The organic open water fishing farm: a solution for the future?

A fish farm in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Cannes, France.

30% of the world's population only eats fish, and wild stocks continue to decline due to intensive industrial fishing. How can we feed a growing population with a shrinking resource? The fish farms that have grown up around the world are certainly one of the answers to this question. However, not all fish farms are created equal. We spent a day learning about an organic open water fish farm in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Cannes, France.

An open water fish farm is a set of floating nets and buoys open to the surface and anchored to the bottom so that they do not drift with the currents. Each net is called a cage, and it either contains a particular species of fish or a generation of fish that are all the same size. The Cannes farm has 2 cages. The first one is close to the coast and can be supplied with food by pipes from the land base. The fish at the second site must be fed by hand. The Cannes farm is affiliated with a global French organic food organization called “AB,” which stands for Organic Agriculture. Raising fish in France is considered agriculture, and the farm must follow the standards set by AB regarding the quality and composition of the food which the animals receive and the number of fish which are raised per cubic yard of water. If it does not comply with the rules, the farm loses its affiliation with AB, which is very popular among French customers for the quality of its products.

The rules about which fish species a farm can raise are very restrictive. First, of all the species must be native to the environment. The farm is not allowed to import species that have never lived in their region. Today the Cannes farm raises three species of fish: the gilt-head bream, Sparus aurata, the European sea bass, Dicentrarchus labrax, and the salmon-basse, Argyrosomus regius, none of which grow larger than 2 feet. The farm has chosen to raise small fish because they are easier to raise than large fish, such as bluefin tuna, which need much more space and deeper nets. One of the greatest technical and commercial success of the Cannes farm is the salmon-basse. This fish, once extremely common in the Mediterranean, completely disappeared 20 years ago because of overfishing.

The food given to the fish is made from 55% fishmeal and 45% plant meal. The food is produced by companies which also obey strict guidelines. The fishmeal is made from small “forage fish,” which are caught in the open sea. They are not consumed by humans, and they reproduce quickly. Their lifespan in the wild varies from a few months to a year. The plant meal is made from grains such as wheat or corn. Food is the Cannes farm’s biggest expense, because 7 to 10 tons of food is distributed to the fish daily. Besides regulating the food, which must be of impeccable quality, AB’s charter limits the number of fish per cubic yard of water. The number varies depending on species and the size of adult fish. It ensures that the animals’ welfare is respected. Finally, the fish must be kept in clean water. AB conducts periodic surveys to measure water quality. If a pollution problem arose, the fish would not be marketable.

It takes about two years for a fish to reach marketable size (10.5 oz.) at the Cannes farm. They could decrease this time to 18 months, but then the fish would no longer be produced according to AB’s specifications. As you can see, the rules for producing organic fish are draconian. Because of this, the organic certification is a real guarantee of quality for consumers, because it ensures that the fish were raised in excellent conditions with good food and no chemicals that could harm their health. This is not the case on all fish farms. For example, the panga, a catfish-like fish which is raised in Asia, can live in polluted waters with a very high concentration of fish per cubic yard because it is very tough. Because it is easy to grow and reproduces quickly, this fish is readily available and very cheap. However, its flavor and quality cannot compare with organic fish. Of course, nobody tell the customers how the pangas are produced.

Organic marine agriculture is certainly one way to meet the needs of the growing world population. But with aquaculture, as with farming and ranching, it is important not to disrupt natural balance. The Cannes farm is an excellent example of success in this area, but we have to be careful. We must avoid falling into the typical human failing of always wanting more, because natural resources are limited. One of the weaknesses of organic agriculture is low performance, because it takes about two years for a fish grow to marketable size. Today, priority is given to the quick production of poor-quality products, which are unhealthy but easily available. We must educate consumers and tell them that it is better to eat a quality product that is healthy and flavorful rather than something which is easily available but polluted and made with chemicals. We must focus on quality rather than quantity. It would be interesting for all industrial producers to follow the philosophy of the Cannes farm and produce a quality product in ways compatible with the environment. Enough said.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

The fishing farm of Cannes. France. Mediterranean Sea.

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