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A fishy matter

Maneka Gandhi |

Now that the agriculture ministry has announced that it is putting a huge emphasis on commercial fish production, you should know what you will get when you eat those fish. Parasites like sea lice, viruses, heavy metal, chemicals, antibiotic residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are some of the gifts that you get for free when you eat farmed fish.

In a typical aquaculture facility, fish eggs are raised in a hatchery. The young fish are then transferred to inland ponds, or sections of the sea separated from the main body by nets. To increase the production and profits, the density of fish in these enclosures is kept very high – in fact, the owners keep stuffing fish in till they start dying off. 10 per cent death is acceptable. It is only when the die off increases beyond 30 per cent then stocking stops. 

These fish are so crowded that they resemble the chickens in poultries that cannot move their wings and sit huddled on A4 paper sizes of cage till they are killed. A 2.5-foot-long salmon is given four feet of water for its entire life – these fish normally swim hundreds of miles in one day and can even climb small dams. Trout farms are even more crowded – 27 fish in four feet space.

As children get lice in crowded boarding schools, the first problem is that of fish lice. There are 559 kinds of sea lice. These are marine parasites that feed on the mucus, skin tissue, and blood of fish. The adult females produce six to 11 egg strings of 1,000 eggs each. Sea lice move between fish.

In severely crowded conditions, sea lice eat down to the bone of a fish’s face. Lesions appear on the body as the lice eat the scales, and the fish become so ill that they become susceptible to other diseases. The lice remain in the fish even after they are killed. This problem exists in farmed fish all over the world. In 2012, the Canadian grocery chain, Sobey’s, had to pull out all the fish from its shops after sea lice was found in them. In Scotland, government inspections showed farms with a minimum of 44 lice per fish.  Irish “organic” farms showed between 54-71 sea lice per farmed salmon – over five times the Government’s allowed maximum. Imagine what happens in India where there is no checking of farms, and fish are sold on the roadside.

Pus filled boils or furuncles on the human head are caused by a bacterium called staphylococcus aureus. In a severe infection, an individual may get fever, swollen lymph nodes and fatigue. The furunculosis bacterium has also been found in sea lice.

Fish farms deal with this – not by reducing the fish in the pond, but by increasing the toxic pesticides poured into the water. In the last 10 years, use of these poisonous chemicals has gone up ten times. Medicines, given for the control of sea lice, include organophos phates which cause cancer in humans. Dichlorvos was used for many years and replaced by azamethiphos. Both cause mutations. Cypermethrin and Deltamethrin are the two pyrethroids commonly used to control sea lice. In humans these cause difficulty in breathing, tremors, incoordination,rash, lower sperm counts and breast cancer. The main drugs used are Avermectins, including Ivermectin and Emamectin benzoate. Since these are toxic for humans, the fish farm is supposed to stop the drugs 175 days before killing the fish. But who’s counting?
Amoebic gill disease is the main problem in most fish farms. It is a potentially fatal disease caused by the amoeba Neoparamoeba perurans. To bring down the mortality, Levimasole, which is used to deworm cattle (and as an anti-cancer drug in humans), is added to the water at 10 parts per million. Chloramine and Chlorine dioxide are also used. Since the fish are crowded and living in chemical waters, they are now so physically stressed that their bodies develop weakened immune systems and are prone to every kind of infection. They rub against each other and the sides of cages – as do the chickens – damaging their fins and causing infections. Aquaculture operators use strong antibiotics to control disease (For every fish you eat from an inland fish pond, hundreds have died. A normal die off is 20 per cent for fin fish, 40 per cent for shrimp and 50 per cent for molluscs.) 

The most frequent fish infections treated with antibiotics, are skin ulcers, diarrhoea and blood sepsis. The micro-organisms, responsible for these infections, belong to bacterial families that also produce infections in humans.

These antibiotics are given in the feed, baths and as injections. An unlimited amount of oxytetracycline and flumequine is used, and this stays in the body. One study has found up to 578.8 milligrams per kg in trout and sea-bass farms. Shrimp farms in India will probably show even more.

The antibiotics used in aquaculture, either for prophylactic or therapeutic purposes, often accumulate in the tissue of aquatic animals.  These drug residues cause allergies, toxic effects, changes in the intestinal microbial fauna in the fish eater. Residue of chloramphenicol in food consumed by humans can even result in aplastic anaemia, which leads to very serious bone marrow diseases.  Nitrofuran antibiotics are known to cause cancer. 

So, humans get not just bacteria with their fish but they also eat antibiotics, which make them resistant to Tetracycline , trimethoprim, sulfonamide and streptomycin antibiotics which they really need when they fall ill. Salmonella and E.Coli bacteria are the first to become antibiotic resistant, and evidence shows that the bacteria Typhimurium DT104, which is a cause of salmonellosis in humans and animals, originated in fish farms in Asia which use florfenicol extensively.  Antibiotics in farmed fish also cause allergies and poisoning. The use of antibiotic quinolones is unrestricted in aquaculture in countries with growing aquaculture industries, such as India, China and Chile. For example, in Chile, statistics indicate that annually 10–12 metric tons of quinolones are used in human medicine and approximately 100–110 metric tons of these antibiotics are used in aquaculture. 

These broad-spectrum antibiotics have serious side effects associated tendinitis and tendon rupture, causing permanent disability. Other risk factors include patients with kidney, heart and lung transplants, renal failure, rheumatoid arthritis. Nervous system effects include insomnia, restlessness and, rarely, seizure, convulsions, and psychosis. Common side effects include gastrointestinal effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea, as well as headache and insomnia. There are no records of how much is used in India. But you get to eat it when you eat farmed fish.

Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used widely in fish farms. The fertiliser is used to increase the growth of fish food and they remain in the body of the fish. A piscicide is a fish poison used to eliminate a dominant species of fish in a body of water, as the first step in attempting to populate the body of water with a different fish. They are also used to combat parasites. Piscicides, such as rotenone, saponins, TFM, niclosamide and Antimycin A, are widely used in India, specially in shrimp ponds. So is Formalin and malachite green, commonly used as disinfectants. Malachite green has been reported to cause cancer, physical abnormalities and lung collapse.

Fish farming has more than tripled within the past 15 years and 40 per cent of all the fish are now artificially bred. Do you want to risk eating them?
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