Fishing for Answers: Wild-Caught or Farm-Raised Fish — Which Is Better?
Do you eat fish? Maybe you enjoy sushi, poke, shrimp or grilled salmon. Do you ask where your fish came from when you buy it at a grocery store, fish market or restaurant?
There are two primary methods of getting fish on your plate: farming them or catching them in the wild. But which is better for you and for the planet?
You may have heard that fish farms are dirty and crowded and that farmed fish are fed an unnatural diet loaded with chemical contaminants and antibiotics in an attempt to ward off disease.
Or perhaps you've heard that many modern commercial fishing methods are rapidly depleting wild fish in the ocean by trawling with large nets that inadvertently catch or kill bycatch (i.e. nontarget species like other fish, dolphins, whales, sea lions, marine turtles and seabirds). According to some estimates, global bycatch may amount to 40 percent of the world's catch, totaling 63 billion pounds per year.
The answer isn't as clear as you may think. There are many different methods of catching fish in the wild and farming them. And it varies widely depending on the type of fish, where it is caught or farmed and the method. Even though it is complex, there are some very important things we should all know.
Three-Hundred Species of Fish Are Sold in the U.S., But Most Americans Eat Only 3 Types
LIVESTRONG traveled to La Paz, Mexico, to visit Omega Blue, an open-sea fish farm in the Sea of Cortez, to meet the founders and to actually swim inside the deepwater pens with their farmed Baja Kanpachi, a type of Almaco jack with the scientific identification Seriola rivoliana, which is often labeled by restaurants on menus as yellowtail.
Like many Americans, you may not have heard of Baja Kanpachi or Almaco jack.
Even though more than 300 species of fish and shellfish are sold in the U.S., only three types — shrimp, salmon and tuna — make up more than 55 percent of the seafood Americans consume. And, by the way, more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. in 2015 was imported, and more than 50 percent of all global seafood is farmed — a percentage that continues to rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).
Overfishing Is One of the Biggest Threats to Our Oceans' Health
What Sustainable Farming Means to Omega Blue Founders
Omega Blue co-founders James Arthur Smith and Cody Requejo invited us to see with our own eyes exactly what sustainable and healthy farmed fish means to them. We swam in deepwater pens in the Sea of Cortez with adult Baja Kanpachi they had grown from eggs and toured their hatchery and the surrounding waters.
We had heard fish farms were crowded and unhealthy and that the fish were living in their own refuse. We wanted to see for ourselves exactly how their farmed Baja Kanpachi were being raised without antibiotics or hormones. We began to understand why this special new method of farming deserves attention.
"It has a lot to do with knowledge," said Smith. "Most people spend all of their time on land. There are not a lot of people who go out fishing, and there are not a lot of people who witness industrial-scale commercial fishing. So what we need to do is continue to create awareness about these problems and the solutions."
Press "play" to see our video showing what it was like to jump into the Omega Blue deepwater pens with the full-grown Baja Kanpachi:
Low-Density, Low-Impact Deepwater Pens
One of the problems, Smith points out, is that when you have too many living creatures crowded into a space there is a higher chance of disease.
"With fish and aquaculture, the first large aquaculture operations followed the same model of industrial-scale agriculture, and they said: 'How do we maximize our profits and minimize our risk?'" Smith explained. "And they did that by putting as many living creatures in a small space as possible and then giving them antibiotics to mitigate disease."
Instead, as I saw for myself when I was invited to jump into its deepwater pens along with the Baja Kanpachi, Omega Blue has low-density pens, spread out over a large area in deep water with a strong current. When you look out at the sea from an airplane window, the pens look like large circles out in the water.
"There's a very strict understanding and monitoring system for how the effluent is affecting the environment," Smith said. "A primary concern for marine aquaculture operations is the potential impact to the ocean floor environment. Thus great care is taken to ensure we minimize our footprint. This includes regular monitoring and sampling of the ocean floor."
According to Smith, Omega Blue has taken 100 fish from the wild, and through breeding them in land-based pools and carefully growing the babies before they're large enough to be transferred for a year of living in the ocean-based pens, it has produced more than 500,000 fish to date.
Smith and Requejo, took us onto land to tour the laboratory where the fish eggs are hatched, and they also showed us the land-based indoor pools where the brood stock live and breed and several other indoor tanks where babies and juvenile fish of varying sizes are growing.
Consumer Demand for Wild-Caught Fish Can Encourage Destructive Practices
Smith points out that consumers' demand for wild-caught fish could be encouraging destructive methods that involve massive amounts of bycatch. He mentions purse seining as an example.
"If you put out a really big net and try and encircle an entire school of tuna, swimming with that school of tuna is going to be other species of fish and sharks and dolphins. By putting out a really big net, you're not just getting the tuna. Generally, bycatch is dead by the time it gets pulled up."
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, when fishermen use purse seine nets to catch tuna, salmon and anchovies, they also may use fish aggregating devices (or FADs) to attract the fish inside the net, and "the accidental catch of juvenile fish, sharks and other vulnerable animals can be a serious conservation concern."
"These things are ridiculous," he pointed out. "We shouldn't be allowing these things to sneak into the seafood supply chain just because we arrogantly or lazily say, 'I only want wild-caught fish.' Ask more questions. In order for us to change the seafood supply chain and stop putting excess pressure on wild stock, we need people to appreciate where that fish came from."
Asking Where Fish Comes From Is Essential
Omega Blue co-founder and executive chef Requejo underscored the importance of consumers getting more curious about where their fish comes from.
"People really care where their beef comes from, and people really care where their produce and their chicken is from," he said. "You go to some supermarkets and there's a whole organic beef or protein section. And the fish just kind of gets put off to one side. So it's kind of like the last of the Wild West, where people just assume just because it's from the ocean that it's a healthier option, and that just doesn't make sense."
Requejo said he believes that the more questions people ask as consumers and demand with their dollars, the more positive change will happen in the seafood supply chain.
"It really starts with the consumer," he said. "But it should start with the chef. The chef's name and reputation is on the line. So any good chef would want to know where everything — they would want to have documentation of where their farm is. So once a chef is educated in where all their food comes from, it trickles down to front of the house and server staff. And then it turns to the consumer. And once the consumer and everyone is on the same page, you'll see a huge change."
Since 2012, Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch has been hosting the Blue Ribbon Task Force, where they invite leading chefs and culinarians from across the U.S. to "share their challenges and ideas about seafood sustainability and their role in insuring a future with a healthy ocean."
Last year the James Beard Foundation launched its Smart Catch program to provide training and support to chefs to help ensure that they serve seafood fished or farmed in environmentally-responsible ways. You can browse a list of restaurants nationwide that are committed to the goals of the Smart Catch program.
Impact of Farmed Fish’s Diet on Environmental Sustainability and Human Health
What the fish are being fed is important too — in terms of the nutrients in the fish meat, the impacts on people's health and environmental sustainability.
According to Bowman, feeding farmed fish is one of the biggest potential environmental impacts of conventional fish farming "because you need to be feeding them, literally, tons of fish," and this puts a strain on wild fish stocks to feed the farmed fish. Farmed salmon, for instance, require about five pounds of fishmeal to grow one pound. In fact, one-third of the global annual fish catch goes to feed other animals.
There is even something called Future of Fish Feed (F3) Fish-Free Feed Challenge, a global competition and collaborative effort between NGOs, researchers, and private partnerships to accelerate the commercialization of feeds that don't contain wild fishmeal and fish oil.
Smith explained that Omega Blue's feed doesn't use any land-based proteins — no soy, no corn, no chicken. And he told us the company isn't draining the ocean of other fish to feed its Baja Kanpachi either. Instead, Omega Blue's farmed fish are given feed certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
"We work with EWOS, a company that is taking MSC-certified tailings from a sardine cannery," he said. "This MSC-certified cannery has very strict quotas on how many sardines are caught and where they can get these sardines and what time of year they can catch them. And those sardines are going into cans. So those canned sardines contain little filets of sardine. When you have a whole fish and you take the filets off and you put them in a can, those bones and cartilage and what's left over — instead of it just going to waste — is then ground up and combined with algae. And that's what goes into our feed."
In addition to the environmental benefits of feeding sardine tailings, there are also health benefits to avoiding the flesh and meat in the feed and relying on the bones and cartilage.
"If you look at where plastics or mercury or where any other heavy metals concentrate — that's in the flesh," said Smith. "By taking the flesh off of the sardine and just grinding up the head, the tail, the backbone and putting that into a feed we've mitigated our concentration not only on the pressure on the wild fish stock, but also of heavy metals and plastics in our fish. Our fish are, quantifiably, 0.04 parts per million of mercury. If you look at heavy metals in mercury in wild-caught tuna, for example, the FDA recommends that pregnant women don't eat it. In comparison, our concentration is almost undetectable. The same sort of methodology of FDA regulations would say that it would be completely benign for anyone to eat it seven days a week, three times a day."
Baja Kanpachi Is Flavorful and Versatile
Requejo talked about the Baja Kanpachi's veratility.
"You can sear it, you can bake it, you can poach it, you can make sashimi out of it and it's foolproof. It's got this really sweet flavor," he said. "There's no lactic acid buildup in it. It's never been stressed out, so it really shows in the flavor. And it's just the best fish that I think that anyone can use and not screw up. And it's very easy, it's very friendly for the consumer or the chef."
"This is a beautiful sushi-grade fish, said Smith. "When you taste the fish, you'll taste this water around here, the terroir of this environment. This water smells and tastes beautiful, and it translates to the fish."
The Truth About Shrimp: 94 Percent of U.S. Shrimp Is Farmed in Asia
Shrimp is, by far, Americans' favorite seafood. According to a 2015 Consumer Reports study, we consume three times more shrimp than we did in 1980. And nearly all (94 percent) of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. is farmed in Asian countries — including Thailand, Vietnam, India and Indonesia — in industrial tanks or shallow, man-made ponds.
"The reason why you can get a shrimp tray incredibly cheap is because it's been farmed in this way, and the people farming it aren't being paid a fair wage," said Bowman. "All-you-can-eat shrimp sounds great, but it can be decimating a place elsewhere in the world."
The same 2015 Consumer Reports study found that 60 percent of frozen shrimp in samples purchased from major U.S. chain grocery stores contained salmonella, vibrio, listeria or E. coli, and 2 percent tested positive for the superbug MRSA.
The Truth About Salmon: Atlantic and Scottish Salmon Is Almost All Farmed
Let's take a look at salmon, because it's one of the most popular finfish LIVESTRONG readers enjoy eating. And, in the case of salmon, wild-caught is a better choice.
If you are in a restaurant, grocery store or fish market and the salmon is called Atlantic or Scottish salmon, it is almost certainly farmed.
If it's truly Alaskan salmon from Alaska, that means it's wild-caught because finfish farms have been banned in Alaska since 1990 to protect wild stocks from the risk of disease and pollution and from the possibility of escaped farm fish breeding with wild fish.
Most consumers are probably not aware that there are five types of Alaskan, or Pacific, salmon: king (also known by its Native American name, chinook), sockeye, coho, keta (or chum) and pink, and they are in season and caught fresh from late spring to early fall, according to this piece in the Seattle Times.
Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch free mobile app for iOS and Android and its searchable online recommendations database help consumers to "choose seafood that's fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment." For salmon, its site says the "Best Choice" is Alaskan sockeye salmon or pink salmon caught in Washington State with lift nets.
Open-net cage salmon farming in the oceans and waterways poses environmental threats like sea lice, disease, algae blooms, marine mammal deaths, waste and marine debris. Scotland's farmed salmon has been fighting some of the worst sea lice infestations in the world, according to the Guardian. And Norway's wild salmon population has been cut in half in recent years from sea lice and parasites, according to the New York Times. Farmed salmon can also have human health impacts, such as PCBs and contaminants and excessive antibiotic use and resistance.
Further complicating matters, much of the farmed Atlantic salmon had been coming from fish farms in waters in the Pacific Northwest where wild Pacific salmon live. Surprisingly, Washington State actually had been the largest marine finfish aquaculture industry in the U.S., with farms producing about 17 million pounds of Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean each year — until last month when Alaska Governor Jay Inslee signed restrictions banning nonnative fish farms from Washington State waters.
These restrictions followed eight months from last August, when a Washington State marine net pen at Cooke Aquaculture's facility in the San Juan Islands holding more than 305,000 farmed Atlantic salmon broke open, releasing thousands of fish into Puget Sound and renewing concerns that a new proposed salmon farm could harm wild salmon stock and cause other environmental damage.
Some Salmon Alternatives Are Sustainable Seafood Superstars
That said, there is not enough wild Alaskan salmon to support every single person in America — much less the entire world — to be eating it frequently.
When asked, Bowman recommended that salmon lovers ease up on their demand for salmon and instead look for arctic char ("a sustainable seafood superstar") or rainbow or steelhead trout, which can be sustainably farmed in the U.S. in indoor recirculating tanks, or lake trout from the Great Lakes. These have a similar texture and flavor profile to salmon, but are more sustainable choices that are often overlooked.
Bivalves Are the Most Sustainable Seafood Option You Can Always Buy Farmed
According to Bowman, it's essential that we diversify the fish that we choose in our diets, and oysters, mussels and clams are the very best sustainable seafood option. They are filter feeders that not only don't need to be fed, but also actually clean the water, so oyster farming is actually beneficial for the environment.
Final Conclusion on Farmed Fish vs. Wild-Caught
Yes, there are smaller-scale finfish farms committed to sustainability, quality and health like Omega Blue. However, there are also many large industrial farms with methods that include overcrowding fish and dousing them with antibiotics and potentially hazardous pesticides used to kill sea lice.
Yes, there are clean, sustainable wild-caught fish, such as Pacific salmon from the pristine waters of Alaska. But there are more large commercial seafood suppliers practicing destructive fishing methods. It's essential for all of us to ask questions and get specific.
By swimming with Omega Blue's Baja Kanpachi in the deepwater pens in the Sea of Cortez — we were able to see that they were strong, healthy, clear-eyed, not crowded, not stressed. The people of Mexico call them Pez Fuerte (literally "strong fish"), and swimming in the water with them was at times nerve-racking, as they are bold and curious creatures that occasionally became a bit nippy with human visitors.
We were also able to taste the difference on our plates. We tried Omega Blue's Baja Kanpachi, and the flesh was sweet and flavorful. These fish had led a healthy life, and raising them and harvesting them did not seem to have harmed the surrounding sea or other creatures. (Note that Omega Blue and other Baja Kanpachi farms are currently under evaluation by Seafood Watch to receive an official sustainability rating.) Apart from going directly to the Sea of Cortez to track down your fish, anyone can use the free Seafood Watch app or go to its website to find out if the fish you enjoy eating is sustainable.
You can also look for Marine Steward Council's blue MSC certification on fish packaging and check its MSC searchable online database to find brands and fisheries that are certified sustainable. Consider buying your fish at Whole Foods, where the seafood department aims to "source from responsibly managed fish farms and fisheries that are MSC-certified and avoid use of antibiotics or hormones."
If you're dining out, choose a chef from Seafood Watch's Blue Ribbon Task Force or from the James Beard Foundation's Smart Catch committed restaurants. We have also included a list of restaurants in New York, California, Las Vegas and Mexico that serve Omega Blue's Baja Kanpachi at the end of this article.
"I really hope more people will go out and jump in the ocean and go sailing and come visit us down here," said Smith. "We have this open-door policy where we invite people to come down to see the operation, to taste the feed that the fish are eating, to swim with the fish, to see the clarity of the water. Only when we know and understand and appreciate something is when we tend to care. And I think that's part of the challenge. For some reason there's this 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality with people, and that allows the industry to take advantage of it, you know? And it's the same thing that's happening with the ocean. We just need more people to go surfing, to go swimming, to go sailing. Go spend time in the ocean. Maybe you'll have a curiosity on where your fish is coming from. And if you ask more questions, you will change demand."
As Consumers, We Must Ask: “Where Did This Fish Come From?” and “How Was It Farmed or Caught?”
A powerful movement has started. People are beginning to care where their beef, chicken and produce come from. Now we need to focus on seafood. We are starting to lift the veil on the harmful methods of fishing that exploit our oceans and the large-scale industrial farming that disrespects our health as consumers.
We have to start paying attention and asking questions. It's our money and our lives.
Yes, we want the benefit of protein and omega-3s in our diets, but not at such a high cost to our health and to our planet's future. Let's make sure we understand what we're eating. Use resources like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch app and its website to research your food and make healthy ocean-friendly choices.
Let's all try to make sure we understand what we are eating and where it really comes from. Make an effort to choose the best options. Together we can make a difference.
Fish is undeniably a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. And while we traveled to La Paz seeking answers, what we discovered is that the answers are not always clear.
It's up to all of us to ask questions at grocery stores and in restaurants: "Where did this fish come from? How was it farmed or caught?"
Getting these answers will help us all to choose the best seafood for the health of our bodies and for the long-term health of the planet.
Restaurants Serving Omega Blue’s Baja Kanpachi
New York, New York: Cosme
Merida, Yucatan, Mexico: Olivia
Valle de Guadalupe, Ensenada, Mexico: Animalon by Chef Javier Plascencia
Todo Santos, BCS, Mexico: Jazamango by Chef Javier Plascencia
Los Angeles, California:
Didrik Johnck / LIVESTRONG.COM
Tricia Traci / LIVESTRONG.COM
About the Author
JESS BARRON is VP and GM for LIVESTRONG.COM, a leading healthy lifestyle website with more than 32 million unique monthly viewers. In addition to LIVESTRONG, her writing has appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune and MyDomaine. Jess has appeared on MSNBC and ABC News and has been a keynote speaker at Health Further and a panelist at SXSW, Create & Cultivate and Digital Hollywood. Follow Jess on Instagram at @jessbeegood and Twitter too!