9 Things Everyone Should Know About Farmed Fish

If you eat seafood, unless you catch it yourself or ask the right questions, the odds are pretty good it comes from a fish farm. The aquaculture industry is like a whale on steroids, growing faster than any other animal agriculture segment and now accounting for half the fish eaten in the U.S.

As commercial fishing operations continue to strip the world’s oceans of life, with one-third of fishing stocks collapsed and the rest headed there by mid-century, fish farming is seen as a way to meet the world’s growing demand. But is it really the silver bullet to solve the Earth’s food needs? Can marine farms reliably satisfy the seafood cravings of three billion people around the globe?

This article looks at aquaculture and its long-term effects on fish, people, and other animals. With this industry regularly touted as a paragon of food production, whether you eat seafood or not, you should know these nine key facts about farmed fish.

1. Farmed fish have dubious nutritional value.

Here’s a frustrating paradox for those who eat fish for their health: the nutritional benefits of fish are greatly decreased when it’s farmed. Take omega-3 fatty acids. Wild fish get their omega-3’s from aquatic plants. Farmed fish, however, are often fed corn, soy, or other feedstuffs that contain little or no omega-3’s. This unnatural, high-corn diet also means some farmed fish accumulate unhealthy levels of the wrong fatty acids. Further, farmed fish are routinely dosed with antibiotics, which can cause antibiotic-resistant disease in humans.

2. The farmed fishing industry robs Peter to pay Paul.

While some farmed fish can live on diets of corn or soy, others need to eat fish – and lots of it. Tuna and salmon, for example, need to eat up to five pounds of fish for each pound of body weight. The result is that prey (fish like anchovies and herring) are being fished to the brink of extinction to feed the world’s fish farms. “We have caught all the big fish and now we are going after their food,” says the non-profit Oceana, which blames aquaculture’s voracious hunger for declines of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, tuna, bass, salmon, albatross, penguins, and other species.

3. Fish experience pain and stress.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of many a catch-and-release angler, the latest research shows conclusively that fish experience pain and stress. In one study, fish injected with bee venom engaged in rocking behavior linked to pain and, compared to control groups, reduced their swimming activity, waited three times longer to eat, and had higher breathing rates. Farmed fish are subject to the routine stresses of hyperconfinement throughout their lives, and are typically killed in slow, painful ways like evisceration, starvation, or asphyxiation.

4. Farmed fish are loaded with disease, and this spreads to wild fish populations.

Farmed fish are packed as tightly as coins in a purse, with twenty-seven adult trout, for example, typically scrunched into a bathtub-sized space. These unnatural conditions give rise to diseases and parasites, which often migrate off the farm and infect wild fish populations. On Canada’s Pacific coast, for example, sea lice infestations are responsible for mass kill-offs of pink salmon that have destroyed 80% of the fish in some local populations. But the damage doesn’t end there, because eagles, bears, orcas, and other predators depend on salmon for their existence. Drops in wild salmon numbers cause these species to decline as well.

5. Fish farms are rife with toxins, which also damage local ecosystems.

You can’t have diseases and parasites infecting your economic units, so operators fight back by dumping concentrated antibiotics and other chemicals into the water. Such toxins damage local ecosystems in ways we’re just beginning to understand. One study found that a drug used to combat sea lice kills a variety of nontarget marine invertebrates, travels up to half a mile, and persists in the water for hours.

6. Farmed fish are living in their own feces.

That’s right, fish poop too. Farmed fish waste falls as sediment to the seabed in sufficient quantities to overwhelm and kill marine life in the immediate vicinity and for some distance beyond. It also promotes algal growth, which reduces water’s oxygen content and makes it hard to support life. When the Israeli government learned that algal growth driven by two fish farms in the Red Sea was hurting nearby coral reefs, it shut them down.

7. Farmed fish are always trying to escape their unpleasant conditions, and who can blame them?

In the North Atlantic region alone, up to two million runaway salmon escape into the wild each year. The result is that at least 20% of supposedly wild salmon caught in the North Atlantic are of farmed origin. Escaped fish breed with wild fish and compromise the gene pool, harming the wild population. Embryonic hybrid salmon, for example, are far less viable than their wild counterparts, and adult hybrid salmon routinely die earlier than their purebred relatives. This pressure on wild populations further hurts predators who rely on fish like bears and orcas.

8. See: the Jevons Paradox.

This counterintuitive economic theory says that as production methods grow more efficient, demand for resources actually increases – rather than decreasing, as you might expect. Accordingly, as aquaculture makes fish production increasingly efficient, and fish become more widely available and less expensive, demand increases across the board. This drives more fishing, which hurts wild populations. Thus, as the construction of new salmon hatcheries from 1987 to 1999 drove lower prices and wider availability of salmon, world demand for salmon increased more than fourfold during the period. The net result: fish farming cranks up the pressure on already-depleted populations of wild fish around the world.

9. When the heavy environmental damage they cause is taken into account, fish farming operations often are found to generate more costs than revenues.

One study found that aquaculture in Sweden’s coastal waters “is not only ecologically but also economically unsustainable.” Another report concluded that fish farming in a Chinese lake is an “economically irrational choice from the perspective of the whole society, with an unequal tradeoff between environmental costs and economic benefits.” Simply put, aquaculture drives heavy ecological harms and these cost society money. In the U.S., fish farming drives hidden costs of roughly $700 million each year – or half the annual production value of fish farming operations.

Now What?

With its long trail of diseases, chemicals, wastes, and suffering, and the heavy pressure it puts on wild populations through parasites, escapes, and higher demand, the sustainability of fish farms emerges as a fish story. And by the way, farmed or wild, fish are only “healthy” when compared to high-fat foods like red meat. But wild fish is no great nutritional treat either: pound for pound, salmon has just as much cholesterol as ground beef, and virtually all wild fish contains highly-toxic mercury.

Here’s one solution to the farmed fish dilemma: vote with your pocketbook and eat less seafood or give it up completely. Get your omega-3’s from flax, hemp, soy, or walnuts – all without cholesterol or mercury. And just maybe, as George W. Bush hoped in a moment of unintended comedy, “the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”

10 Eating Rules French Children Know (But Most Americans Don’t)

How the French eat, age, dress, raise their children and live in general is a real talking point these days. So, as an American mother of three half-French kids, I figured I’d add my two cents to the conversation.

I lived in France before becoming a parent, but eventually it was my kids who taught me everything I need to know about eating like a French person: Eating, and staying slim and healthy, isn’t just about what you eat, but also how, when and why. Yes, French people enjoy junk food occasionally, and sometimes they eat between meals, but people don’t just let loose every day. There’s a code of conduct for food, for big people and little ones alike. Here, in 10 quick life lessons, is what my kids taught me about food.

1. Eat, but not all day long.

Three meals a day, plus the children’s traditional after-school “gouter,” or snack, which might be a pain au chocolat, fruit or applesauce.

When mealtimes roll around, you eat with real pleasure because you’re hungry.

2. Eat real foods and generous portions.

Consuming three meals a day without grazing in between means you can eat well when you sit down at the table — and that includes a starter, main course, cheese and dessert. Portions are generous without going overboard. An example of yesterday’s lunch menu:

Starter course: Lentil salad

Main course: Roasted chicken, green beans

Cheese course: Vanilla yogurt

Dessert: Apple and orange slices … and that was in the public school cafeteria.

3. Choose water.

Generally speaking, the French do not drink their calories. At mealtimes, water (whether still or sparkling) is the drink of choice. Adults might opt for a glass or two of wine, but the glasses aren’t the size of fishbowls.

4. Sit down.

It’s rare to see people eating while walking or shopping. There are no cup holders on caddies, or even in most cars. You eat at the table, not in front of the TV or computer screen, then you leave the table and do something else.

5. Eat lighter at night.

Lunchtime is the main event. Dinner is usually light: soups, salads, an omelet, a simple pasta dish. Dessert might be a yogurt or fruit. And you sleep so much better.

6. When the kitchen closes, it’s CLOSED.

No grazing after dinner.

7. Know your limit, then stop.

Set eating times help you tune in to when you are really hungry or full.

8. Taste your food, guess the ingredients.

The French don’t just like to eat fabulous food and drink wonderful wine, they love to talk about it. Discussing how something tastes, its ingredients and how it was made heightens awareness; children love to join the conversation. They learn about real food and where it comes from.

9. Get cooking!

Along with an interest in ingredients comes an interest in the actual process of cooking food. With a little coaching, my 2-year-old peeled the apples she picked with her class and happily joined in making a tart. Children love helping put fresh vegetables or pasta into the pot, or making a chocolate cake from scratch. Being part of the process heightens appreciation, and builds good habits for life.

10. Eating well is not a sin; it’s a pleasure.

Eating great food — no matter how simple or how elaborate — is one of life’s great pleasures, not an endless guilt trip. Especially when it’s in moderation. Once, when we were visiting family in the US, a waitress asked my French husband if he was “done working on that,” referring to his plate of food. His reply: “Eating is a pleasure, mademoiselle, not work!”

Improve that red wine with just a push of a button…!

Something about fine wine invites mystique, ritual — and more than a little pretension.

If you have ever ordered an old and expensive bottle of red from a master sommelier, you may have seen the ostentatious production that goes into decanting the stuff. The wine steward rolls out a gueridon (a little table) on which the bottle is cradled gently in a cloth-lined basket. A lit candle flickers nearby. The sommelier tips the neck of the bottle over the candle while pouring the wine with the delicacy of a surgeon into a broad-bottomed decanter so as not to disturb the sediment that has fallen out of the wine during years of aging and character development.

Thus aerated, the wine is then allowed to “breathe” for a while before it is served. Oenophiles — even those back in Roman times — have observed that wine of many vintages and varieties improves perceptibly when aerated for as little as a few minutes or for as long as a day. Oenologists have debated the chemistry that might account for this shift in flavor. Do the tannins change in ways that soften their distinctive flavors? Or does aeration simply allow stinky sulfides enough time to evaporate away?

Whatever the science behind it, the traditional ritual makes for a fine show. But when you’re at home pouring wine for yourself or guests, you can save time and generate entertainment of a different kind by taking a shortcut: dump the bottle in a blender, and frappe it into a froth. (Sediment is less common in wines today than it used to be, but if you are concerned about that, pour the wine very slowly into the blender, and stop before you get to the last couple ounces.)

Less than a minute of hyperdecanting, as we at The Cooking Lab have taken to calling this modern method, exposes the wine to as much air as it would see in an hour or more of traditional decanting, and does so far more uniformly. Wine aficionados may recoil in fear that such a violent treatment will “break” the wine, but the proof is in the tasting.

In carefully controlled, double-blind taste tests conducted at our lab, we presented 14 experienced wine tasters — seven sommeliers, three vintners, two oenologists and two wine writers — with unlabeled samples of hyperdecanted wine. The tasters also received samples taken from the same bottles but decanted the old-fashioned way. The order of presentation was varied from one trial to the next.

When we asked them which samples they preferred, only two of the 14 judges were able to distinguish a difference repeatedly, and both of those tasters consistently preferred the wine that had gone through the blender.

So the next time you uncork a well-muscled syrah — or even a rambunctious riesling — for your connoisseur friends, bring a blender to the table, and have a camera ready. The foam will subside within seconds. But you’ll cherish that memory of the look on their faces for the rest of your days.

WHY COOK SOUS VIDE ?

 

Cooking sous vide is easier than its fancy name might suggest. You simply seal the ingredients in a plastic bag (you can also use a canning jar) and place them in a water bath, a combi oven, or any other cooker that can set and hold a target temperature to within a degree or two. When the food reaches your target temperature or time, you take it out, give it a quick sear or other finish, and serve it. That’s it.

The sous vide method yields results that are nearly impossible to achieve by traditional means. In the photo above, both of the tenderloins started at the same weight. The steak on the left was cooked in a pan to a core temperature of 52 °C / 126 °F, but more than 40% of the meat was overcooked. The other steak was cooked sous vide to the same temperature and then seared with a blowtorch to yield a juicier steak that is done to perfection from edge to edge.

Similarly, beef short ribs braised at 58 °C / 136 °F for 72 hours are melt-in-your-mouth tender, yet pink and juicy. And the delicate, custard-like texture of an egg poached at precisely 65 °C / 149 °F is amazing.

Sous vide is especially useful for cooking meats and seafood, for which the window of proper doneness is often vanishingly small when traditional methods are used. When you fry a piece of fish, the flesh is most succulent and tender within a very narrow temperature range. Because the cooking temperature of the pan is at least 200 °C / 392 °F hotter than the ideal core temperature of the fish, the edges will inevitably be far more cooked than the center when pan-fried.

Chicken breasts and other poultry cuts and poultry products are often held at a target temperature for a different reason: to kill potential pathogens and improve the safety of the food.

The idea of preserving and cooking food in sealed packages is ancient. Throughout culinary history, food has been wrapped in leaves, potted in fat, packed in salt, or sealed inside animal bladders before being cooked. People have long known that isolating food from air—accomplished more completely by vacuum sealing—can arrest the decay of food. Packaging food also prevents it from drying out.

Although sous vide literally means “under vacuum” in French, the defining feature of the sous vide method is not packaging or vacuum sealing; it is accurate temperature control. A computer-controlled heater can warm a water bath to any low temperature you set, and it can keep it there for hours—or even days, if needed.

Such mastery over heat pays off in several important ways, most notably, freeing the cook from the tyranny of the clock. Traditional cooking with a range, oven, or grill uses high and fluctuating temperatures, so you must time the cooking exactly; there is little margin for error. With just a moment’s inattention, conventional cooking can quickly overshoot perfection.

When cooking sous vide, in contrast, most foods will taste just as good even if they spend a few extra minutes at a target temperature, so you can relax and devote your attention to the more interesting and creative aspects of cooking.

Precise temperature control and uniformity of temperature has two other big advantages. First, it allows you to cook food to an even doneness all the way through—no more dry edges and rare centers. Second, you get highly repeatable results. The steak emerges from the bag juicy and pink every time.

A final important benefit is that the closed bag creates a fully humid environment that effectively braises the food, so ingredients cooked this way are often noticeably juicier and more tender. Food cooked sous vide doesn’t brown, but a simple sear adds that traditional flavor where needed so that you can have the best of both worlds.

We’ve been asked many times about the safety of cooking plastic bags. The bottom line is that bags made expressly for cooking sous vide are perfectly safe—as are oven bags, popular brands of zip-top bags, and stretchy plastic wrap such as Saran Wrap.

The plastic that these products are made of is called polyethylene. It is widely used in containers for biology and chemistry labs, and it has been studied extensively. It is safe. But, do avoid very cheap plastic wraps when cooking. These are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and heating them presents a risk of chemicals leaching into the food.

Cooking sous vide isn’t complicated or expensive. In Modernist Cuisine at Home, we guide you through the various kinds of sous vide equipment and supplies available for home cooks, including how to improvise your own setup. Check back later in the week when we share such methods using equipment you probably already own.