When you make a decision that you would like to enjoy some fresh seafood for dinner, you’ve got some decisions to make. In particular, should you buy wild-caught or farm-raised fish? Many assume that wild caught fish must be a lot better for you because it’s more “natural.” Is this necessarily the case? What about environmental issues, food safety, sustainability, and cost? With this many factors to consider, it is impossible to make a blanket recommendation. Choosing between wild-caught and farm-raised fish depends on what kind of fish you’re buying, as well as where and how it is fished for or farmed.
While fish farming (known as aquaculture) has been in place for centuries, its popularity has exploded in recent years because of the continued high demand for fish.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for overseeing U.S. aquaculture, reports that:
- Aquaculture supplies more than 50 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S.
- About 90 percent of U.S. seafood is imported — half of that is produced by aquaculture
- U.S. aquaculture meets only 5 to 7 percent of U.S. demand for seafood
If we are planning on having seafood for our grandchildren, “farmed fish” needs to be part of our vocabulary.
In order to give our wild fish populations a chance to bounce back while meeting the growing demand, we have to raise fish on farms. One advantage of having aquaculture is that we have year round availability. Wild fish will go though trends based on many variables. Weather, moon phases, changing currents, and politics (to name a few) will all affect the availability of wild fish. Farmed fish will typically not have to endure the same fluctuations in availability and pricing.
Wild fish, for reasons stated above, will have fluctuations in cost on a daily basis. Wild fish will typically be priced a bit higher than farmed, as it is much harder to meet the demand and to stay consistent in quality. Sizing, algae blooms, fishing seasons and spawning cycles will all affect the cost of wild fish.
Farmed fish is typically cheaper as it is done in a more controlled environment. Scientists can predict when fish will be ready for optimal harvest, and can also decide to raise production to meet demand. Cost of farmed fish will typically not fluctuate as much, if at all, when compared to wild fish.
Health and nutrition experts agree that Americans should be increasing their consumption of fish. Fish are high in protein and are low in calories, cholesterol and saturated fat. Most varieties are also excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Omega-3 fatty acids can also promote fetal brain development during pregnancy. These benefits come from fatty fish such as salmon, lake trout, herring, sardines and tuna. Of course, pregnant women should consult their physician to clarify what fish are most beneficial.
The nutritional differences between wild and farmed fish are not as great as you might imagine. Farmed and wild-caught rainbow trout, for example, are almost identical in terms of calories, protein and most nutrients. There are some minor differences: Wild-caught trout have more calcium and iron while farm-raised trout have more vitamin A and selenium. But for the most part, they are nutritionally equivalent. One of the main reasons we eat fish, of course, is that they are a uniquely potent source for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. In this regard, farmed fish often have the advantage. Today’s farmed Atlantic salmon provide an amount of omega-3 fats that are equal to or greater than wild Atlantic salmon, for example.
The color of the flesh is not a reliable guide to omega-3 content, by the way. Atlantic salmon (whether fished or farmed) is a pale orange, while Sockeye is dark red. The coloration in wild salmon is related to their diet of small crustaceans such as tiny shrimp (krill). Some farmed salmon are fed nutrients to give them their color because they are not adhering to a natural diet in natural conditions. While other, higher-end farmed salmon are fed more natural diets and produce their color in a more wholesome fashion. With these high-end salmon, the price will be higher but the product is higher quality and the consumer can be assured the farm is of the highest standards. We at HVS are proud to offer a great selection of high-end farmed salmon options.
When it comes to shellfish, the nutritional differences between farmed and wild are even more subtle. Most shellfish are wild and if they are farmed, they are usually farmed in a wild environment.
Do Farmed Fish Contain More Contaminants?
In 2004, a widely-cited study found the levels of PCBs, a potentially carcinogenic chemical, to be ten times higher in farmed fish than in wild-caught fish. That sounds pretty scary, but the amount of PCBs in the farmed fish was still less than 2% of the amount that would be considered dangerous. The differences may also have been exaggerated. Subsequent studies found PCB levels in farmed fish to be similar to those of wild fish.
The other contaminant that most people worry about with fish is mercury. The fish that present the biggest concern (swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, shark and tuna) are all wild-caught. Bottom feeders will also tend to be higher in mercury. The most common farm-raised fish (catfish, tilapia, and salmon) all have low or very low mercury levels.
What about antibiotics or hormones? Are fish farmers dumping drugs and other chemicals into the ponds to maximize harvests? U.S. regulations prohibit the use of hormones or antibiotics to promote growth in farmed fish. This is not necessarily the case in other countries. Again, it is very important to know where your seafood is coming from.
At Hudson Valley Seafood, we take the necessary actions to be sure we only purchase fish from responsible fisheries.
Are Farmed Fish Genetically Modified?
It is widely believed that farm-raised fish are genetically modified–yet this is not the case. It hasn’t been the case but now it could be depending on the farm. Only beginning in late 2015, did the U.S approve GMO salmon for sale and public consumption. But have confidence that Hudson Valley Seafood does not sell this product nor do we intend to, going forward.
YOU WILL NOT FIND GMO SEAFOOD AT HUDSON VALLEY SEAFOOD.
The industry has concerns about environmental impact and sustainability. However, these are just as likely to apply to wild fish as to farmed fish. Wild caught fish are sometimes harvested using practices that do a lot of collateral damage to the ecosystem and other fish. Aquaculture practices, on the other hand, can pollute the water and threaten local flora and fauna. Once again, it depends a lot on who is doing the fishing and/or farming. Again, we at HVS aim to select our product from the best possible sources.
Here in the U.S., N.O.A.A. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), regulates wild-catch fishing by setting and enforcing standards that protect the marine environment and fish populations. Fish farming operations in the U.S. are also strictly regulated. Any water that is discharged into the environment, for example, must be as clean or cleaner than it was when it came in.
Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere. Farm-raised fish now constitutes 50% of the global food fish supply (and 90% of U.S. consumption), but the U.S. only produces 2.5% of that. What the U.S. does produce is often more expensive than farmed fish imported from areas of the world with regulations that aren’t as stringent.
Should I Buy Farmed Or Wild Seafood?
Unfortunately there is not a clear cut answer to this question. As you can see, there are a lot of factors to weigh in: nutrition, safety, sustainability, traceability (origin) and cost-to name a few. At Hudson Valley Seafood, we strive to educate our customers. Feel free to contact us to ask us questions about specific products, market trends, or any question at all about the seafood industry. That’s why we are here.
Additionally, here are some great resources available to you to help you stay informed and up to date: