Ask Eartha: The fish debate: Farm raised vs. wild caught
September 30, 2016
I'm always confused when I visit the seafood department at grocery stores. What type of fish do I buy – farm raised or wild caught? Which is better for my health and for the planet?
— Judy, Breckenridge
Judy, you're not alone in your quest for sustainable fish. A 2012 poll conducted by National Public Radio found that roughly 80 percent of the Americans who regularly eat fish place value in knowing that the fish is sustainably caught. But trying to navigate the multitude of choices offered at grocery stores can be a pretty confusing process. It's enough to make the most eco-minded person give up in frustration and reach for the pinkest salmon fillet, no matter where it came from or how it was raised. While I don't have a definitive answer for you, I hope this information helps to make your trips to the seafood counter less stressful and more sustainable.
Farming fish and other aquatic organisms — whether in fresh or salt water — is known as aquaculture. Aquaculture is not a new concept; it's been practiced by the Chinese for thousands of years. In the western world, however, aquaculture has only become a major industry in the past 40 years or so. Now, aquaculture accounts for nearly 50 percent of the global supply of fish used for human consumption. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that over 500 species of fish are farmed-raised, but the most common are cod, carp, catfish, salmon, tilapia and trout.
Proponents of the practice say that it relieves stress on depleted fisheries by providing a steady supply of fish raised to meet growing demand. Farming fish is also less resource intensive than producing cattle or even chicken. Critics, however, worry about the impacts farm-raised fish can have on wild fish populations. For example, fish raised in underwater nets placed in the open ocean can spread disease and parasites to wild populations. Farm-raised fish are also frequently treated with antibiotics, which can lead to antibiotic resistance in marine pests. In fact, researchers have noted increased resistance to treatment among sea lice, a parasite that commonly affects farm-raised salmon.
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Aquaculture isn't necessarily bad. Like many things, its impacts depend upon how it is practiced. It is possible to create a sustainable aquaculture system and many fish farms have been striving to do just that over the past decade. Whereas 10 years ago, fish farms were environmental disasters, there have been noticeable improvements in the years since, including changes to how and what the fish are fed and new regulations governing the types of pens fish can be raised in. Some aquaculture systems, like those that produce mussels, oysters and clams, can even be an environmental benefit.
It's true that the farm-raised vs. wild-caught debate is complex. While it's perfectly fine to buy some fish farm raised, others — like salmon — are still better wild caught. To help simplify your purchasing decisions, here are a few guidelines to follow when shopping for fish.
Worldwide, the U.S. has some of the strictest regulations covering fisheries management, environmental impact and food safety. The U.S. also has very strict standards for aquaculture systems, so when you do buy farm-raised seafood, make sure it's from the U.S.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mercury levels in the upper ocean have tripled, largely due to burning fossil fuels. What does this mean for fish? Mercury is fat soluble, so when it's eaten, it dissolves into fat and stays in the body. It enters the aquatic food chain via phytoplankton, tiny organisms that are a major source of food for many smaller types fish. As bigger fish eat smaller fish, the big fish accumulate all of the mercury inside the little fish. In large doses, mercury is toxic to humans, so we need to be careful about the quantity of large fish we consume, including certain types of tuna, as well as swordfish.
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Sustainably raised fish? There's an app for that. The Seafood Watch app developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great resource to consult when you're debating which type of fish to eat for dinner. You can also find consumer guides at http://www.seafoodwatch.org — check out the Super Green List, which shows best choices for environmental sustainability and low mercury levels.
Looking for sustainable fish in Summit County? Most local grocery stores carry wild-caught salmon, and Whole Foods is a Seafood Watch Business Partner, which means it has committed to selling only environmentally responsible seafood. Most Americans don't eat enough fish according to dietary guidelines, so the next time you're shopping, put sustainable seafood on your dinner menu.