Saturday, December 15, 2007

Don't Put That In Your Mouth, Really, Don't

NYT Photo

I'm really lucky. The fishing boats come in less than a mile from my front door so I can get all the seafood I can eat and I know exactly where it came from. You inlanders often aren't so lucky.

If I don't know where it's from, I don't eat it. There's a reason for that as the New York Times explains today.

FUQING, China — Here in southern China, beneath the looming mountains of Fujian Province, lie dozens of enormous ponds filled with murky brown water and teeming with eels, shrimp and tilapia, much of it destined for markets in Japan and the West.

Fuqing is one of the centers of a booming industry that over two decades has transformed this country into the biggest producer and exporter of seafood in the world, and the fastest-growing supplier to the United States.

But that growth is threatened by the two most glaring environmental weaknesses in China: acute water shortages and water supplies contaminated by sewage, industrial waste and agricultural runoff that includes pesticides. The fish farms, in turn, are discharging wastewater that further pollutes the water supply.

Farmers have coped with the toxic waters by mixing illegal veterinary drugs and pesticides into fish feed, which helps keep their stocks alive yet leaves poisonous and carcinogenic residues in seafood, posing health threats to consumers.

Environmental degradation, in other words, has become a food safety problem, and scientists say the long-term risks of consuming contaminated seafood could lead to higher rates of cancer and liver disease and other afflictions.

Environmental problems plaguing seafood would appear to be a bad omen for the industry. But with fish stocks in the oceans steadily declining and global demand for seafood soaring, farmed seafood, or aquaculture, is the future. And no country does more of it than China, which produced about 115 billion pounds of seafood last year.

China produces about 70 percent of the farmed fish in the world, harvested at thousands of giant factory-style farms that extend along the entire eastern seaboard of the country. Farmers mass-produce seafood just offshore, but mostly on land, and in lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs, or in huge rectangular fish ponds dug into the earth.

“There are heavy metals, mercury and flame retardants in fish samples we’ve tested,” said Ming Hung Wong, a professor of biology at Hong Kong Baptist University. “We’ve got to stop the pollutants entering the food system.”

More than half of the rivers in China are too polluted to serve as a source of drinking water. The biggest lakes in the country regularly succumb to harmful algal blooms. Seafood producers are part of the problem, environmental experts say. Enormous aquaculture farms concentrate fish waste, pesticides and veterinary drugs in their ponds and discharge the contaminated water into rivers, streams and coastal areas, often with no treatment.

Here in British Columbia we have a thriving but controversial aquaculture industry producing farmed "Atlantic" salmon. Even we're coming to realize the environmental peril associated with this nonsense. And no, we don't eat that garbage. It's all loaded into trucks and sent east. Folks out here won't eat salmon unless it's wild. Let's just say it tastes better.

But this is the holiday season, a time when we tend to indulge ourselves. Here's a tip. When you go into your fish market and you see all those lovely, huge black striped Tiger Prawns, ask where they're from before you buy. I don't even ask anymore.

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