Sunday, March 27, 2005

Spring Plowing on the Fish Farm

Been a long, long time since the head of the household walked into nearby woods to shoot something for dinner.


Yet there’s a lot of resistance to fish farming, as if it was really all that different from raising cattle. Conjure up an image of huge machines combing the forests with nets twenty miles long to catch meat for the dining table.  Squirrels, rabbits, raccoons and ground hogs along with deer, bear (for those with lustier appetites) and wild boar all tumbling into the nets as the forest floor is scraped clean of all vegetation. Not much left to eat and no shelter for whatever animals missed the nets.  That’s okay, there’s always another forest out there . . . or is there?


We gave up hunting with spears, bows and guns when civilized man divided up the chores and manufacturers made pencils, ranchers raised cattle.  Somehow we never gave up fishing in the wild, although we kept on improving the equipment while fish stocks worldwide went in the dumper and man kept on scouring the oceans. Possibly it’s because all this depletion-of-the-wild-species we call ‘commercial fishing’ occurs out of sight that we are so unconcerned by the duplicitous character of the industry.


I’m reminded of ‘market hunters’ providing wild ducks for the restaurants of Chicago during the thirties and forties. Using sneak-boats equipped with what amounted to small bow-mounted cannons, they 'sneaked' up on rafts of sleeping ducks in the southern Illinois flyway.  At an appropriate moonlit moment, they whistled, and when the ducks all raised their heads in alarm, fired off the bow gun.  A market hunter could kill a thousand ducks a night that way and did, until the mallard population dropped so precipitously that sporting wildfowlers lobbied for stricter controls.


There’s no one to lobby for ruined sport fishing, although trout fishermen are coming out against fish farming on the complaint that escaping farmed trout interbreed with wild trout and interfere with the species.  So far as I know there has been no parallel problem with Montana domestic sheep getting loose and ruining the genetics of the wild mountain sheep.  Hunters and fishermen value them equally, but I’m willing to agree that trout may be different.


Even so, protecting the wild trout seems too high a price for not farming various varieties of fish, lobsters, oysters, mussels, shrimp and whatever else market pressures may advance.  What we can do and should do is take a very close look at fish feeding, fertilization and antibiotic requirements and establish continually monitored acceptable rates.  That precaution has not been taken with meat production and we pay a huge price for that lack of intelligent control.  Ask anyone who lives near a hog operation.


So, fish farming will happen because it needs to happen and because the alternative is permanently damaged and dying oceans.  Not an option, no matter the opinions of trout fishermen.  But the trout fishermen remind us we need a 'canary in the mine' when it comes to safety issues in fish farming and for that we owe them thanks.