Food & Wine Classic: A cinematic pitch from farmers and surfer to promote sustainable aquaculture
Big wave surfer and paddleboarder Jamie Mitchell is riding for sustainable fish farming in the oceans where he has spent his life and found fame.
The Australia-born, Hawaii-based athlete — best known for winning the Molokai Paddle Race 10 times — is aiming to destigmatize farmed fish in the short documentary “Full Circle: Journey of a Waterman.”
“The ocean and nature has given me everything in my life,” he says in the 16-minute film. “It’s been a teacher and given me so many lessons. … It’s time for me to step up to the plate and give a lot more back.”
Mitchell, the filmmakers and fish farmers gave an early screening of “Full Circle” on Friday in Aspen during the Food & Wine Classic. Hosted by cyclist Lance Armstrong at his West End home, the screening was followed by a four-course meal of sustainably farmed salmon, sea bass and char from the farms featured in the film.
“Full Circle” follows Mitchell to an aquaculture operation in Patagonia, Chile, run by the ocean-farmed salmon company Verlasso and one off the coast of Baja, Mexico, operated by striped bass farmer Pacifico. Mitchell paddles around the farms, dons snorkeling gear to go inside the fish pens with schools of salmon and even samples some fish food.
The film is directed by Eric Wolfinger, who has been called “the Annie Leibovitz of food photography” and who brings his sumptuous visual style to this documentary short.
Producer Jennifer Bushman started work on the film three years ago, with the idea of bringing surfers — who have protested aquaculture operations around the globe — into the fold to change the wild-versus-farmed debate.
“If we engaged the surf community in aquaculture and the belief in our water farmers, then we could actually change the tide on how people feel about sustainable aquaculture,” Bushman explained to a small crowd that included Oscar-winning Boulder-based documentary filmmaker Bryan Fogel, Food & Wine magazine editor Hunter Lewis and Aspenites like big mountain skier Chris Davenport and Olympian Chris Klug. “Right now we’re still in a narrative that it is ‘farmed bad’ and ‘wild good.’”
Mitchell has been criticized for vouching for this sustainable version of fish-farming, but believes the tide will turn.
“When you put your ass on the line and your reputation, it’s scary,” said Mitchell, adding that he has two young daughters and wants to preserve oceans and fish populations for them: “I didn’t want them to grow up and say, ‘Hey Dad, what did a salmon taste like or look like?’”
Like there are good and bad ways to farm beef and chicken, the film argues, there’s a right and wrong way to farm fish. If aquaculture is done right, advocates believe, it can feed the world with healthy, tasty fish while also improving ocean health.
Done wrong, fish-farming can decimate fish populations, spread disease and poison oceans. But “Full Circle” argues the new wave of aquaculture practices — largely unexplained in the film — are resource-efficient and are good for ocean ecosystems. (Verlasso has earned an eco-friendly “good alternative” rating from the influential SeafoodWatch group — the first ocean-farmed salmon company to make the list.)
Barton Seaver —the director of the Sustainable Food and Health Initiative at Harvard, chef and popular cookbook author — blames the bad reputation on a lack of education about aquaculture. As opposed to the pastoral connotations of agriculture — the farm with the red barn, haybales and crowing roosters — people are fearful of fish farms they can’t picture. He is on a mission to get the world excited about them.
“We have an incredible opportunity to literally create a food system from scratch,” he told the crowd after the screening.
Seaver believes ocean farms like the ones highlighted in Wolfinger’s film are the last best hope to feed a growing world population.
“The bottom line is we have a lot of people on this planet. We’ve reached the extent of what the land can provide for us,” Seaver said. “We’ve reached that capacity and we have more people coming. So it makes sense that we’re going to look at the 70 percent of the planet that is the ocean.”
Sustainable fish farms, he believes, should be a cornerstone of a new ethic of environmental sustainability.
“There is an ethic that we must do less harm,” Seaver said. “There is also an opportunity to do more good.”
“Full Circle” was released online Saturday on Surfline.com, the popular global surf report and coastal weather website. Surfline executive Robin Walker said Friday that he hopes the film will help get surfers and paddleboarders — some 400,000 of them visit his sites daily, he said — on board for a new aquaculture movement.
The short documentary mentions that Mitchell faced heated protest from surfers on his trip to Chile. But it doesn’t’ show them and it doesn’t afford any screen time to the perspectives of anti-aquaculture activists.
Wolfinger, the director, is hoping to make a feature-length version of “Full Circle” that could make up for some of the shortcomings in the 16-minute version, which he descried as a “pilot” for the feature.
“One thing this film is missing is the explanation of, ‘What is the controversy?’ ‘Why are people upset about this?’” he said.
Armstrong, who led the post-screening discussion on his lawn, suggested such a feature might have an impact on par with a documentary like 2016’s “A Plastic Ocean,” which has led to a better public understanding of plastic pollution.
“People watch it and they’re like, ‘Oh my god!’” Armstrong said. “We can’t just let it go up on Surfline (on Saturday) and say, ‘OK, here’s 16 minutes, check it out.’”
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