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Extending leases of local fish farms was bad for fish and environment

By Ingrid E. Newkirk

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Gov. Neil Abercrombie had to make a decision: Would he listen to the voices of concerned citizens fighting to keep fish factory farms from fouling Hawaii's pristine waters, or would he side with an industry that has repeatedly shown blatant disregard for the environment and animals by packing fish into pens and ponds so tightly that they have to be dosed with powerful drugs just to keep them alive, spreading disease and pollutants wherever they set up shop?

Fish farming — like more familiar forms of intensive animal agriculture — causes more problems than it sets out to solve, and future generations of Hawaii residents will have to pay the piper.

Densely stocked fish farms pollute local waterways with chemical-laden fish feed, fish feces, carcasses and other waste, sometimes resulting in "dead zones" where no marine life can thrive. According to a recent article in Time magazine, a near-shore farm containing 200,000 salmon can dump as much phosphorus and nitrogen into the water as the sewage from a town of 20,000 people.

Many of the most popular species of factory-farmed fish are carnivores, so fish must still be caught in the wild to feed fish on farms. It is estimated that it can take 3 pounds or more of wild ocean fish to produce a single pound of farmed salmon or sea bass, so fish farming can never be a sustainable form of food production.

Factory-farmed fish can also wreak havoc if they escape from their enclosures — which they do often — spreading disease and parasites or starving out native fish species. Asian carp, for example, were originally brought to the U.S. by catfish farmers looking for a cheap way to keep their ponds free of algae, but the fish escaped during flooding in the early 1990s. They are now the most abundant fish in some parts of the Mississippi River.

And what will happen when so-called "Frankenfish" — those that have been genetically modified to grow fatter faster — escape? In laboratories right now, biotech companies are engineering Atlantic salmon to grow twice as fast as conventional fish and transgenic trout that will pack on 20 percent more muscle.

We must also face the fact that there are animal welfare considerations here. Fish raised on factory farms are crammed into filthy enclosures, constantly rubbing up against one another—and rubbing off their protective coating — because of the lack of space. They suffer from diseases, wiggling lice and damaged fins. Some salmon farms are so crowded that 2½-foot-long fish spend their entire lives in a space only 2 inches bigger than their own bodies.

Fish are not swimming vegetables. Research has shown that fish are fast learners who think ahead, form complex social relationships and have unique personalities. A professional diver recently captured what are thought to be the first photographs of a wild fish using a tool — a blackspot tuskfish who repeatedly smashed a clam on a rock until the tasty morsel cracked open. The fish set out to solve a problem and succeeded. I thought about that while viewing a recent report from inside a fish-slaughter facility, which found that workers were using pliers to peel away strips of skin from these conscious, struggling animals.

Gov. Abercrombie made a bad decision. For the sake of our ocean environment, our health and the fish themselves, we should reject any push to expand fish farming in this country. Treating any animals as widgets on an assembly line is not the way to feed an increasingly crowded world.

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