Aquaculture advocates must dispel myths about ocean farming
“The entire aquaculture industry faces the challenge of dealing with well-funded NGOs that perpetuate myths and use scare tactics to fill their bank accounts.”
By Fabian Dawson
Aquaculture advocates need to step-up and speak out against activists who have mastered simplistic fear-mongering messaging tactics to perpetuate myths about ocean farmers says Jim Parsons, the president of the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance (NWAA).
“Aquatic farmers, much like farmers in general, are often reluctant to shout out about their story,” said Parsons, who was recently re-elected as president of the NWAA, a trade group advocating for the aquaculture industry in the U.S. and Canadian Pacific Northwest.
“We need everyone involved in this community, farmers, suppliers, journalists, and even regulatory agencies, to be active advocates and push back when they see misinformation presented,” he said.
“By far, the biggest challenge the entire aquaculture industry faces is dealing with well-funded NGOs that perpetuate myths and use scare tactics to fill their bank accounts. They have mastered the simplistic fear-mongering message; we as an industry need to stop playing defense and get on the offensive. We have a great story to tell and awesome products.”
SeaWestNews caught up with Parsons, CEO of Jamestown Seafood which recently inked a deal with Cooke Aquaculture to raise steelhead/rainbow trout in partnership with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, for this Q&A.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the aquaculture industry.
I’ve had a life-long interest in the interactions of fisheries and humans after growing up on the San Francisco Bay estuary. Our family watched the decline of fishing and habitat during the 1960’s and ‘70’s as the human population exploded. Conservation efforts began to mitigate some of the loss, and I was greatly influenced by the thinking of people like Jacques Cousteau who believed that aquatic farming could help resolve and mitigate human impacts on aquatic animal populations. I began working with Pacific salmon mitigation efforts, got further interested in genetics of the animals we were farming, and continued in salmonid farming (primarily rainbow trout) for the next several decades.
What is the most interesting experience you have had in aquaculture over the years?
Through my work with several of the companies that I’ve been fortunate to work with I was able to travel throughout the world and meet with others that were involved in aquaculture. What struck me most was the overall pride and care that farmers worldwide had for their farms and animals under their care, and I was also struck by the fact that aquatic farming was good for their local economy and society as a whole.
In particular, I remember conducting a seminar on rainbow trout farming in Lima, Peru. An entire group of indigenous farmers, all dressed in traditional garb, made a 14-hour bus ride to the hotel to convey to us how much the trout farming efforts had enhanced their lives and changed the local community for the better. A very humbling experience to say the least
What innovation, in your opinion, has the most potential to improve the aquaculture industry?
Advances in feeds and feeding technologies will continue to reduce environmental impacts of aquaculture operations on receiving waters and have positive effects on farming performance.
What do you think of the recent growing interest in aquaculture development in U.S. federal waters?
In my opinion, this is a long-overdue initiative by the federal government, which has for many years focused solely on managing US fisheries—wild stocks—in federal waters. One key area that I feel is missing from the discussion at this point is that farms must have a method for securing tenure in federal waters through a lease vehicle. Without security of tenure, I don’t believe that companies will be willing to invest the large amounts of funds needed to ensure a successful offshore operation, and will continue to look at developing farms in other countries that can provide these long-term assurances.
While it is encouraging to think about a pro-aquaculture policy at the federal level that will pave the way for developing aquaculture in federal waters, we at NWAA believe that ALL modes of aquaculture are important in the creation of a vibrant “Blue Economy” in the USA.
That includes offshore/open ocean, marine (net pens/nearshore), freshwater (rivers, ponds, raceways), RAS (land-based smolt production AND grow-out), as well as tidal (shellfish) and the newest “sea vegetable”/seaweed sector. All are important.
Can land-based systems replace ocean farming in the US?
In a word, no. At present, the land-based “movement” still has to deal with issues like energy consumption, water rights/use, market acceptance, cost of production, and—while strides have been made in this area—so-called “off-flavours” are still an issue. There is no doubt that these ventures, if strategically located and scaled properly, can play a part in providing niche food products or high-value components (such as smolts) to other segments of our farming community.
R&D continues and will hopefully provide answers to these challenges allowing for expansion of this sector. Bottom line, we come nowhere near producing a meaningful portion of the seafood that we consume in North America, and we will need all sectors operating at full capability to begin to make a dent in the deficit.
What do you think of the salmon returns in the Pacific?
There are always bright spots and questionable areas every year. This year, drought and excessive heat have taken their toll on wild salmon stocks. Efforts like the Columbia River Basin Task Force that was convened by NOAA have the potential to take a long-term look at recovery and I believe we need similar efforts throughout the Northwest.
As president of NWAA what are the key challenges for the industry in the coming years?
By far, the biggest challenge the entire aquaculture industry faces is dealing with well-funded NGOs that perpetuate myths and use scare tactics to fill their bank accounts. They have mastered the simplistic fear-mongering message; we as an industry need to stop playing defense and get on the offensive. We have a great story to tell and awesome products.
ENGO campaigns have been very effective in messaging and reducing complex issues to simple ideas that have become engrained in the aquaculture discourse. The public finds itself caught within a fog of contested science and misinformation. How do you plan to address this in the coming year, on behalf of the industry?
One strategy we are adopting, and we are doing this in concert with other trade groups in Canada and the USA, is to develop spokespeople. We are at present working with a Canadian group to take a few of our key leaders and “polish” their speaking skills. We’d like to see one or more TED talks that make this business of aquaculture easier to like, easier to understand, and easier to support. It’s underway – that’s one example of thinking bigger than we have thought in the past.
Aquatic farmers, much like farmers in general, are often reluctant to shout out about their story. We need everyone involved in this community, farmers, suppliers, journalists, and even regulatory agencies, to be active advocates and push back when they see misinformation presented.