Saturday, 28 April 2018

Where Does Basa Come From? The confronting secret of Vietnamese fish farms.

Have you ever eaten basa fish? I have, but never again. Basa is a fish farmed in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Once upon a time if I heard the phrase 'fish farm' it would conjure up images of crystal clear ocean enclosures with a never ending supply of fresh, clean seawater where the fish were living more or less in their natural environment. Not any more! That was before we visited a Vietnamese fish farm.




Life on the Mekong


Our visit to a basa farm began with a sampan ride along the waterways of the Mekong Delta.  The grey river water was like an old man gasping for air in his last days of life. Its sole purpose seemed to be to provide a repository for all the detritus created by the thousands of people living along the riverbanks. Men and boys bathed in it, women washed clothes in it and the river folk deposited buckets of nameless waste in it.  It was not a pretty sight. I don't even want to think about what was in those buckets. Could anything survive in such an environment? Apparently the answer is yes. Living amidst all this filth are the fish-farm basa. Worse yet, the fish pens are not even in open enclosures. As hard as it is to image, they are beneath the fisher-folk's houses, like giant, living aquatic foundations -  overcrowded, putrid and cut off from any sliver of direct sunlight.







Mekong River Fish Farms


A house constructed on top of a fish farm.

A fish farm hides beneath this building.


Watching a feeding frenzy


If the sight of river dwellers washing their clothes and dumping their rubbish in the Mekong wasn't enough to stop me ever eating basa again, seeing a demonstration of how the fish are fed finished me off completely. 

We stepped from the sampan into a large room with a wooden floor. The building seemed to be more shop than house with our host clearly doing a side-line in selling cheap souvenirs to fish-farm tourists. Each of the floorboards had a gap of several centimetres between it and the next board, through which we could see the river. After lifting a hatch to reveal the fish pen the farmer threw in a handful of pellets.  Nothing happened. Apparently the fish weren't hungry so he moved to another opening in the floor. There was no hatch this time, only a metal grate. The instant the pellets hit the water there was a frenzy of flashing silver bodies churning the surface and fighting for food. It reminded me of a documentary I once saw on flesh eating piranha fish in South America attacking their prey. To say the fish seemed overcrowded in their murky, airless hole is an understatement. It was hard to believe that any living thing could survive, let along be healthy enough for human consumption, in such conditions.

There are lots of horror stories on the internet about what fish farm fish are fed on. I will leave that to your imagination but for me just knowing their food consists in part of the ground up remains of other fish caught along the Mekong makes the idea of eating basa even less palatable. The piece de resistance however was the discovery that basa is a species of bottom dwelling catfish. The idea of eating a fish which lives in the polluted, grey Mekong River water is bad enough but the idea of eating a fish which lives in the muddy bottom of the polluted, grey Mekong River is just too much.

Floorboards covering the fish farm pen.

Fish food pellets. You can see how ghastly the water looks.

I took this just as the pellets hit the water.

Moments after the pellets hit the water. You can just see the fish as they jostle for food.

My tip

Don't let me put you off your seafood dinner. All I can say is, if you are about to tuck into a fillet of basa - good luck!


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24 comments:

  1. I’m not much of a meat eater but by the end of our SE Asia trip I was a strict vegetarian. Your experience here is similar to many of ours.

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    1. I know what you mean about becoming a vegetarian. it is very tempting.

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  2. Boy, that was hard to read! I don't eat fish, but that certainly doesn't make me want to try either! I really had a hard time not to regurgitate about what goes in the water! Eck! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!
    (www.caliglobetrotter.com)

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    1. My husband loves fish so I try to put it on the menu a couple of times a week. He used to eat basa although I have always been cautious of it. It is just too cheap.

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  3. This is such an eye opener, Lyn! I suspected for a while what farmed fish is, but you are confirming my suspicions. We only buy the wild fish if we can get our hands on it. What worries me is that if we go to restaurants, we have no way of checking what we are being served. Especially outside the USA. Thanks for sharing this post.

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    1. I have read that things like fish and chips and frozen fish fillets are often made from basa. It is always tricky knowing what you are eating when you don't cook it yourself - even then it can be a challenge.

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  4. I stopped eating Basa a little while back, because my Mum told me to, but wasn't quite sure why...this article has given A LOT more clarity on that and has ensured I never will again! Thanks for sharing!

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  5. I've never eaten basa fish but being from South East Asia, unfortunately, I've seen many of such fish farms :-( It's disgusting really...I believe these fish farms are the main source of income for those living on the houseboats? Don't think I want to eat basa fish in Vietnam and if I do come across a fish dish, I'd prefer not to ask what kind of fish! #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. I like your head-in-the-sand approach to not asking what kind of fish is in a dish. I definitely do that with fish and chips.

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  6. Thank you very much for this sharing. I have not eaten basa and will never. I wonder why they do not raise them in cleaner, healthier river farms? And why they even show off this ghastly state?

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    1. Vietnam is crowded and poor and the Mekong Delta is polluted. If you live with something your whole life I don't think you realise how different it is to richer countries.

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  7. Yikes, they sell basa and other seafood from the Mekong area and it is the cheapest seafood on the shelves and I never buy it because I know how yucky the conditions are and you just proved it to me. Gross is not the right word to say, but people here buy it because prices are so cheap.

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    1. Hubby used to buy basa for just that reason until I asked (begged) him to stop and just pay a bit more. He loves fish.

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  8. This is disturbing. I avoid fish from fish farms in general, although as Anda says, it is sometimes hard to know where the fish you're eating actually comes from or is labelled correctly. I will certainly avoid all basa.

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    1. I think it is almost impossible to always know where fish comes from. Someone, on twitter I think, told me in reply to this post that tilapia comes from fish farms too. David often eats tilapia when we are in the U.S. As well as the basa at the fish farm we visited there were two other species in the same pens but I don't remember their names. In any event sometimes the same fish has more than one name.

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  9. What an eyeopening article. I need to just become a vegetarian and be done with it. Every time I read about how many animals are raised it saddens me.

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    1. I know what you mean. Perhaps becoming a vegetarian is the only solution. I am not sure my 25 year old son (still lives at home) would like it much though - lol!

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  10. Pretty grim stuff Lyn. SE Asia can be rough on animals. I go veggie 99.99% of the time in SE Asia, save higher end Western style haunts where I know the food is legit. Otherwise you can be really gambling as far as what you're eating and how it was raised.

    Ryan

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    1. I suspect you even take a chance with some dishes in the higher end restaurants. Who is to say where that fish in their bespoke fish and chips comes from?

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  11. What's interesting is that American fish farmers have been taking tours of Vietnamese farms because they're seen as healthier (believe it or not!) and more sustainable. At least the fish are living in moving water - as opposed to tanks or ponds with even less aeration and no place for sediment and pollution to go. Always best to steer clear of farm raised fish, regardless of origin.

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    1. That's it - I am never eating fish in the U.S again. I think that leaves absolutely nothing which might be even remotely healthy in U.S chain restaurants.

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  12. Never heard of basa and its very humble roots:-) Thanks for sharing!

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    1. It is common in fish shops in Sydney. Someone told me that tilapia, which we have seen in the U.S a lot, is farmed the same way.

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