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June 27, 2017

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Rick Moonen helping lead the way on aquaculture to enhance food security

Celebrity chef is on a mission to educate the world about responsible seafood farming and ocean conservation

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Steve Marcus

Chef Rick Moonen poses with an Atlantic salmon at the Supreme Lobster & Seafood Company warehouse in Las Vegas Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Initially opposed to early fish farming operations, Moonen is now a brand ambassador for True North Salmon Company, a farmed salmon brand.

Not far from the Strip, the door of a metal building opens to a dark hallway and moist curtains. The temperature drops from 75 degrees to just under 35, and more than 50 tons of fish from around the world sit covered in thick ice shavings, waiting to be delivered to restaurants throughout the Las Vegas Valley.

Chef Rick Moonen, the founder and owner of RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay, browses the inventory at the Supreme Lobster and Seafood Co. warehouse with longtime friend Larry Manheim, a former chef now working as a salesman at the plant.

Unlike some years ago, when most of Supreme Lobster’s inventory was wild-caught, the warehouse markets 60 percent of its seafood as farmed-raised because chefs like Moonen are demanding it.

Moonen, 60, is recognized by chefs and scholars as a leader in aquaculture fish farming, a growing practice in which fish are raised in controlled environments and harvested for human consumption. Commonly farmed fish include salmon, tilapia, catfish, carp, trout, bream and sea bass.

While most chefs on the Las Vegas Strip use less than 20 percent, if any, aquaculture sea animals on their menu, more than half of Moonen’s 30 seafood appetizers and entrees feature farm-raised fish and crustaceans. Despite worldwide increases in commercial aquaculture fish farming, Moonen said most U.S. restaurants have yet to follow the trend because chefs are reluctant to serve food they don’t see as “natural.”

“If you’re a real chef, you have this belief system that real food comes from nature, and there’s a connectedness with all of that,” Moonen explained. “But at some point, being connected with nature also means working to preserve it.”

Over 48 percent of the world’s seafood is farm-raised, according to a 2013 study from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, up from 4 percent in 1970. A separate 2013 study from the World Bank’s Agricultural and Environmental Services estimates aquaculture will account for over 60 percent of the world’s seafood by 2030.

“You sit down and think, ‘7 billion now, 10 billion by 2060,’” Moonen said, referring to the world’s human population. “It’s not rocket science that we’re going to have some serious issues with food security if we don’t do something.”

That something, Moonen and others believe, is the ongoing development of aquaculture farming, which can be as simple as a family raising catfish in a homemade pond filled with well water or as complex as an international corporation maintaining multiple species in netted-off areas of oceans around the world.

True North, a New Brunswick-based Atlantic Salmon farm with over 85 functioning sites across the eastern United States and Canada, is closer to the latter.

With over 10 million fish spread across about 1,200 netted pens in the Atlantic Ocean, the company’s 2,800 employees spawn broodstock fish in indoor freshwater tanks, replicating the climate of wild salmon, which also spawn in freshwater.

What else is in the pen?

Other organisms, like mussels, kelp and other seaweeds are also farmed inside the pens, providing nutrients and an eco-system for the salmon inside.

When the eggs hatch, the young salmon spend their first year of life in indoor tanks, where they’re fed through a timed feeder before being moved to netted pens in the Atlantic Ocean.

The pens are refilled, and the year-round cycle of life goes on inside of them. Meanwhile, outside of the nets, wild salmon are less abundant than ever.

Near extinction

If there’s one fish that embodies the need for continued aquaculture growth, it’s salmon.

Once among the most plentiful fish in the sea, wild species of Pacific and Atlantic salmon are now on the verge of going extinct, according to U.S. government sources, thanks to overfishing.

Overfishing, the human-involved process of catching wild fish populations faster than they can reproduce, has left 90 percent of the world’s fisheries nearly desolate, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.

The California-based acquarium’s internationally regarded seafood watch list places most of the world’s known fisheries among three categories:

• Fully exploited: Fished beyond near-term recovery

• Overexploited: Overfished but able to recover

• Collapsed: Permanently damaged.

Moonen explained that while fish remain in fisheries that fall under all three categories, “collapsed” fisheries are so desolate that dropping a net in those areas is a waste of time and money.

“There’s not enough fish in the ocean to put gas in your boat and make it worth going out there,” he explained.

Eighteen species of Pacific salmon were listed in a 2009 report from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office as either “threatened” or “endangered,” a figure that remained into 2016, a department spokesman said.

In September 2015, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study determined that four additional Pacific salmon stocks were also “subject to overfishing,” meaning the rate of harvest “may need to be reduced.”

In the Gulf of Maine, the local population of Atlantic salmon also is endangered, according to a 2016 NOAA report.

“If this iconic species goes extinct, the extensive (food) services it once provided to the American people will be lost forever,” the report said of the Gulf of Maine’s salmon.

At least 425 billion pounds of wild salmon were caught in 2011, according to a 2014 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, contributing to more than 5 percent of the world trade market for seafood that year.

Greg Lutz, a professor at Louisiana State University and aquaculture scholar, estimates that the recent extinction scares are the beginning of a worldwide fish shortage.

Though NOAA reports show aquaculture is growing annually by over 3 percent worldwide, Lutz said even fish farming as it’s currently being practiced has a harsh effect on the oceans.

Farmed salmon, for instance, consume one to four pounds of ground anchovies or sardines in pellets per pound of their own mass. Lutz said that’s better than feeding the fish their natural foods — endangered krill and shrimp, which wild salmon eat five pounds of per pound of their own mass. But the current aquaculture model still pulls far too much nutrition from the sea, Lutz said.

To be fully sustainable, salmon must be adapted to plant and vegetable-based diets, like soy and corn, Lutz said.

Another more controversial option to wild catching, genetically modified salmon, soon will be on Americans’ tables.

In November, the AquAdvantage Salmon became the first genetically modified animal to receive FDA approval for commercial production and sale. The fish is an Atlantic salmon with genetic enhancements from the Pacific Chinook “King” salmon and a bottom-dwelling fish called an ocean pout. The AquAdvantage salmon’s engineered DNA allows it to grow year-round instead of only during spring and summer months, when most salmon go through growth.

Known colloquially as “Frankenfish,” the AquAdvantage salmon grows to maturity in almost half the time of a regular Atlantic salmon (18 months as opposed to three years), according to spokesman Dave Conley for Aqua Bounty Technologies, which produces the fish.

The fish, which was first developed in 1989, took over 25 years to gain FDA approval. Although the FDA claimed the fish was “as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon,” in 2010, five years passed before the agency’s official blessing was given.

Amid fears that the fish could escape containment and reproduce with wild populations, and because of consumer concerns over genetically modified animals, the FDA continually delayed the approval process, Conley said, leaving the company nearly bankrupt.

For that reason, AquAdvantage salmon appears to be the only genetically modified fish, for now, in the works. As part of the landmark approval, “Frankenfish” are only allowed to grow in indoor, freshwater tanks, away from the wild.

Cash-strapped and barely surviving in the years leading up to the FDA approval, Aqua Bounty hopes to begin selling its product in U.S. grocery stores by 2017, Conley said.

Lutz believes fish like the AquAdvantage salmon are the future. In the next 30 to 40 years, he said, most if not all seafood would be farmed, genetically modified fish.

“Sooner or later we still come back to this issue: How are we going to make more food with limited resources on the planet?” Lutz said.

Paul Anderson, director of the Sea Grant and Aquaculture Research Institute at the University of Maine, agrees.

With “no guarantee” that endangered salmon and other fish will be replenished anytime soon, Anderson said further advancements in science and aquacultural farming would be needed to help “figure everything out.”

A narrow scope

Besides salmon, RM Seafood’s Moonen orders farm-raised oysters, barramundi and sturgeon among other sea animals from as many as 30 different sources, including Supreme Lobster, filling about 15 of 30 farm-raised seafood appetizers and entrees on his menu.

“Without aquaculture, the wild world cannot satisfy the amount of salmon and other sea animals that the rest of the world wants,” he said. “We have a very narrow scope of what the ocean has to offer as an acceptable dinner product.”

Matt Accarrino, of San Francisco-based SPQR, is another chef working to include sustainable aquaculture items on his menu.

Accarrino, whose restaurant features farmed caviar, abalone, red trout and sturgeon, says he promotes sustainability by ordering from local, responsible farmers.

His main supplier, Sacramento-based Passmore Ranch, drives anywhere from 50 to 75 pounds of farmed sturgeon 110 miles to SPQR’s front door, twice each week. It’s the closest sturgeon farm to the San Francisco Bay area, he said.

“It’s super important that you know your product and know your farmers,” Accarrino said. “Sustainability is a version of consistency, a well-run operation that provides high-quality products.”

Still, for other chefs, like Portland, Maine-based Matt Ginn, 30, of Evo Kitchen + Bar, sustainability can be found not through farmed fish, but by choosing wild species that are both local and sustainable.

With local Gulf of Maine salmon listed as endangered, and others, like cod and haddock, considered overfished, Ginn’s menu instead features more common sea animals, like hake, mackerel and Acadian redfish.

“These fish are equally as good, and for different plates, even better at times,” Ginn said. “I don’t know why some people have this negative stigma, but the fish taste good and they’re healthy.”

While Moonen and four other aquaculture chefs interviewed by The Sunday acknowledged that not all of the seafood on their menus was environmentally sustainable, they all said they hoped their ongoing efforts would result in the preservation of sea animals, and a healthier planet.

But for now, most chefs still use a majority of wild-caught fish on their menus, Moonen said. And as long as chefs can cook wild fish and consumers can eat it without any visible consequences, that trend will be hard to buck, he said.

“It’s not something that will happen overnight,” Moonen said. “That’s for sure.”

What is aquaculture?

What do they eat?

The salmon, which came from the Saint John River in New Brunswick, Canada, are fed chemical- and dye-free pellets, made from fish, animal and plant proteins, as well as fishmeal and fish oil, Andrew Lively of True North said. The pellets are distributed using automatic feeders.

Aquaculture, by definition, is the practice of breeding and raising large populations of fish or plants in various habitats to eventually become food for humans. Habitats include ponds, rivers, lakes and the oceans, and organisms include food fish, sport fish, bait fish, ornamental fish, crustaceans, mollusks, algae, sea vegetables, and fish eggs, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Because almost all of fish-farming operations utilize different methods of spawning, transporting, raising and harvesting and delivering their fish, it can be difficult to know who follows good and bad practices. Below is the step-by-step process of True North Salmon Co., an organization touted by Chef Rick Moonen for its healthy practices and quality fish.

• Step 1: True North Salmon eggs are spawned in 85 farms across Maine and eastern Canada, where they’re collected and incubated in indoor, freshwater pens. Because Atlantic Salmon are native to the area, the farmed Atlantic Salmon eggs are not sterilized. The offspring live in the freshwater pens for the first 12 months of their lives. Pens range in size from 47,100 to 140,000 square feet.

• Step 2: 8,400 salmon per pen are released into netted pens in the Gulf of Maine after their first year of life. They live here for the next 18 to 24 months.

• Step 3: When the fish reach a healthy 10 pounds, they’re placed one-by-one into a water-filled narrow tube and killed instantly with a percussive stun machine, which hits the fish in the head, killing it instantly. Then they’re cleaned and cut. Andrew Lively, True North’s vice president of global marketing said the percussive stun method is the “most humane,” when compared with other methods, such as air or carbon dioxide asphyxiation, because it’s faster and prevents lactic acid from building in the salmon’s meat when the fish becomes uncomfortable or stressed.

• Step 4: Salmon is packed and shipped in refrigerated trucks, and arrive to their target market in about two days. True North salmon is available online for home delivery or at local grocery stores in the eastern United States.

Concerns surrounding farmed fish

So how does aquaculture help our oceans?

Aquaculture fish are considered sustainable because a percentage of their diet comes from pellets and other non-natural sources, meaning they consume less sea organisms than their wild counterparts, which in turn places less stress on their ecosystems, explained Greg Lutz, an aquaculture professor at Louisiana State University. Consuming farmed fish also helps preserve the wild populations of that fish by reducing demand and cutting down on overfishing, Lutz said.

Global aquaculture production hit a record high of more than 198 billion pounds in 2012, including almost 53 million pounds of aquatic plants.

It’s important to know if your fish comes from a responsible company. Some fly-by-night organizations and underground fish farms can cause serious harm. Jimmy Avery, a professor of aquaculture at Mississippi State University, described farms in Asia where fish are treated with carcinogens and antibiotics, leaving residue in the animal’s flesh that also harms the humans that eat them. Other areas of concern include:

• Sea lice and disease: Although naturally occurring, sea lice can grow in large concentrations in farmed pens, spreading to surrounding waters and attacking wild baby salmon as they head from their freshwater spawning grounds out to sea, according to Moonen and the British Columbia-based Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform. Wild fish are also susceptible to diseases from farmed fish, as well as pesticides and antibiotics used in some farms to stop disease from spreading.

• Chemicals: Wild salmon absorb carotenoid from eating krill and shrimp, giving their meat its pink color. But because farmed salmon eat pellets instead, some companies give its fish an artificial pigment to attain the hue consumers expect. This pigment is the same used in fake tanning and sun protection products.

• Escapees: While only 1 percent, or about 1 million farmed fish escape, opponents of aquaculture fear the fish (especially those that are genetically modified) feed “more aggressively,” than wild stocks, according to a 2011 study from Harvard University, and could out-compete native fish for food. There is also a risk of interbreeding, which would weaken the wild’s genetic pool, according to studies from Harvard University and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

• Fish feces: Feces and waste feed can have a “significant” impact on the ocean floor and surrounding ecosystems, the Coastal Alliance said. With anywhere from 250,000 to 2 million fish swimming in the average ocean fish farm pen, the amount of biomass produced equals that of between 125 and 1,000 Indian bull elephants, the organization estimated.

• Nets: Net-cages can also attract natural salmon predators, like seals, sharks, dolphins and sea lions, that, especially on European fish farms, are shot dead, the alliance said. “Several dozens” more get caught in the nets each year and die that way, too.

How does the life of a wild salmon compare?

Wild salmon begin their lives in freshwater streams or rivers, where they hatch and swim downstream toward the ocean. They spend about a year in their freshwater birthplace growing from “alevin” into “smolts.” After about 12 to 18 months, they make their way to the ocean, where they adapt to their saltwater habitats.

After anywhere from one to five years in the ocean for Pacific salmon and one to four years for Atlantic salmon, the wild fish return to their freshwater birthplace, where they breed and lay eggs, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. After spawning, over 95 percent of the adult salmon die, generally within a week, contributing to a nutrient-rich environment for their hatching offspring.

Healthy oceans are important to our existence

One giant filtration system

Oceans absorb 30 to 40 percent of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Too much CO2 makes oceans acidic (and also causes higher ocean temperatures)

If oceans are too acidic, the entire ocean food chain is at risk of collapse. The ocean is unable to absorb CO2 as efficiently — the atmosphere continues to heat at an even faster pace, sea levels rise, food supplies are at risk, and weather becomes even more violent and unpredictable.

Oceans are the foundation of this planet, covering 71 percent of Earth’s surface, yet overfishing and excess carbon dioxide are threatening to break the delicate ecosystem that helps keep the world in balance. Here’s a look at the underwater kingdom and how its demise could affect our lives.

• Species that rely on exoskeletons: Ocean acidification suppresses the immune response of species with exoskeletons, leaving them with partial armor or none at all. Without protection, the organism can eventually die. Those that do survive will be exposed to more bacteria in the water, placing humans at greater risk of shellfish poisoning.

Species that rely on exoskeletons include: corals, sea stars, mussels, crab, lobster, clams, oysters, shrimp and scallops. These species are the first to decline if acidification continues.

• Human seafood consumption: Ocean acidification is threatening marine life from the bottom up, but overfishing is adding stress to an already taxed system from the top down. Americans consumed 4.7 billion of pounds of seafood in 2014 alone; about half was wild caught. If consumption continues at this pace, some species at the top can be pushed to extinction.

What can you do to make a difference?

Our seafood comes from other countries

In 2015, over 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. was imported, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The leading foreign suppliers of seafood products to the U.S. in 2014 were China, Canada, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Chile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

1. Eat responsibly. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch says promoting sustainable seafood is as easy as asking questions. The watch recommends asking the simple question “Do you serve sustainable seafood?” when shopping or eating at restaurants, to promote sustainable seafood practices.

Some grocery stores, like Whole Foods, list a fish’s origin, whether it was farmed or wild-caught, and signify how sustainable the fish is using red, yellow and green stickers.

2. Consume responsibly. Fossil fuels are a major contributor to ocean acidification, but finding small ways to reduce your personal consumption can make a big difference. Carpooling, driving fuel-efficient vehicles and using public transportation are all great examples, as is investing in alternative energy like solar power.

3. Educate yourself. Read, research and explore resources like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app, which provides free, up-to-date information on seafood recommendations. The app uses a color-coded method and searches for local restaurants that serve ocean-friendly seafood. Consumers can also find the information online, at seafoodwatch.org.

Is modifying the gene pool a solution?

While genetically modified plants, like soy and corn, are abundant in Americans’ diets, November’s approval of the AquAdvantage salmon was the first time in U.S. history that a genetically engineered animal was approved for human consumption. The move has been highly controversial.

To make the supersized salmon, known colloquially in the aquaculture community as “Frankenfish,” a growth hormone gene from a Pacific Chinook “King” salmon and a promoter from an ocean pout were added to an Atlantic Salmon’s 40,000 genes, allowing the fish to grow year-round instead of only during spring and summer months.

The added genes make the AquAdvantage salmon grow to maturity in almost half the time of a regular Atlantic Salmon (18 months as opposed to three years), according to spokesman Dave Conley for AquaBounty Technologies, which produces the fish.

AquAdvantage salmon grow at an especially fast rate and also are able to reproduce by just two years of age, while regular salmon normally reproduce between ages three and six years.

But because of their size, the genetically modified fish are slow swimmers, and require three pounds of wild feed per pound of their own growth.

And while Aqua Bounty Technologies claims there are no nutritional deficiencies in their salmon, Chef Rick Moonen was adamant such a fish couldn’t have the same nutritional value as wild caught or unmodified farm-raised fish.

“Something like that isn’t natural, it’s just scary” Moonen said. “Its growth and development is stressed, and the meat won’t be as nutritious.”

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