Charting a Healthy Future for Fish Farms

Disruptions in marine ecosystems can have wide-ranging, destructive consequences. But if you eat seafood, there's a way you can help.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

When ecosystems collapse, it can happen without warning. In fish farms, outbreaks of infectious disease can be sudden and dramatic. The farm environment creates conditions that can be conducive to swift changes in infectious diseases that increase their severity and allow them to spread more quickly. The effects can even spill over into the wild marine ecosystems that fish farms aim to protect.

Martin Krkosek, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto, recognizes these dangers, but he also believes that fish farms are the future of the seafood industry.

The potential for widespread transmission of diseases is profound, says Krkosek. It can span across oceans, affecting wild fish as well as fisheries worldwide. For instance, pacific salmon are highly migratory. They can carry diseases over long distances, where interactions with other fish in the ocean cause a chain reaction.

“Some of these global issues are so large that they can feel overwhelming and our approach is to break that down into digestible pieces that you can analyze,” says Krkosek.

Krkosek wants to understand ecosystem collapses to make early prediction, protection, and action possible. His research uses a combination of field work and mathematical models to probe complex relationships. Several of his results have already been translated into on-the-ground changes in management and policy that have helped rebuild salmon stocks and control disease.

However, he also believes that the public plays an important role. Informed consumers can influence the industry by choosing to buy fish that is produced sustainably, while avoiding fish that is overexploited or causing disease. Better supermarket labeling could go a long way towards helping consumers make these choices.

Indeed, protecting marine ecosystems is a complex task involving many players. This improved understanding of the elements that keep fish healthy is an important step in maintaining ocean life worldwide.