Aquaculture: Crime or Cure?

By Marlena Norwood

Last week, we discussed the sustainability of seafood. This conversation is not complete without addressing wild versus farm-raised seafood.

In recent years, farm-raised seafood has accumulated some bad connotations, mostly because people aren’t informed about the facts. In reality, there are just about as many cons with aquaculture as there are with wild fish. Let’s break the debate down by category.

Many people eat fish simply because of the health benefits – primarily Omega-3 fatty acids. Wild fish naturally are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids because of their natural diet. Farm-raised fish can sometimes lack Omega-3’s because their diets vary depending on the farm.

Fish eaters are also wary of toxins. Farm-raised fish are known to contain more toxins than wild fish because of the processed nature of their feed. However, wild fish are more likely to contain high levels of mercury.

Antibiotics are also a concern, not only for fish eaters, but all meat eaters. Antibiotics are used in aquaculture, which carry on to the consumer and can lead to dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria on a population level. Some claim farms use such small amounts of antibiotics so that they are basically nonexistent by the time the fish reaches the consumer, but that can vary substantially depending on the farm.

As discussed last week, overfishing is one of the major issues with wild fish. Lack of regulations and gross overfishing leads to trophic cascading that is very detrimental to aquatic ecosystems. Farm-raised fish is a much more sustainable alternative. However, one downside to farm-raised fish is that their feed can be caught in mass quantities, bringing us back to the problem of overfishing and trophic cascading.

Fishing methods vary for wild fish, and some have devastating effects on the underwater environment. Last week we discussed the problems associated with bottom trawling and long lining. Aquaculture seems to have less of an environmental impact.

nets-924267-mA couple of environmental concerns with aquaculture are that fish farms create a lot of concentrated waste dumped into the ocean, and that other sea creatures can become trapped by farm netting, mimicking the problem of bycatch seen with bottom trawling.

Lastly, we must not forget that fish are living creatures. Many people are not concerned about the life of a fish, but PETA certainly is, launching a campaign titled, “Save the Sea Kittens,” to invoke empathy towards our underwater fish friends. Addressing the quality of life for fish (since most likely fishing will never cease to exist), wild fish have a much better quality of life than farm-raised fish. Wild fish are free to do as they please while farm-raised fish live in cramped quarters.

So which is better, farm-raised or wild fish? Certainly aquaculture is not as awful as it is sometimes made out to be, but there are real pros and cons to consider. To further complicate the choice, whether or not you should by farm-raised salmon versus wild salmon could be different than the choice for halibut.

Once again, leave it to the Seafood Watch handbook to simplify matters for us – in their analysis of “best choice,” “good alternatives,” and seafood to “avoid,” they take into consideration how the fish was raised.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t automatically assume wild is “better” than farm-raised, because the facts may surprise you.
  • Stay informed on the general pros and cons of both wild and farm-raised fish.
  • Research specific fish species and how they are raised in your region, or turn to the Seafood Watch handbook for reliable answers (app here).

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