A Fishy Debate: Farmed vs. Wild Seafood

This blog post is by Erica Melling, who has joined Fooducate as a summer intern.

Farmed. In recent years, it has become the “F” word of the seafood industry.

However, the issue is more complicated than you may realize and wild-caught fish may not always be the healthier, more sustainable choice. Gasp!

I admit I was skeptical at first too, but hear me out:

  • Confusing Message #1: Eat at least two servings of fish per week for a healthy heart, but don’t eat too much because it may contain toxic chemicals.
  • Confusing Message #2: Eat only wild-caught fish because its more sustainable, but our oceans can’t keep up with rising demands and overfishing is endangering fish species everywhere.

These are just a couple of the overwhelming messages thrown out there that leave us dumbfounded at the meat and fish counter, staring blankly at our choices. The worker behind the counter asks, “Can I help you with anything?” Inside we are screaming, “YES! Help me figure out what the heart-healthy AND environmentally AND non-toxic fish I am supposed to be buying?!” But we freeze and say, “Uh…One pound of uh…chicken.”

Fear not Fooducate readers! We hear your cries and are here to help!

Fresh fish are usually store-packaged and don’t have a food label for you to conveniently scan. So here are some tips to empower you to make the best choice. The factors that must be considered are:

  • Levels of toxic compounds in the fish: PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), methylmercury, and other toxins are present in all fish to some degree, but the key is minimizing levels. Factors that increase these compounds include the amount of pollution in the fish’s habitat and the type of feed used in fish farming. Fish feed/oils that favor rapid growth are often high in these compounds.
  • Sustainability: 75% of the world’s oceans are overfished causing a 90% decline in predatory fish populations since the preindustrial fishing era. This calls for alternative sources like fish farming, but questionable practices may promote disease, heavy antibiotic use, and parasite infestations–causing more harm than help to wild fish populations.
  • Omega-3 content: the token selling point of fish is the higher proportion of unsaturated fat, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, compared to other protein foods like beef or chicken. Omega-3s are linked to increased immunity and reduced risk of chronic diseases like cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Read more about omega-3s in food products here.


What to do at the supermarket:

Thankfully, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has teamed up with health experts from the Harvard School of Public Health and Environmental Defense Fund to dive into these muddy waters for us. They have compiled a “Best of the Best” list of fish species that are sustainable, low in environmental contaminants and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. FINALLY!

Best Choices:

  • Albacore Tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia)
  • Freshwater Coho Salmon (farmed in tank systems, from the U.S.)
  • Oysters (farmed)
  • Pacific Sardines (wild-caught)
  • Rainbow Trout (farmed)
  • Salmon (wild-caught, from Alaska)

So is wild or farmed seafood better? There is no deFINite answer (sorry, I just couldn’t resist the cheesy pun). It depends on a wide range of factors from the quality of fish farming practices, the type of fish, and the waters it comes from. Stick to the list above and you can enjoy you seafood with a clear conscience and a healthy heart.

Want to learn more about these issues briefly mentioned above?

Erica Melling is graduating this Spring from Cal Poly University and will be attending the University of Houston Dietetic Internship in the Fall to become a Registered Dietitian. Passionate about the potential that food choices have to help reduce the risk of nearly every chronic disease, her career aspiration is to develop consumer tools and technology that empower the public to select healthier options in their day-to-day lives.

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  • Dez

    …I would argue not to eat farmed salmon. It has the same problems as feedlot cattle, only worse because we feed them corn. These are predatory fish; they’re not supposed to eat corn. Best to find species that are given what they’re supposed to eat.

    • Irene Tilkian

      I totally agree with you. I will add as well, that while wild salmon is getting its natural bright red/orangee colour from the prey they eat (i.e eating shrimps), farmed salmon is getting its colour from a color palette (an artifical colour dye). Without the added dye, their color will be pale grey.
      So decide by yourself which one is better for you.

  • http://twitter.com/lauren_015 Lauren Smith

    Hurray! So thankful to see tuna make the list. I love my tuna.

  • Brooke

    I would like to point out that the “Seafood Watch” app is available on Android – how thoughtful of them.

  • Eee

    Weak article.

  • Sarah W.

    I just add ground flaxseed to my morning oatmeal (or smoothie, yogurt, etc.). An easier, cheaper way to get omega-3s.

    • Erica Melling

      Just remember that the type of omega-3s in flaxseed is ALA which is not very effeciently converted to DHA and EPA (estimates are about 5-10% conversion rate), which are the types of omega-3s shown to have the greatest health benefits.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=701811355 Katie Tasky

    I love living in Alaska, the fish here is great, and a reasonable price. People practically give it away in the summer. Fresh salmon is one of my favorite summer foods.
    I have such a great opportunity to get the fish that Alaska supplies that I rarely go and get any from outside. Halibut, Crab, and Salmon are all some of the most flavorful fresh fish and seafood you can get, and at the right time, it’s very reasonably priced here. Though I’m sure I’m missing out on some of the other goodies other areas have, like FRESH FRUIT D;

    • SarahAlli

      I don’t know where you live, but if you live anywhere in Southern-ish Alaska, look into Full Circle Farms. They’ll ship (by AIR, not barge) organic veggies to you- in the summer they come from Washington, not sure where they come from in the winter. It’s a good alternative if you can’t get good stuff at the grocery store. I seem to always have issues finding good green beans.

      Right on about the fish. Given the choice between chocolate and grilled salmon fresh out of the gulf of Alaska… I’d pick the salmon every time.

  • Joaquim Conde

    Definitely wild

    Conventional fish farming is no different from conventional chicken farming.
    High population density means antibiotics to control disease.
    Plus whatever the grower decides to add to the water.

    Salt water fish farming uses water from the ocean. This means that the toxins farmed fish are exposed to are the same that wild fish are. Yes some species, the ones that live long are prone to accumulate more toxins. It’s up to us to fish fooducate ourselves.

  • Wendy R

    I think Katie should share those “giveaways” with us inlanders ! I’m drooling ;>
    More dilemmas…
    Is the fat content/Omega 3s as high in the cold water farmed sources compared to their counterparts in the cold waters?
    Country of origin labeling isn’t going to help us identify sources for upcoming fish from waters near the Japan tragedy. The additional contamination/radiation for how long or to what extent of contamination

  • Guest

    Is anyone else worried about the effect the oil spill and radiation drainage is having on the toxicity of our fish?

    • Mr. Bill

      No, the oil seems to have been eaten by lovely bacteria (nom nom). Besides, there are other sources of seafood. As for radiation, the ocean is very any radiation will quickly be diluted.
      Fun fact: the ocean has naturally occurring radioactive particle in it. Some algae select for and concentrate these particles. A pit of dried algae can be radioactive. This occurs in Saudi Arabia with pits of dried algae cleaned from seawater pipelines (used to produce oil).

    • Charlotte

      Not I. I grew up in Norway after Chernobyl, and the aftermath of that was noticeable on our nightly news, but not really on how we lived our lives. And well all seemed to grow up just fine. The only ones that should worry about radiation are the Japanese and the countries near Japan. The rest of us will get some fall-out, but nothing major that will cause major health risks, at least compared to the poor Japanese… :o (

      Plus, I just ate a radioactive banana. Yepp, phosphorus in the banana makes it slightly radioactive.

  • http://dalailina.wordpress.com Dalai Lina

    This is a GREAT article. I have had the exact thoughts going through my head and tend to avoid fish so I don’t have to deal with it! Thank you!

  • Jim Cooper

    Very nice work,

  • Tomandjen

    Very informative

  • Carolynoneil

    The more you know, the more you can eat! The discussion is not as simple as “wild vs. farmed.” Remember fish farmers are farmers too and some do a better job than others, so let’s get educated and support the fish farmers who use the healthiest best practices taste, nutrition and health of the planet.
    “Wild vs. Farmed?” That’s like saying that foraging for wild mushrooms is healthier than eating mushrooms cultivated carefully on a farm. I’ve just returned from a trip to Norway to check out the fish farms there. Salmon, for instance, are raised in pens which are like little fields in the clean, cold fjords. Fish feed is carefully made and monitored by “fish nutritionists” who have PhD’s in fish nutrition and health. The composition of the feed, like the composition of a healthy compost for plants, is a combo of fish meal ( not from the species of fish its feeding!), grains and plants.
    Did you know that farm raised salmon has a higher concentration of Omega 3 fats compared to wild salmon? As far as health conditions in the fish farms….that depends on who and where the farmers are. I believe that fish farming practices in Asia are NOT to be trusted, yet. Crowded conditions, often small family run and un-regulated.
    But in Norway..the concentration of fish to water is mandated to be 2 1/2% fish to 97 1/2% water. So there’s plenty of room for the fish to swim, jump, grow and breathe. The oxygen level of the water is monitored 24/7. Antibiotics are not used. And it’s interesting to note that as antibiotic use in fish farming has plummeted over the past decade, fish health and production has increased. There are menaces to guard against in the water, however. The same menances that threaten wild salmon, including one called a sea louse-which attaches to the salmon’s skin, which is their protective shield, so it zaps energy and life from the salmon. Norwegian fish farmers are using “integrated pest management” to control these lice by introducing rast fish which eat the lice and clean off the salmon- like the little fish that clean your home aquarium. Natural solution!
    SO, my salmon for health and taste- I say Norway or No Way!
    The discussion is a smart one and deserves smarter, more specific information on fish farming. The more you know, the more you can eat. And now you know to ask for farmed raised Norwegian fish. Right now in the US, however, the labeling might say “Atlantic Salmon”, so have to ask if it’s from Norway. Takk!

  • http://www.oceantacklestore.co.uk/home.php www.oceantacklestore.co.uk

    I dont mind either as long as the areas are properly conserved and looked after.