I made a decision not to eat meat about 13 years ago, but I’m not preachy about it and rarely discuss it outside of a passing “I’m a vegetarian.” Back when I first went veggie, my main justification was that factory farming relied on animal cruelty. Since then my decision has been bolstered by many other environmental, animal, and health justifications. But what about fish? Did they fall into the “animal” category and get the same dinnertime pardon? In the beginning, I lumped fish with other animals and chose not to eat them, but my consideration for them was somewhat less than for furry creatures, somewhere in the same ballpark as spiders. And I ignorantly thought, until relatively recently, that most fish consumed by people (in the U.S., and globally) were caught in the ocean or in a stream where they had been living their days with wild abandon, so I was less concerned with the farming of fish and other sea life. That is until this summer.
My internship over the summer was full of surprises, starting on the first day. I worked for the local solar installer SunDog Solar in Chatham, NY. My plans were to learn about the solar industry from the perspective of a small business, and also to learn about the differences between promoting solar in New York compared to the much sunnier Nevada whence I came. On Day One we sort of chucked all that out the window when I selected from the list of projects to do research on the feasibility of running a recirculating indoor shrimp and lettuce farm at the Chatham facility. The owner of the business, Jody, has an abandoned 100,000 square foot warehouse and ideas to turn it into a center of sustainable living. The facility is gearing up to open a brewery and restaurant on site and Jody wanted to incorporate the shrimp farm by using waste heat from the brewery to heat the water as well as running a vermicomposting (worm composting) facility to make shrimp food from the brewery and restaurant waste. The shrimp and lettuce would be consumed by the patrons of the restaurant. It’s an ambitious idea. My task was to research it and report back to Jody.
Three months later, I delivered a large report of findings on industry standards, even including background information since no one at the current business has experience in the shrimp/fish/hydroponics/aquaponics business (a copy of this report is filed with BCEP). I learned a lot of interesting things while doing research: I found that freshwater shrimp will cannibalize each other if confined in close quarters (so I switched to researching tilapia); the regulations for this sort of farm are fragmented, vary by state, and are administered by many state and federal agencies; and some U.S. Government websites look like a joke or like they haven’t been updated since 2000 (see the Joint Subcommittee for Aquaculture page http://aquanic.org/jsa/). The regulatory research for my report probably took the longest, because I had to read laws and regulations carefully in full or get in touch with a specific person in a specific agency to determine where this fairly new type of aquaponics system fits in at the federal or state level. But the day of researching slaughter methods was probably the least palatable to me, for reasons mentioned above.
Near the end of my internship, the small group of SunDog employees was gathered in the break room having lunch. Jody was sitting next to me as he popped open a can of sardines. I guess I made a face, perhaps because I’m not a fan of fish smells, perhaps because I think sardines look gross (full disclosure: I’ve never actually eaten one), but it wasn’t because I was disgusted by the concept of a person eating a fish. I think Jody took it as the latter, as he later told me that until then he had no idea that the aquaponics project was in direct conflict with my personal beliefs. While I agree with him on certain grounds, things are never just black and white. Do I think aquaponics has merit from a sustainability standpoint? Definitely. Does it address many, if not all, of the environmental issues of ocean fishing? Yes. Could it be profitable? Probably, but no one’s done it in this way on a commercial scale yet (and supposedly profitable farms must raise fish in highly concentrated tanks, something which I guess I have a problem with). Would I run the fish farm? No. Would I eat the fish? Definitely not. Is it a good idea for SunDog? It depends on so many things.
This research opportunity did more for me than just allow me to look into the cool and growing fields of sustainable aquaculture and hydroponics; it reminded me that ethical dilemmas frequently occur at work, especially for environmental professionals – I’ve seen dilemmas at all of my past jobs as well. I think it’s important for everyone to 1) to recognize that these dilemmas are a normal part of the work process and will crop up in almost any job and 2) practice handling such situations on smaller issues to better understand one’s motivations and limits. My active decision this time – do the research to the best of my ability, write a comprehensive report with information on cutting-edge best practices, and hope that whatever happens to SunDog and to the currently overtaxed global fisheries and to all the little to-be-plated fishes is the best it can be. There’s no silver bullet in this case (unless you want to be a vegetarian).