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Stop carping: Fish farms are the real problem

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The humble Asian carp is causing big trouble in the U.S. Last month, the Supreme Court refused Michigan's request to order the immediate closure of shipping locks near Chicago to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. For decades, the carp have been steadily making their way up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers toward Lake Michigan. In December, Illinois officials dumped poison into a shipping canal--killing tens of thousands of fish--to stop the carp's progress. A single Asian carp was found after the kill.

Instead of so much carping over carp, let's focus on the real problem: fish farms. Asian carp would not now be making such a mess if they hadn't been brought to the U.S. by catfish farmers looking for a cheap way to keep their ponds free of algae. In the early 1990s, flooding caused catfish farm ponds to overflow their banks, and carp escaped into local waterways. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Asian carp saga is important because it illustrates the dangers of fish farming. Now that half of the fish consumed worldwide comes from fish farms, this is something that we should all be concerned about.

Fish escaping is one of the risks. The Canadian group Living Oceans Society estimates that hundreds of thousands of farmed salmon escape every year. Almost all major species of fish that are farmed in Europe--including Atlantic salmon, sea bass, sea bream, Atlantic cod and rainbow trout--have escaped.

These escapees can spread disease and parasites to their wild cousins, and voracious eaters such as Asian carp can starve out native species. Asian carp are now the most abundant fish in some areas of the Mississippi River. And scientists are concerned about what will happen after genetically modified fish (which are more and more popular with the fish-farming industry) escape into the wild.

Many species of farmed fish are carnivorous, and fish are caught in the wild to feed fish on farms. It takes 3 pounds or more of wild ocean fish to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon or sea bass. And it's not like we have that many fish to spare. According to a stunning article in the scientific journal Nature, commercial fishing has reduced populations of large fish by a staggering 90 percent since 1950.

Some fish farmers have even begun feeding fish oil and fish meal to naturally vegetarian fish to make them grow faster.

Densely stocked fish farms also produce tremendous amounts of waste--everything from uneaten, chemical-laden fish feed to fish feces. According to the Norwegian government, the salmon and trout farms in Norway alone produce roughly the same amount of sewage as New York City.

And let's not forget about the fish themselves. Salmon farms are so crowded--with as many as 50,000 individuals in each enclosure--that a 2.5-foot fish spends his or her entire life in a space the size of a bathtub. On trout farms, as many as 27 full-grown fish are crammed into a bathtub-sized space. Fish constantly collide in the crowded conditions, causing painful lacerations and infections.

The U.S. has no regulations to ensure the humane treatment of fish, and slaughter plants almost never make an effort to stun fish before they are killed. Fish's gills are cut, and they are left to bleed to death, convulsing in pain. Smaller fish are sometimes killed by simply draining water away and leaving them to suffocate slowly.

In an effort to combat the Asian carp, some chefs have suggested that we call them "silverfin" and start eating them. But isn't eating fish what got us into trouble in the first place? Commercial fishing has all but emptied our oceans, and fish farms are turning coastal waters into open sewers and spreading invasive species. We'd all be better off if the "catch of the day" was a healthy, sustainable vegan choice instead.

Chris Holbein is the manager of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' (PETA) Special Projects Division, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

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