wild fishGPB reader Aaron C. asks, “Why is farm raised fish bad? I see so much of it at the market. 

Good Q,  Aaron. Here’s the deal…When most people think of fish they think “healthy.” And, yeah fish is an excellent source of lean protein and packed with nutritious omega 3 fatty acids. But depending on where and how your fish is sourced, you might be getting a dose of some not-so healthy stuff as well.

It’s not always easy to break down the labels. The term farm-raised actually sounds appealing – perhaps it evokes images of Americana agriculture – until you find out what it really means.

What does farm raised mean?

Farm raised fish is commercially brought up in tanks, net pens, or other enclosures.  They are often fed corn meal, soy, genetically modified canola oil and even pellets of chicken feces.  Antibiotics, chemicals and added growth hormone may be used to allow for speedier production. Uhhh, nasty.

Tilapia is sometimes referred to as the perfect factory fish as it typically eats pellets made of corn and soy and gains weight rapidly.

Farm raised salmon are fed chemicals to provide a pinkish hue. They’re reportedly administered antibiotics at higher levels than any other livestock , and have seven times the levels of PCB’s  ( polychlorinated biphenyls) as wild salmon. Nutritionally speaking, they often have lower levels of protein, fewer omega 3’s and contain more fats.

How is wild fish raised?

Of course we can’t bash farm raised without taking a look at the alternative – wild fish.

Wild fish (especially salmon) mostly feeds on natural sources like krill – small crustaceans. Free roaming fish have higher levels of omega 3s, and they aren’t crowded into disease-producing pens. They tend to have less fat as well.

Of course nobody’s perfect. Wild fish is often imported, which creates a larger carbon footprint and results a in higher price tag than farm raised varieties. It can also contain higher levels of mercury. The availability of wild fish can be inconsistent because of overfishing. According to marine biologists, if current fishing practices continue, the major fish populations will be extinct by mid-century.

Tips to make the sustainable choice 

Let’s be real here. It’s hard to make food choices in a world where our options aren’t what we want them to be. We can only do so much. I say make an informed choice, and then grub.

  • Read signs and labels at the fish counter, and don’t be afraid to ask when the fish came in. 
  • When purchasing wild seafood, try to choose fish that have been caught using sustainable methods like hook and line fishing, trap fishing, and long-lining rather than trawling. Trawling can be destructive to our oceans.
  • Consider eating lower on the food chain. Smaller fish such as shrimp, mackerel, mussels, sardines and squid contain less mercury.
  • If you have to buy farm-raised, go with an US-sourced fish. The US typically has more stringent farming practices than other countries.
  • If you can eat local, do it! For example, if you’re traveling to Maryland this summer enjoy local crab, and skip the outsourced cod.
  • Shop at Whole Foods? Check out their aquaculture standards.

Take a look at the seafood dirty dozen list for more tips.

Photo credit: National Geographic 

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  • Jonathan

    Good intell… It’s really overwhelming to decipher what is the best choice when faced with the decision between farm raised, wild and what fish has the smallest footprint … Not to mention lowest level of mercury. For my part I will stock with wild as much as possible. Thanks

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