A Tale of Two Fish

A recent Marketplace story profiles the meteoric rise of the Vietnamese pangasius catfish industry and the tradeoffs involved with industrial aquaculture. While there are tremendous benefits to aquaculture, not all fish farms are created equally. The NPR piece points out:

“Intensive systems like this can feed a lot of people, but there’s also the potential for things to go terribly wrong. Rivers get polluted. Diseases run rampant. Forests and wetlands get bulldozed into new ponds.”

From our perspective, it’s been astonishing to witness the development of pangasius catfish—which are usually sold as ‘Swai’ in the US—a farming activity that has almost certainly grown more rapidly than any in human history. As an air breather, pangasius can be raised at extremely high densities. This extraordinary level of productivity has allowed pangasius to fill a void in the market as many traditional white fish population have been depleted and become more expensive.

Sadly, the thousands of small farmers who raise pangasius have experienced more than their share of tumult—extreme price fluctuations which have now caused the industry to contract as many farmers and processors operate below breakeven levels.

A big part of the problem is that the farms are extraordinarily concentrated. The same few acres that are needed to graze a single cow can produce 200,000 pounds of pangasius!  And overall just 12,000 acres are used to raise around 2 billion pounds of pangasius.  With this level of concentration, it’s not surprising that even small impacts by individual farms can have significant cumulative effects.

So what are the alternatives? Our vision, as we sought to address the growing need for marine protein, was to find a fish that might open new horizons for farming the tropical seas—vast areas often called “nutrient deserts” typified by their low productivity.

And given an abundance of space, why not farm at low densities to maximize flesh quality while minimizing environmental impacts.  After spending years evaluating more than 30 species of fish, we found barramundi—the fish that is as delicious as it is important—as it allows us to demonstrate a new model for sustainable aquaculture.