Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Mother of all Soups and her Wicked Spawn

image from Origins of Life: Biochemical Evolution in the Primordial Soup  

The Best Ever Mother's Day Recipe 

the Soup of all Mothers

a drop of water, 
a pinch of methane, 
a little ammonia, 
hydrogen to taste. 
Add a bolt of lightning and  voilĂ  ! Primordial Soup. 
Is Aquaculture the Wicked Spawn of Mother Ocean?

For life on earth, the ocean is the mother uber alles. In this May 13 Mother's Day post, third in the series on Rating the Raters of Sustainable Seafood, we celebrate Mother Ocean by addressing two salient issues  affecting our collective futures, both affecting significantly the evolutionary processes of sea life and possibly our own. One is the fishing down of high level predatory species, leading to important alterations at trophic levels of food webs,  and two:  industrial farming, meaning aquaculture today. Evolution is used here non-judgmentally as any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Since the target audience of this blog is a certain niche of reward-seeking consumers toward reward-seekers, frequent mention is made of dopamine, involved in most if not all reward-seeking behaviors. " Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain, and a variety of highly addictive drugs, including stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, act directly on the dopamine system."

Humans are biologically programmed to seek the best as the most rewarding, and like cream, the individuals and species that have risen over evolutionary time frames to the top of food webs and food chains best are also considered best by humans for food consumption and farming. 

The drive to attaining the best food has meant that the top-level fish are those most fished out as well as those most likely to be targeted as potential farmed species. Farming top-level species is not a slam-dunk, since many of these are carnivorous, wide-ranging, adapted to diversity and ill-suited to confining conditions. Regardless of suitability, migrators like salmon and sturgeon are both top-level preferences for farming.Aquaculture and mariculture are increasingly regarded as saviors for the menu effects of a global decline in wild fish.

While varied in aspects--savior, apparition, incubus, viable solution, inevitable bottom-line economic response to decline of natural fisheries, and target of criticism by environmental activists, aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of the world food economy, increasing by more than 10% per year. Over 100 million tons of wild fish are harvested annually, and most fisheries are considered unsustainable, meaning overfished.  Aquaculture now accounts for about half of all fish consumed in the world in 2012. More than seventy percent of this consumption is sourced in China, considered the motherland of aquaculture. This is worth noting also because China is to a large degree not transparent to environmental regulatory monitoring. Given that China is building about two coal plants a year, there is a strong possibility that emerging aquaculture ventures will depend on coal, which in turn affects climate change and more.

Worldwide, the main methods of raising sea organisms are raceways, ponds, throughways, closed recirculating system (RAS), and open ocean farming. Most aquacultural enterprises are monocultural, cultivating just one species.

Aquaculture has its fans and foes, but for purposes of this series of posts, which are framed by evolutionary aesthetics, aquaculture is examined in its aspect as the wicked stepdaughter of Mother Ocean.  The word wicked is used judgmentally and classically, which, as remarked in the post Born to Judge, is something we are biologically programmed to do in order to survive, mate, and reproduce successfully: wicked means here causing injury and harm, bad in principle or practice.

The two main classifications of aqaucultural activities are open ocean farming, called mariculture, and land-based aquaculture. Aquaculture in both venues can be described as the process of collecting fingerlings, fry or small individuals from fish stock then placing them into an environment where farmers have sufficient control to be able to harvest them. Worldwide, the main methods of raising sea organisms are those employing raceways, ponds, throughways, closed recirculating system (RAS), or open ocean farming, usually using cages or nets.  Increasingly farming of sealife is becoming high-intensity, energy-costly industrial farming, with the usual implications of industrial farming.
"The spawn (eggs) of a clownfish. The black spots are the eyes developing" Wikipedia
Aquaculture is a technology that has dates back perhaps 4000 years, with carp the first documented farm-raised fish, but age does not necessarily mean wisdom. Considered the state-of- the art aquaculture technology,  fully recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) are considered the most sustainable by the alpha seafood raters seafood raters. For this reason Reward in the Cognitive Niche (RCN) selects RAS for closer examination.

Fish recruits today no longer need to be taken from the wild, though many are.  Water in RAS is recirculated. Waste is sometimes but not always re-purposed.  Chemicals are used to reduce disease and parasites. All inputs, processes, and outputs are closely monitored by computers and human interpreters. Aquaculture and humans appear to constitute an almost perfectly self-sustaining system. So what's wrong with that?

Appearances are often deceiving, especially in the 21st century of cosmetic wizardry, genetic engineering,  and photoshopping. Since this is still part of the series on rating the raters, the two issues addressed here are two possibly critical issues that the alpha raters do not address. While current raters do consider feed-to fish conversion rations, parasites, diseases, escapees, us of carcinogenic dyes and copious chemicals,  two  issues are so far not part of the raters' sustainability calculations: energy dependence on non-renewable resources and loss of biodiversity.

Energy Uses

Demmin RAS for white sturgeon

Abu Dhabi stuegeon farming technology

First issue, relevant for the future of not only fish but life as we know it is energy dependence of RAS on fossil fuels. RAS indicates a production process more informatively known as the swine barn,or farrow to finish concept: rearing large numbers of fish in a relatively small space. This is economically efficient from the profit perspective.

Most aquaculture facilities reguire energy for feeding processes, disposal of waste. prevention of disease and parasites, and water recirculation. Most (not all) fully recirculating aquaculture systems depend on coal or gas to power temperature and water recirculation, making them unsustainable from the energy perspective. There are exceptions, such as the cogeneration facilities used by Agroittica Lombarda, the largest producer of caviar from white sturgeon farms, and several Spanish sturgeon farms, which use cogeneration of energy as well as solar sourced-energy to power their sturgeon farms, as well as a few innovative others. But most late technology enterprises are energy pigs.

The embodied energy in aquaculture is a relatively new consideration for sustainability calculations: it takes into account the energy required to produce the chemicals and computers used in farming as well as the equipment, technologies, and even the education of technicians. This  fingerling to table concept is calculated using a life cycle analysis method. The impact of aquaculture through carbon emissions on climate change is yet to be quantified. The impact on biodiversity is only beginning to be assessed.

open ocean farming in cages on the Chinese island of Hainan.
According to a recent study using a life cycle assessment of shrimp cultivation using RAS and conventional flow-through farms. ,  there was a trade-off  in culture techniques among energy consumption, water use, and environmental impacts. "The RAS used 70% less water than the conventional system, while the electricity usage in RAS was 1.4 times that of the conventional flow-through system".  Humans have to evaluate the trade-offs when decidinfgwhich system is best for which goal.

In sum, data regarding energy use while not available could radically change a sustainability assessment for a specific aquaculture enterprise. Few facilities use renewable energy, and the trend is toward RAS's, which are energy-intensive and so far most rely on fossil fuels.

Loss of Quality of life: biodiversity as indicator of quality of life

The second issue, most important to this blog's stated purpose of preserving the highest quality of life for all living creatures, is the global loss of quality of life associated with industrial farming. Homo sapiens, as mentioned in previous posts, is the dopamine species. Dopamine drives humans towards attaining the best, but also, towards exploring other, whatever that may be. Sometimes this emerges as high risk activity, sometimes it is remarkably embodied in the great explorers, such as Marco Polo and T.E. Lawrence. Humans drive towards attaining the best willynilly. This post addresses some of the willynilly effects.

Reward in the Cognitive Niche rationalizes the use of biodiversity as an indicator of quality of life briefly for the following reasons. Biodiversity is the palette Evolution uses to paint a picture of the world; the total gene pool composed of all the genetic differences in all the individuals of all the species can be seen as all the possibilities for adaptation to any and all changes in the environment, whether climate change, ocean acidification, acid rain, flooding, warming, etc. While we may enjoy Picasso's blue period, probably some of that pleasure stems from the experience of how the colors and images characterize that time in Picasso's evolution as a painter and person and how those colors and images differ from those of other periods in his life. When the palette shrinks, so do the options for expressing difference, and arguably, so will the enjoyment. If all painters were limited to beige, we might become more sensitive to differences in beige, but our experience of vibrancy would be immeasurably reduced.

To understand better how loss of biodiversity affects humans at a daily level, take the loss of higher level predators from trophic levels. When the bluefin tuna are gone, when salmon are gone, no more swordfish, we start eating at lower trophic levels. This means eating squid or cobia or tilapia instead of salmon,  fried sardines instead of lobster. From previous posts, you may remember that the two emerging fisheries for California are Whelk and Hagfish. Hagfish are scavengers who eat the flesh of dead or weakened sea life. A previous post that featured hagfish revealed that hagfish recipes rely heavily on processing and spices to become palatable. Wild salmon taste deliciously of oceanic wonders easily prepared with only a touch of salt.

 Loss of quality of life for salmon as living creatures may be inferred from the loss in quality of taste, as well as from other changes in the lifestyles of farmed fish. For RCN all species should be valued for themselves, each has a place in its ecosystem, and all individuals in all species experience varying degrees of what humans call pleasure,  possibly according to how much consciousness that species has evolved.  Consciousness in species is seen here as a spectrum, and pleasure is seen at its simplest as a reinforcement of those activities that increase the likelihood of survival, mating, and reproduction. This is how Evolution hedges its bets, but with a loss in diversity, there is less to bet on.

 Salmon and sturgeon are used as indicator fish for farmed processes. Many naturally carnivorous farmed species such as salmon are increasingly fed vegetarian diets. This is a response to pressures by environmental groups protesting the inequality in the equation of creating farmed food from raw materials involving wild species as feed. Carnivorous fish, usually higher trophic level fish that may be predators, eat lower trophic level fish, that may be predators or may be hervivores or omnivores, eating whatever.Salmon historically diet on small schooling fish such as anchovies.The effect on the fish of switching diet to soybeans can be imagined to be challenging.

While there are too few studies to create an unassailable judgment, there is evidence that soya bean diets produces enteritis in farmed Atlantic salmon. Farmedalmon are notoriously fattier than wild. They contain high levels of many persistent chemical pollutants, including brominated compounds used as flame retardants and highly toxic pesticides such as DDT. "According to the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, farmed salmon are fed more antibiotics per pound of body weight than any other livestock animal in North America." Nutritionally, farmed fish provide less usable beneficial omega 3 fats than wild fish.

Farming in open systems probably degrades the environment. Much of the antibiotic dosages given to farmed salmon pass through the fish unabsorbed. The excreted drugs settle in sediments and other parts of the environment near the fish farm, where they impact many of the smaller life forms that are part of the complex local ecosystem. Such effects have not been well evaluated. Overuse of antibiotics also leads to more virulent, drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Coastal communities where seafood farming occurs typically change the habitat for all species. The most notorious is the loss of mangrove habitats in areas where shrimp are farmed.

Open ocean farming risks escapees, which usually affects wild salmon. The sealice that prevail in intensive farming in open ocean cages impacts wild populations enormously. Studies suggest that sea lice from farms kill up to 95% of juvenile wild salmon that migrate past them.(Krkosek M, Lewis MA. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.). In 2004 I lived on Malcolm Island in British Columbia. When the market price of wild salmon was less than 1$ a pound, fishermen would dump their catches on specific individuals on the island, often in the middle of the night. We would spend hours picking lice off each salmon before transferring it to our freezers. No salmon came in clean of lice.

Other evidence for loss of quality

Connoisseurs of caviar judge the texture as well as variations in flavors of caviar from farmed sturgeon to be qualitatively lower than than of wild. Wild sturgeon have an enormous palette of foods, from live to dead fish form a huge range of food chains.Farmed sturgeon are packed into small spaces, usually in recycled water, eat the same food over time, don't exercise or experience variations in habitat, and the taste of both sturgeon and caviar reflect this loss in diversity of life style.

Genetic Modification

In the wild, species adapt to changes in the environment. In captivity, species are modified to fit human desires. When these gentically modified species escape from cages in open ocean farming, they breed with wild fish and affect the species' ability to survive, mate, and reproduce. Aquaculture compromises genetic diversity in several ways: it selects and genetically engineers species for speed of reproduction, rate of growth, immunity to disease and parasites. We have no idea of how this may affect the ability of fish to adapt to their environments when they escape from farms into the wild. Farming de-selects diversity in favor of controlled, unvarying characteristics.

"In the world of “survival of the fittest,” an organism must have the genetic resources that allow it to survive the immediate changes in its environment,and that allow the species to adapt to long-term changes around it. The only way to ensure this will happen is to make sure that the genetic choices in the population are large enough to have the greatest variety of attributes passed along to individuals to the next generation. The best way to ensure a large and healthy population with enough gene choices is to have sufficient habitat to support it." Department of Fish and Game

As a summary conclusion: The issues that emerge  and need to be addressed and included in all sustainability evaluations are:
1. loss of quality of life for humans and all other species and their habitats;
2. dependence on non-renewable fuels to power aquaculture operations
3. global effects of embodied energy use in aquaculture production (life cycle analysis)
4. lower genetic variation in farmed fish leading to loss of biodiversity and loss of quality of life
5. Lower genetic ability of wild fish to adapt to environmental changes through genetic pollution

Industrial aquaculture pond layout

aquaculture as incubus

 In the long term, a population with reduced genetic diversity will have lost evolutionary potential.Net: embodied energy and loss of biodiversity should be added to any valid rating for sustainable seafood.

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