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

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.

Representational image. Getty images

Representational image. Getty images

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.

Till today, nowhere in the world and least of all in India are there any standard disease prevention and treatment regulations for aquaculture. Since there are no antibiotics specifically designed for fish, human antibiotics are used. In the United States, it is estimated that 150 pounds of antibiotics are put into every acre of pond. Norway uses natural structures like fjords for salmon farming and from there the antibiotics spread into the ocean.

When humans eat antibiotically infested meat, then their bodies become resistant to these medicines. A team of British and Irish scientists has documented that fish pathogens, such as Aeromonas, can transmit their antibiotic resistance to human pathogens such as E.coli. E.coli and salmonella bacteria are now resistant to trimethoprim, sulphonamide and streptomycin—all previous front-runners in combating these two infections that take an increasing number of human lives every year—and the reason is fish . Scientists have demonstrated that the bacterium that was responsible for the Latin American epidemic of cholera in 1992 was antibiotic resistant as a result of heavy use in the Ecuadorian shrimp industry.

The use of quinolones has been restricted for use in aquaculture-industrialised countries because they are vital for human infections. They are not biodegradable and remain in the ground for years. However, quinolone use is totally unrestricted in India, China and Chile. For example, in Chile, 10-12 metric tonnes of quinolones are used for humans and 110 tonnes are used in aquaculture annually. In China and India, quinolone resistance has emerged as an important public health problem.

Apart from building drug resistance, the consumption of antibiotics has other serious repercussions on humans. It alters the flora in our bodies, creating the risk of bacterial infections. (In layman's terms, when you take antibiotics over a period of time, do you not notice the change in faeces? This shows that the flora in your intestines has changed and digestion is different). Humans become vulnerable to allergies. These remain undiagnosed because you are unaware of the antibiotics that you have been eating. Over a period these make the body vulnerable to major diseases like cancer. For example, the residue of chloramphenicol in food can result in aplastic anaemia, leading to serious bone marrow diseases. Nitrofuran antibiotics are known to cause cancer.

We are all vulnerable to the fish farm antibiotic epidemic that is being inflicted on us in the name of money. You will eat them directly through fish or fish products. You will drink them in the water that comes from underground sources that have been contaminated with discarded water from the fish ponds. You could irrigate your crops with water not knowing that it has been the recipient of antibiotic rich fish water. This water may also be consumed by other animal species, the meat or milk of which humans then consume. Antibiotics affect all the flora and fauna around the fish farms and alter the ecosystem. Nobody is safe anymore. First, you eat the fish. Then it eats you.

The World Wildlife Fund Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue commissioned a report on chemical use in salmon farming across the world. The committee of expert scientists found “…this use of large-scale antibiotics can only be explained by excessive prophylactic (preventive) use. This is, in general, the result of shortcomings in rearing methods and hygienic conditions that favour animal stress, opportunistic infections and their dissemination.”

It is time that we understand what we are doing in the name of boosting the economy. There is no point making money if most of it is going to create hospitals to treat "untreatable" disease.
If we are going to continue with this unsustainable blue revolution (the Green revolution has been an unqualified disaster. No pests were eliminated and the ground is now contaminated beyond repair. Each farmer is in debt due to his utter dependence on pesticide, fertiliser and huge amounts of water) we need to get the fundamentals right.

Instead of trying to reach goals of More, Bigger, Faster, we need to put our attention on how to make sanitary conditions better, stop the overcrowding, create fish veterinarians and inspectors, ban antibiotics. Until this is done, stop eating fish, and the next time you hear someone rave about how fish is healthy, share this with them.

To join the animal welfare movement contact,

Updated Date: Feb 12, 2018 16:03 PM

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