New York Times Sunday Magazine
June 18, 2006
Green to the Gills

On a bright, clear Arctic morning this March, I found myself in the Norwegian city of Tromso, staring down into a large green fiberglass tub in which several hundred sexually aroused cod described a slow, lazy circle in the temperature-controlled water below. Normally this is the kind of thing I enjoy. As a fisherman, I like being in the presence of fish. The living animal is somehow exhilarating, whether glimpsed crashing bait alongside a jetty or glowing vague and green 20 feet below the surface. A fish's appearance in the wild feels special and makes the fisherman feel lucky.

But luck had nothing to do with the cod swimming in the Norwegian tub that day. To the contrary, the fish in Tromso were there because of calculated human effort, and their stay in Tromso would allow them to participate in the culmination of a century of applied science. They were generation F0, the founding generation in a selective breeding program that aims to create a whole new race of cod. The progeny of wild cod gathered up from a variety of different fiords and offshore shoals, they were implanted with identifying microchips and paired up according to a methodology developed in some of Norway's most high-powered research institutions. After they are bred with their predetermined mates, their offspring, generation F1, will be grown in captivity to adulthood. Then the fastest-growing of the F1's will be selected for further breeding, resulting eventually in an even-more-tailored generation F2. "And then we'll do the same again," said Kjersti Fjalestad, the director of the cod-breeding program at the Norwegian Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture Research, while the cod swam in circles beneath us. "Compare the families, find the best ones, and that's kind of the never-ending story."

Breeding cod in an Arctic outpost might at first seem like one of those esoteric scientific endeavors doomed to be hidden away in a poor doctoral candidate's obscure Ph.D. thesis. But the Tromso cod-breeding facility is in fact the latest development in a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we eat. Until recently, all of the world's seafood was wild. Indeed, ocean fish are the last wild food on earth we eat with any regularity. That is all about to change. Fish farming, or "aquaculture," as the practice is called by its practitioners, is now the fastest-growing form of food production in the world. Since 1990, it has increased at a rate of 10 percent a year. If this trends continues, within a decade more seafood will come from farms than from the wild.

quaculture in itself is not new. The Chinese invented it 3,000 years ago, using the waste products from cultivated silkworms to feed carp in small-scale freshwater-pond farms. In Norway and other Western countries, the relatively easy-to-grow Atlantic salmon has been successfully mass-produced for nearly 40 years. But until now, formidable biological barriers have prevented scientists from domesticating the thousands of other fish in the sea. Unlike salmon, which hatch from large nutrient-rich eggs and can be easily nourished on industrially produced feed pellets, the majority of edible ocean fish hatch from fragile, minuscule eggs and must be fed difficult-to-cultivate living microorganisms during their infancy. In captivity, they reach sexual maturity too quickly, fall prey to disease and, to top it off, tend to eat one another. If Norway can turn the cod into a viable commercial farm product, it would mark a significant resolution of many of these problems — and a major step forward in what could be the large-scale domestication of the wild ocean.

Both the Bush administration and Congress are paying attention to fish farming, mostly because so many of the aquacultured products Americans eat come from abroad. Citing a national seafood trade deficit, Senators Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, and Daniel Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, are the co-sponsors of the National Offshore Aquaculture Act, which could make industrial-scale aquaculture possible in the United States for the first time. For decades, American environmentalists, fishermen and shore-front homeowners have kept aquaculture out of most state-controlled coastal waters, fearing that it could pollute the coastline and harm wild fish populations. The National Offshore Aquaculture Act, if it is approved, will bypass those conflicts by establishing aquaculture outside of any state's jurisdiction in federally controlled ocean territory, at least three miles offshore. Bringing the United States online as a major farmer of fish would be a big step toward achieving what proponents of the bill call the "blue revolution" — a boost in the productivity of the oceans that would do for the sea what the "green revolution" of the 1960's did for the land. Fish farming proponents contend that aquaculture is the only way to meet the food demands of a relentlessly growing world population, due to double in another 60 years.

The idea of farming the sea, however, has many skeptics. Wild-fish advocates say that the projections being put forth by aquaculturists are based upon an essentially false assumption. Since most farmed fish are carnivorous predators (virtually the only carnivorous predators humans eat besides the occasional dog), environmentalists say that fish farming doesn't really create any net food gain for the world. In frequently cited research, the Stanford economist Rosamond Naylor and others claim that around two pounds of wild prey fish are required to create one pound of farmed fish. If we continue to grow aquaculture, we will shrink the populations of wild predator fish because we will have taken their prey.

But to a fisherman, the thing that feels like the heart of the matter is not the depletion of wild prey fish or the risk of PCB contamination or the spread of farm-created diseases or any of the other scare stats listed on a standard antiaquaculture environmental leaflet. Rather, it is the entire reorganization and homogenization of the sea that is of overarching concern. As anyone who has flown over the monocultured American heartland will attest, we have carried out a policy of biological purification with the organisms we eat — an elimination of the random in favor of the predictable. The vast majority of the world's land area has been repurposed to cultivate the several dozen creatures we like. And within those chosen species, selective breeding has further narrowed diversity to the point where we have lost many of the genetic traits of our farmed animals' wild ancestors. Though there is a desperate attempt to reclaim the flavors and textures of wilder times through the reintroduction of "heirloom" varieties of plants and animals, the majority of our food's lost qualities are probably not recoverable.

The ocean has been the heterogeneous alternative to humankind's homogenizing juggernaut. Wild, complex ecosystems are still the norm rather than the exception in its untamed depths. But can this last? While aquaculturists assure the public that the area required for fish farms is tiny when compared with the vast expanse of the ocean, the farms that dotted the countryside before the agricultural revolutions of the 18th century probably once seemed similarly insignificant. Taking a long-range view, there is little doubt that we are on the verge of a vast new artificial selection that will determine the characteristics of a future marine ecology. As recently as 20 years ago, aquacultured products were niche items — the bright red slab of lox from Norway, the crawdad from Louisiana. Today, dozens of mainstream fish are being domesticated and will soon appear at supermarket counters everywhere. Yellowtail, halibut, red snapper and even Volkswagen-size bluefin tuna are all coming under some kind of human-controlled production. And whereas animals like sheep and cattle were adapted to fit the farm over thousands of years, many of the ocean species under development today could be tamed in as little as a decade.

Until recently I didn't pay much attention to this phenomenon. The new aquacultured fish were not ones that I would pursue in my native waters. But when I learned that the Norwegians were on the verge of mass-producing cod, a fish that I had caught easily in my youth off the shores of Long Island but that had become increasingly difficult to find in my adulthood, suddenly it seemed personal. What could be right about farming an animal that in its wild form was productive enough to feed millions? And if the United States decides to farm cod in the quantities Norway is predicting, will it prompt marine domestication everywhere? Will all wild fish ultimately be either domesticated or extirpated? Will we prosecute the same war upon diversity at sea as we have on land?

All of these questions troubled me. And in thinking them through, I had to admit to myself that I did not want the cod to be tamed. It was with this particular bias that I went to Norway.

Tromso is a city governed by light or the lack thereof. Tourist brochures call it "the Paris of the Arctic," but because it spends a good third of the year in darkness, it comes off as much more Arctic than Parisian. Stuck in a bay of icy, sapphire blue water, the town is ringed by flat-topped, marshmallow mountains, and on clear winter nights the aurora borealis gives an eerie green cast to the outskirts. Enthusiastic residents claim that winters are not that dark — on January afternoons it is possible to read a newspaper outside, I was told — and even after reading material must be put away, residents can still find something to do, for Tromso has of late become the capital of Norwegian electronic music.

But where Tromso electronica has arisen spontaneously, the drive to make Tromso the capital of cod aquaculture has been centrally planned. In 2002, the Ministry of Fisheries established the Tromso cod breeding facility at a cost of $18 million. The Tromoso-based seafood export council has started a "Cod TV" cable channel, and a network of government agencies, farmers and researchers has come together called "Sats pa Torsk!" ("Go for Cod!"). A project called Cod Map will sequence the cod genome. Spending some $16 million annually, the Norwegians clearly see cod as the next big farmed fish.

This kind of concentrated effort is quite new, even for Norway. For most of its history, cod farming moved forward haltingly. When wild cod populations crashed, interest in farming cod increased. When wild cod seem to recover, the aquaculture ball gets dropped. During the cod crashes of the 1980's and 90's, the details of which are described in Mark Kurlansky's best seller, "Cod," financing surged, and researchers solved a variety of problems. They figured out how to trick cod with artificial light into slowing their sexual maturation. By regulating factors including water quality and nutrition, they overcame a spinal deformity that caused captive juvenile cod to bend into a V shape and die. They figured out how to fool larval cod into eating a cultivatable microorganism called a rotifer in place of zooplankton, cod's natural baby formula. They even figured out how to keep cod from eating one another. "We used to call the big ones Idi Amin," Terje van der Meeren of the Institute of Marine Research told me, comparing the behavior of the larger codlings to that of the infamous Ugandan dictator. But by regulating juvenile food supply, this, too, was overcome. "If I see one with another in the mouth," van der Meeren says, "I double the feeding. Why wait?" Soon after he fed the young cod more, he found that their tendency toward cannibalism disappeared.

By solving these smaller problems, scientists were able to "close the life cycle" on cod, meaning that they could take the fish in large numbers from egg to adulthood with a mortality rate low enough to make industrial production economically feasible. And with the life cycle now closed, they can focus on creating a faster-growing breed that requires less feed per pound of fish and thus is more profitable. Which is why the F0 cod had been brought to the big green tubs in Tromso. The F0 cod come from dozens of subpopulations of "fiord cod" living along the coast and of skrei, or "wandering" cod, which live offshore. Norwegian breeders will select for traits in these fish associated with fast growth. "It's very much agreed on," Kjersti Fjalestad, the Tromso scientist, told me. "We need better growth to get something that is profitable."

Much to the chagrin of American aquaculture scientists, who have never had a real chance to apply their work in their home country, the theory underlying Norwegian fish breeding comes from the United States. In 1937, Jay L. Lush, an Iowa State agriculture professor, wrote "Animal Breeding Plans," a book that for the first time applied the laws of quantitative genetics to animal populations, proving that the rate at which an individual animal acquires body mass could be increased through selective breeding. Over time, he and his successors significantly increased the "food-conversion ratio" — the amount of feed required to produce a given portion of edible body mass. In the course of just a few decades, the food-conversion ratios of cattle, chickens and pigs were all at least doubled, meaning that the same amount of grain could grow twice as much meat.

This achievement deeply impressed Norwegian breeders, and in 1970 the Norwegian government created the Institute of Aquaculture Research, known as Akvaforsk, with the goal of applying Lush's theories to salmon. "We knew from the farm animals that it would work," Trygve Gjederem, one of Akvaforsk's first salmon breeders, told me. "Thirty percent of the variation of growth goes back to the genes." Furthermore, Gjederem and others found that because fish produce exponentially more offspring and reach sexual maturity faster than land animals, the interval of generational improvement was shorter, leading to the rapid creation of a faster-growing breed. These factors helped Norwegians to increase production of salmon from 100 tons to a world-dominating 500,000 tons in just 30 years. It is because of this remarkable success that farmed Atlantic salmon now outnumber wild salmon. And many of the world's farmed salmon, whether living in Norway, Chile or Canada, can trace their heritage back to the F0 generation created by Akvaforsk.

The rise in feed efficiency led to a rapid growth in Norway's major aquaculture companies. And with the global collapse of wild fisheries during that same time period, Norwegian scientists found ready work abroad developing salmon aquaculture programs in Chile, Scotland and Canada. Throughout the 80's and 90's, when salmon farming exploded, companies like Skaarfish, Pan Fish and Marine Harvest enjoyed stock surges that rivaled those of Yahoo. Aslak Berge's "Salmon Fever," a thorough if somewhat strangely translated history of the Norwegian salmon farming boom, reads like a low-rent dot-com tale. "Skaarfish had become the world's largest exporter of Atlantic salmon," Berge writes. "Harald Skaar was now the boy with the golden pants."

But unlike land-based animal improvement, which started during the Great Depression, fish breeding was born in the bright light of environmental activism. This has caused the industry's missteps to receive a great deal of media attention, and today environmentalists claim that Norwegian salmon farms — big, hoop-shaped, open-net cages that in their early days were sometimes moored in the migration pathways of indigenous salmon — have begun to affect the wild fish populations. By interbreeding with wild fish and outcompeting them for food and habitat, selectively bred salmon, environmentalists maintain, are changing the genetic composition of wild populations. This factor, they argue, might be in part responsible for the collapse of wild-salmon stocks taking place around the world. Aquaculturists, of course, have their own contradicting research.

For the old-school Norwegian fish breeders, there is more perplexity at the environmental community than shame for any ill effects. "If you are thinking about livestock, no one would expect us to go into the wood and shoot a cow," says Kjersti Fjalestad. Since we have already selectively bred cattle, sheep and pigs with great success, she argues, why shouldn't we do the same with fish and "utilize this potential of getting better growth?" The result of which will be, plain and simply, "more food to people."

Over the last 10 years, the collapse of wild cod has emerged as the key narrative for ocean conservationists. According to Mark Kurlansky and other cod experts, the story goes something like this: Cod were once the most important food fish in the world. Seemingly inexhaustible, they propelled the development of Spain's oceangoing fleets, formed the basis of colonial America's economy and fed the world's poor for centuries. Humans showed their gratitude by building the largest fishing vessels ever constructed and wiping the animal off the face of most of the earth. Ask the fish-conscious consumer about the state of cod today, and he will very likely respond that wild cod are extinct.

Wild cod are not, however, extinct. Many fisheries scientists say that with proper management, the wild-cod population can be restored. But restoring a collapsed fish population can take decades — more time, perhaps, than the public is willing to wait. "Politicians need to be able to show they're doing something," says George Rose, a Newfoundland-based fisheries scientist who recently had his government financing for wild-cod research slashed. Scientists like Rose see public investment in aquaculture as counterproductive, because it steers money away from restoring wild fisheries. "Basically when you have any money for fish, be it for aquaculture or for wild fisheries," Rose went on to say, "it goes into the same pot. And because of the rise of aquaculture, less and less of it is going to wild fisheries." In countries where fisheries dollars are limited, this could spell disaster for the wild ocean.

But in Norway, a nation that has devoted a major portion of its booming economy to its ocean resources (oil has recently made people very rich), there seems to be enough money for wild and farmed fish alike. The country's obsession with seafood certainly helps. It is not uncommon to find items like whale carpaccio on restaurant menus, and the markets shimmer with extremely fresh fish. A typical fish counter contains many more cures of salmon (laks in Norwegian) than we are likely to see in the States. Cod, speckled and lovely, are featured whole, and occupying a place of honor next to them are the cods' pale yellow livers and veiny roe sacs. Lutefisk, a traditional form of cod cured in lye, is still a popular Christmas item, and rakfisk, fish left in a bucket with salt and sugar to rot for three months and served with sour cream, is also considered a treat.

Moreover, Norwegian cod farmers were different from what I imagined. Salmon farming has indeed become an industry of conglomerates. The very month I was in Norway, Pan Fish, the world's third-largest salmon-farming company, gobbled up its competitor, Marine Harvest, in one big stock purchase. It then promptly turned around and gobbled up Fjord Seafood, the world's fourth-largest salmon producer, making Pan Fish worth about $2.5 billion and the largest fish farmer in the world.

Cod, however, is still in the incubator phase, and the talented cod farmers are very much in it for the thrill of bringing a new species to market. Karl-Petter Myklebust and his wife, Elisabeth, moved to a tiny island to turn a family hobby into a large-scale business. Though their farm is now the most successful in Norway, the couple ran it for years without a profit. Karl-Petter used his student stipend to buy his first codlings, and the two of them subsisted on Elisabeth's salary as a flight attendant for two years. In spite of these sacrifices, they have an infectious enthusiasm for all things cod and are even planning to use cod skins to make belts, shoes and other apparel. A half-serious P.R. idea of theirs is to have Helga Pedersen, the youthful Norwegian minister of fisheries, model a cod-skin bikini. Jorgen Borthen, the head of the Go For Cod! network, has reportedly said that if the minister models a cod-skin bikini, he'll pose in a cod-skin Speedo.

Yet for all the Norwegians' exuberance, their plans for cod can seem rushed and guided by a certain kind of sterile, scientific momentum. Yes, fish are being bred to be more and more efficient so that they will consume less fish as they grow to market size. Fish, however, are already highly efficient. Whereas terrestrial livestock expend significant amounts of energy warming their blood and fighting the force of gravity, fish, because they are coldblooded and float all their lives in a gravity-free environment, have much more energy to devote to acquiring edible body mass. An "unimproved" cod already has a food conversion ratio that is better than the average "improved" cow. But to breed a fish that is more efficient, that will eat less wild fish, risks a different environmental hazard, for selectively bred fish can escape into the open ocean where their interaction with wild fish is not yet entirely understood. Norwegian aquaculture companies, which have invested millions of dollars into preventing escapes, have yet to come up with a foolproof way of keeping aquacultured fish from getting out. Last year, one million salmon escaped from Norwegian salmon farms. And while the head of the Directorate of Fisheries, Jens Christian Holm, said this was "unacceptable" and that in the future they would have to find a way to control fish escapes, the chances of Norway going from a million escapees to zero seems implausible. For cod, the problem could be even worse. Cod, unlike salmon, like to gnaw on their net cages and have been known to chew their way to freedom.

It was concerns like these that prompted me to board a small propeller plane and fly from the western coast of Norway over the steely blue North Sea to the Shetland Islands. For I had read that on that barren former Viking outpost, a Scottish man by the unlikely name of Karol Rzepkowski had figured out a way to grow cod without environmental danger.

If you had a food product you would like to sell to the world, then Karol Rzepkowski might be your salesman. The child of Polish immigrants, Rzepkowski, who is 42, grew up working in his father's delicatessen, one of the first in Scotland. "It was a proper delicatessen," Rzepkowski told me over tea while the wind howled over the treeless heath, "with big barrels of gherkins, properly salted." Rzepkowski and his brother, both fluent in Polish, made their fortunes in Eastern Europe running an import-export business, trading in "everything from used clothes to oil pipelines." After selling out, he and his wife moved to the Caribbean, where Rzepkowski "semi-retired" and ran a diving center. It was around this time that he came across Mark Kurlansky's book.

"'Cod' was the first time that I actually sat up and took notice just what an issue there was with cod in the wild today and how few there are," Rzepkowski said. After leaving the Caribbean and taking a job at Johnson's Sea Farms, a failing salmon-farming operation in the Shetlands, Rzepkowski saw in cod an opportunity to repitch aquaculture to the public at a time when consumers were taking a major interest in the fish.

Today, Rzepkowski's goal is to grow a cod as naturally as possible, and he doesn't want the Norwegian precedent of breeding salmon applied to cod. "I don't think it's a wise idea," he told me shaking his head vigorously, "especially when you're starting off with a new species and a new industry, to launch headfirst into this and start running around trying to create Super Cod. Why? Cod is super anyway. We don't need to turn it into Super Cod."

Under Rzepkowski's management, the cod-farming operation of Johnson's Sea Farm has become a kind of living experiment on the validity of this idea. For unlike the Norwegians, Johnson's is taking cod directly from the wild, spawning them in captivity and replacing the breeding stock with new wild fish on a continuing basis. The theory behind this practice is that if fish do escape into the wild, they will be as close to the natural fish as possible.

In addition to being nonselectively bred, the Johnson's cod are raised in accordance with organic standards. They still eat pellets derived from wild fish, but the fish in the pellets comes from discarded cuts of wild fish that are said to be caught in a sustainable manner. Though he is proud of his practices, Rzepkowski says that the focus of research should be on improving feeds rather than on selective breeding. "At the moment, we're in a halfway house where we're buying scraps of fish that were caught for human consumption," he told me. "But if everybody in the aquaculture industry turns to this school of thought, in the next 10 years there won't be enough scraps of fish to produce that much feed. This industry wants to take over from fishing, so what's the point of feeding them fish continually? What we need to research are alternative forms of food for our fish."

In any case, Johnson's Sea Farms's chances of survival in the open marketplace will be slim unless the business can grow significantly. Much of the fresh cod consumed in Northern Europe are eaten during the three-month period when the wild skrei make their vast inshore migration. In order to find a place for themselves, cod-farming entrepreneurs must find a way to harvest fresh cod year-round. To do that they must try to trick cod into spawning every month so that there will always be a crop of fish reaching market size.

"Those fish over there are in the past, and those over there are in the future," John Walden, a pleasant young man with a hoop earring who was managing Johnson's breeder cod, or "broodstock," told me. The broodstock have been separated into different tanks, each with the light set to the photoperiod that would be typical of each of the year's months. Since cod tune their spawning to the amount of daylight, the staggering of light should make it possible to have at least one group of cod spawning at all times. Employing these methods, Johnson's is hoping to put two million fish in the sea in 2006 and harvest 8,000 tons by 2009 — more than the current harvest of all of Norway's cod farms combined.

To reclaim costs on this endeavor, Johnson's will have to sell its cod at a premium price. But to Rzepkowski, it seems to be as much about the principle of the thing as the economics. "Aquaculture has the potential to apply the best practices with really no adverse affects to the environment," he told me. "You can actually mass-produce a product in an environmentally benign fashion if you just apply some rational thought to it and some reasonable application of science. But no one has actually sat down and said, Well, let's try it."

One way or another, fish will be farmed. China, India and the countries of Southeast Asia are surging ahead, producing more aquacultured animals than the rest of the world combined, with very little attention paid to environmental concerns. Private investment in cod farming in Norway is building, and entrepreneurs are predicting that the harvest of farmed cod, like salmon before it, will begin to grow exponentially in the next few years and surpass the country's wild cod catch by 2020. As acquaculture surges, the central question is starting to change. It is no longer "should" the oceans be farmed. Rather, it is "how." No matter what Norway or the Shetlands do with cod, at least they will have thought about it. At least they have the beginning of a philosophy and the semblance of a plan.

In the United States, though, an informed debate on the sea has yet to emerge. In April I attended the National Offshore Aquaculture Act hearings in Washington. And like so many other confrontations in modern American political life, the debate devolved into a predictable wrangling of partisan positions tangled up in states' interests. Senator Stevens marched in and out of the room flanked by an entourage of pages and gave his "strong" support for the development of American aquaculture before emphasizing the need for an opt-out amendment for his home state and all other coastal states. Since Alaska has the largest wild fishery in the U.S., Stevens's constituents have protested loudly against the expansion of aquaculture into Alaskan waters, and he has accommodated them accordingly. Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, engaged Becky Goldburg, a witness from the nonprofit Environmental Defense, on the dangers fish farming represented to "our children," and when she heard the dread word "PCB" come up, she assured Goldburg that "I want to work with you on this," before scooting out of the room herself. Zach Corrigan of the nonprofit Food and Water Watch sidled up to me after the debate. "There's no way the bill's going to reach the floor this year," he said. And before long the room was empty. More hearings are to come (another one took place just last week), but as of now, the advocates and detractors of American aquaculture are locked in a stalemate.

"The U.S. has a choice," Michael Rubino, the aquaculture program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told me in lamenting the difficulties of getting the offshore aquaculture act through Congress. "We can either allow the development of aquaculture or we can prohibit it and force our commercial fisheries to compete with low-cost overseas aquaculture." As of now, it seems we are taking the latter option. The ocean is a huge resource. Americans own a great deal of it and are stewards over more fish than livestock. But it is doubtful that we have the attention span for it. How would aquaculture affect wild fish? Should we start our own fish-breeding programs or should we follow the organic standards practiced in the Shetlands? Can we come up with a food for fish that won't deplete wild prey fish? We don't quite know. And for now, it looks as if we will be only bit players in the debate. Meanwhile, Norway, Chile, China and the other countries in the world that understand the overwhelming importance of the sea to humankind's future are forging ahead, laying plans for an ocean that will be something other than wild.

Paul Greenberg, who last wrote for the magazine about Chilean sea bass, is at work on a book about seafood and the ocean.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

End Codfish Farming

"He can compress the most words
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