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Fish farms, friend or foe? 

PAGE 22 FISH

I can still remember how I felt, the first day I saw one of the circular, netted fish farms floating out at sea, off the coast of Los Cristianos. I was wondering, what on earth it was and how this was allowed. I soon learned that it was perfectly legal, and that it housed fish, that were being farmed.

Obviously it created fear, especially in the local fisherman – who had fished these waters for generations – what would become of their livelihood? Soon the nets would be vandalised by protesters, allowing the small fish to spread into the sea, them taking their chances against the fishermans’ net or line.

What you have to ask of course, is how did we get here? There are lots of these rings of farmed fish in our waters, providing us and Europe with fish to eat. Prior to the arrival of the fish farms, stocks of fish in the sea were at a record low – ironically blamed on the fishermen, for taking the small fry, as well as the mature fish, not allowing enough time for stocks to mature and recover. It is debatable whether fish stocks are low for this reason only – it may be the imbalance in the underwater environment, pollution, warmer temperatures, that have all contributed to the low fish stocks, who knows?

The other argument is that greed has driven the train towards this particular scenario. Our demand for fish, out weighing the natural stocks of our sea – and in particular our desire for just eating certain species.

The fish farm industry is worth millions of euro to the economy of our island and Spain. It also provides jobs for very skilled people, such as engineers, construction workers, feeding boatmen, vets, scientists, biologists.

I witnessed the construction of a couple of these circular creations. They are huge and each piece of moulded, black plastic is linked together, and polystyrene tubes are inserted into it – to help with buoyancy. The ring is then floated out to sea, until it is settled into its position, net attached and fish added.

The main bone of contention with the fish farms is what the fish fry are fed. In the beginning, wild fish fry would be caught and used, which is clearly unsustainable. Moreover scientists are working in laboratories, creating artificial food for the farmed fish to consume. In under-developed countries, who seem to have embraced the farms more warmly, grow grubs, such as small maggot like worms for the fish to eat.

Having so many fish in close proximity can obviously harbour disease – the main one being fish lice, so – chemicals are used to clean the fish and antibiotics are being used to keep fish well. They can often be under-developed in terms of appearance, the fins not growing properly in the lack of space. This veterinary area has grown in numbers, some vets specialising in the welfare of farmed fish and obviously making a good living from it.

The present fear is that wild fish stocks could be at risk too, as the dead farmed fish are often thrown out of the farms, their bodies filled with chemicals and antibiotics. Worse, still living farmed fish that escape and contaminate the wild fish. It is far too early to say whether these fears are actually a reality.

I am sure you will agree, that we all love to see the brightly painted, wooden fishing boats, going out to sea, their nets trailing behind them and a string of seagulls at their tail, but – perhaps this would end completely, if the demands on the sea and the fishermen, to catch more fish had continued?

The production of aquaculture in Spain has grown dramatically in just the last year alone, figures provided by the EOMOFA, (European Observatory for Fishery and Aquaculture Products), show an increase of 10.2% over production in 2014, first sales being valued at 292 million euro, producing 48,000 tonnes of fish. The main species being harvested were the Sea Bass at 21,300 tonnes.

Overall in the year 2015, product sales increased by 11% to 515 million euro, in the wholesale markets. The average cost of fresh fish in Spain rose by 12% in the year 2015-2016 to 7.35 euro per kg. These figures are of course reflective of the whole of Spain, and it is debatable whether fish farming in Tenerife is actually good for our economy, the subsidy received from the mainland, set against the actual profit, seems a bit muddy.

Whatever your view, I reckon they are here to stay, and again it comes back to us as a race, to keep our planet healthy, regain the balance and let nature recover.

By Margaret Tully