Fish breeding often involves use of antibiotics, chemicals which harm human health and alter ecosystem

February 13, 2018

I’ve heard many people suggest that fish is much healthier than red meat and chicken. Non-vegetarians are encouraged to make the move to fish and seafood. Some time ago I published a chart which showed that, calorie for calorie, fish was heavier than meat, and its fat content was higher. Also much higher are the pesticides, PCBs (the most carcinogenic of all chemicals) and human faeces content (as shown by the Indian Institute of Oceanography).

Breeding fish for human consumption, or aquaculture, is a fast-growing industry around the world. In India, fish production has increased by 11-fold.We have become the second largest producer of fish in the world, after China. In 2015-16, an estimated 10.4 million tonne of fish was produced in our country, making up about 6.4 percent of the world’s total production. India is the highest exporter of fish exports and our exports of fish and related products are increasing at over 14 percent annually, twice the pace of other countries.

Fish farms, encouraged by the government‘s policy of Blue Revolution, are popping up in all parts of the country, breeding both freshwater and saltwater fish. As the oceans and rivers lose their fish, 40 percent of commercial fish now comes from aquaculture.

How do these farms operate? There are no vets, no training systems to the villages that change their community ponds to privately managed fish farms. The villager, who is given the pond, is never educated about the anatomy of the fish, what it feeds on in the wild and what it can digest, its diseases, sanitation of the pond, maximum stocking numbers etc. All that is desired from him is that he grows the maximum number of fish and the largest ones quickly. The result is that fish growers feed the animals poorly (many of them feed them human faeces only) and rely on unnatural methods, such as chemically formulated feeds, antifungals, agrochemicals and antibiotics. Formalin and malachite green are chemicals used as disinfectants in the ponds. They are known to be toxic, but no one has banned them in India.

Fish are living beings and require the same thing as we do to stay well: wholesome, natural, pesticide-free, non-poisonous food and water. In the absence of that, they fall ill. Antibiotic use has increased substantially in fish farms and hatcheries to overcome the sanitary shortcomings and the resultant bacterial infections.

Fish are usually bred in filthy tanks or net cages. The overcrowding, and the inability to recognise and isolate diseased fish (after all there are NO fish vets in our country), encourages the quick spread of disease. In order to control and prevent this, prophylactic antibiotics are administered either by treating the water, or mixing it in the food, or giving them injections. All scientific reviews across the world have shown that this leads to elevated levels of antibiotic residues, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, persistent organic pollutants, metals, parasites and virus in aqua-cultured fish and shellfish.

Many antibiotics administered to the fish stay in their systems till they are killed. Some antibiotics are non-biodegradable and remain in the water for months. When fish die, they are mashed and thrown into the water to feed other fish. Unconsumed food and fish faeces fall to the bottom of the water body and leach into the ground. Commercial ponds for fish are almost never drained or cleaned. When one batch of fish is taken out and killed, the antibiotics in the water affect the next batch of fish in the same tanks.

Two things result: the fish become immune to particular antibiotics and so more and more intense combinations have to be tried out on them to keep them alive. These transfer through their meat to the eater. But the vegetarian falls prey as well. The water leaches onto the land that grows vegetables and grains. Those coastal aquaculture farms in Odisha send the contaminated water out into the sea. The antibiotics are washed out to distant places and eaten by other fish including shellfish. So, even people selling wild fish to consumers are selling contaminated dead bodies.

Many antibiotics used to treat fish are also used for the treatment of human diseases. Oxytetracycline, sulfamerazin, flumequine, sarafloxacin, erythromycin and ormethoprim, for example, are used to treat bacterial infections, skin ulcers, diarrhoea, septicaemia, kidney disease etc. in salmon, catfish, trout and other commercially-raised fish. In regulated countries, like Italy, investigations show that trout and seabass have concentrations of antibiotics between 250 to 600 milligrams per kg. In India, which is entirely unregulated, the concentrations will be much higher.

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