting of the fish’s journey.
The ability to control traceability and transparency will be increasingly critical as the global population rises. More people means more demand, and while the growth rate of wild fish stocks—the total number of fish in our oceans—has essentially flatlined in the last few decades, global fish consumption has nearly doubled. By 2050, there simply will not be enough fish in our oceans to feed the planet. While waning fish stocks coupled with increasing demand for fish may offer a dire prognosis, there remains some good news: for the first time in history, most of the fish we eat aren’t caught in the wild; they’re raised on fish farms.
Yet, even this news isn’t entirely hopeful. The base ingredient in aquaculture feed is wild fish harvested from the sea. Nearly 25% of the world’s commercially caught fish are used as fishmeal, which has made fish like Peru’s anchoveta – the most common fish used in feed – some of the most overfished species in the world. Like herring, anchoveta was traditionally reserved for human consumption, but the expansion of aquaculture has removed them from the diets of most South American coastal communities. Overfishing may even lead to the collapse of an entire undersea food web, of which anchoveta play a vital role.
MANY ENVIRONMENTALISTS, and even other fishermen, are critical of fish farms, especially those in the Pacific Northwest where open pens—circular nets fixed to the ocean floor—allow Atlantic salmon to be raised in the Pacific Ocean. These pens impact their surrounding waters with high concentrations of fish waste and excess nutrients, which threaten the livelihoods of wild salmon. Further, because farmed salmon are particularly susceptible to disease, they’re provided a steady diet of antibiotics and parasiticides to stay healthy. These too have an impact on wild salmon.
To more closely examine two challenges facing global fisheries—alternate sources for fish feed and the rise of aquaculture—we traveled to Alert Bay, where the ‘Namgis First Nation has been sorely challenged by the arrival of open pen fish farms in a small inlet off the northeastern tip of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.
A seaplane from Vancouver takes us two hours north to a single-strip airport in Port Hardy. From there, we board a small ferry that crosses the Broughton Strait and the Pearse Passage to reach Cormorant Island. The area is remote. No main street. No stoplights. No pedestrians. No tourist shops. No hotels. There are also no rental cars; visitors to Alert Bay either know somebody with a car or walk. Fortunately, we have a guide.
The island’s lone road skirts the rocky shoreline, then veers up into the island’s interior, past the Big House, which boasts the largest totem pole in the world—and where we attend a potlatch the following day. The road takes us to the U’mista Cultural Centre, where we stop to observe centuries-old wood carvings of wild land animals and, of course, the ubiquitous salmon. A primary food source and the main economic driver of this fishing community for hundreds of years, the fish symbolizes resilience on this small, rugged island.
Until the 1980’s, Cormorant Island was a fishing boomtown. Docks were lined with hundreds of boats registered to local fishermen, and the shorefront streets featured shops and even taxis. The rise of larger salmon fisheries farther north in Alaska—which have easy access to international airports and canning facilities—eventually led to Cormorant Island’s decline, but lately the salmon industry has returned to the area.
Fish farms that raise Atlantic salmon in open net pens are everywhere here, and they pose a great threat to wild salmon and the remaining ‘Namgis fishermen who still work these straits. Aquaculture pollutes local waters and contaminates wild fish stocks with both disease and pests. Many First Nation tribes have attempted to resist the fish farming industry by seeking government support and even taking their protests directly to farm operators. Despite their protests, aquaculture’s rapid advance continues.
INSTEAD OF ACCEPTING THEIR LOT like most have in this region, the ‘Namgis First Nation devised a radical plan: they too would build a fish farm for salmon, but rather than placing it in their sacred waters, they’d go on land, into the middle of a forest, and try raising fish in a box.
In the language of the ‘Namgis people, kutala means salmon while terra means land. Merge the two words and you get kuterra, or salmon from the land. It’s a portmanteau that would’ve been inconceivable even ten years ago, but now we’re on a ferry before dawn bound for Port MacNeill, joined by ‘Namgis fishermen who work harvest days at the plant twice a week. Their job is to bleed and ice fish, as they’ve done for most of their lives, except now they work indoors, under florescent lights. “This isn’t fishing,” one of them observes as we stare out at the water. When I ask what it is then, he doesn’t answer at first, then replies, “It’s something else.”
Upon landing, a Kuterra drive greets us with a thermos of coffee, which we drink in silence. It’s a short drive. As dawn breaks, we turn onto a long dirt road that runs parallel to the Nimpkish, the traditional ‘Namgis salmon fishing ground. The dense pine forest clears briefly and we enter a gravel lot. We’re asked to stand in chemical baths to decontaminate our shoes, then continue our trek on foot until reaching Kuterra, the first land-based salmon farm in North America, which sounds fairly impressive, even if it’s scarcely more than a plain beige, aluminum-sided warehouse set in a forest clearing.
KUTERRA RAISES ATLANTIC SALMON in a dark, windowless warehouse that contains five above-ground grow out tanks not unlike childhood wading pools, except these are twelve feet tall and a hundred feet wide.
The water in these tanks flows through a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). Biofilters in the RAS continually remove solids, waste particles, CO2 and ammonia, then inject the newly purified water with oxygen before returning it to the tanks. By raising fish in a closed aquatic system, water use is dramatically reduced, as well as the space required to intensively produce fish. Advances in RAS technology over the last 50 years now make it possible to grow Atlantic salmon to full market size in closed containment systems that allow enclosure-grown fish to compete with more traditional open net pen farms.
As they age, the salmon move from tank to tank, starting with smolts—youngsters—in quarantine tanks. They are evaluated for four months to ensure they remain healthy, then move through a series of grow out tanks, eventually spending their final days in the harvesting tank. Here, unrecycled water flushes their systems of any impurities until harvest day, when a large pipe at the bottom of the tank sucks them into a series of vacuum tubes that lead to a processing room.
The closed system resolves many issues produced by open pen farming. It eliminates the pollution of surrounding waters, as well as the transference of disease to other fish. Kuterra is now ten years into their experiment. If it weren’t for subsidies, federal grants and even support from foundations, the operation would’ve already closed, so the farm is a work in progress. Nevertheless, Kuterra offers a vision for growing protein without impacting wild fish or natural systems.
AS THE FISHING INDUSTRY SHIFTS from wild stocks to aquaculture, the use of smaller species like anchoveta for fish meal has become increasingly unsustainable.
Some fish farms in British Columbia have already begun exploring new feed ingredients; algae and plant-based solutions have emerged as two popular alternatives. Another feed comes from an unlikely source. Most wild fish eat marine insects as a part of their natural diet, and now several insect protein sources—including crickets, mealworms and black soldier fly larvae—have shown promise as aquaculture feedstock.
Insects can produce protein at a much lower environmental cost than fishmeal or soy, two of the most common ingredients used in fishmeal. Black soldier flies (BSF), or Hermetia illucens, are detritivores commonly found in compost heaps or manure. When raised industrially on a diet that includes discarded brewery grains and food waste, their larvae contain 40% protein and over 40% fat. Much like the anchoveta, they are rich in Omega 3s and 6s, which makes them, when dried, an ideal alternative food source for farmed salmon.
While BSF are highly adaptable to droughts, food shortages and oxygen deficient environments, they do require warm environments to thrive, which can often lead to high energy costs if raised in milder temperate zones. Still, a single BSF can lay 800 eggs during its short five to seven day lifespan, and one fly hatchery cage can contain over six million flies. That’s a lot of fishmeal.
AFTER ONLY TWELVE MONTHS, KUTERRA SALMON are finally ready for harvest. Because they’re raised without hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides, they qualify for the prestigious GREEN RANKING, a certification reserved for seafood caught or farmed in methods that cause little harm to habitats or other wildlife. Farming indoors is just one step in preserving wild fish stocks while working to meet the planet’s food demands for future generations. Moreover, Kuterra breeds hope for preserving ‘Namgis traditions borne out of respect for their people, their culture, their land, their water and their salmon.
As Cheryl Dahle, founder of Future of Fish observes, “Challenges to global fish stocks remain. Collective effects of bad human behavior (overfishing, destruction of marine habitat, and climate change) are driving the world’s fisheries past their biological limits. The vast majority of our top predator fish are depleted, and two-thirds of fish populations are fished at their limit or over fished; some species, including bluefin tuna, are threatened with extinction.
“The rampant misuse and abuse of the underwater world continues in part because the results of our misadventures remain hidden: it’s easier to stumble upon a strip-mined mountain top or a clear-cut rainforest than a trawled (bulldozed) deep sea floor.
“Unfortunately, the seafood counter at your grocery store fails to reflect this scarcity. Labels for seafood are frequently inaccurate and often lack key information about harvest methods or gear types. Most people aren’t even aware a problem exists. But consumers can make these issues more visible by asking tough questions of their waiters and fishmongers. They can support fishers and farmers who disclose their responsible practices, and start questioning the origin of fish ingredients in their cosmetics, dietary supplements, and pet food. These small steps might seem inconvenient. But the stakes are high. Given that our oceans supply half the air we breathe, saving the fish is about self-preservation, not conservation.”
Douglas Gayeton, Chief Lexicographer and Co-founder of The Lexicon, is an award-winning information architect, filmmaker, photographer, and writer who has created work at the boundaries of traditional and converging media since the early 90’s. He directed the KNOW YOUR FOOD series for PBS and GROWING ORGANIC for USDA, and has authored two books, SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town, and LOCAL: The New Face of Food & Farming in America.
Growing Fish in a Box was produced by The Lexicon. Led by co-founders Douglas Gayeton and Laura Howard-Gayeton, this US based NGO uses evidence-based storytelling, strategy and mobilization to help movements tackle our food system’s greatest challenges. By illuminating the meaning behind powerful ideas, they spur people to pay closer attention to how they eat, what they buy, and where their responsibility begins for creating a healthier, safer food system.
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