The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Farmed vs. Wild Fish

Perusing the fish counter at your local grocery store can be confusing. Most of us know that fish has a high content of Omega-3. What most of us probably are less sure about is the difference between farmed and wild-caught fish. Which is the better choice?

I started this article with the full intention of sharing what I believed; that wild-fish is by far the gold standard. However, my eyes were opened, not only to the irresponsible practices involved with both wild and farmed fish, but also to the fact that perhaps fish isn’t even the healthy choice we have been led to believe.

As the global population continues to grow, the increased demand for fish has grown along with it. This has led to over-harvesting and unsustainable practices that many scientists fear will soon result in a collapse of the world’s fisheries.

Enter the world of modern-day fish farming. In recent decades, fish farms have exploded in popularity and have become a viable option to provide fish to the masses, while sparing the population of wild fish and allowing numbers to rebound. Today, over 75 percent of our world's supply of fish has already been overfished or fully exploited to the point of no return. 

Fish farming has been around for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese and native Hawaiians kept fish in pond beds to be available on demand. The Romans farmed oysters and kept fish in Mediterranean lagoons.

Fish farming, or aquaculture, is the controlled process of raising fish for human (and animal) consumption. It’s the same concept as agriculture, but instead of raising plants or livestock, it is fish being raised. Today’s aquaculture provides a wide variety of both saltwater and freshwater seafood from crustaceans and mollusks, to salmon, trout, tuna, catfish, carp, Artic char, trout and aquatic plants to name a few.

When responsibly raised in an environmentally friendly fish farm, farm-raised fish can be a great option. Unfortunately, not all fish “farms” practice responsible farming practices - often fish are in overcrowded pens, kept in polluted waters, and fed low-quality feed.

Farmed fish can also contaminate local waters with sea lice and other diseases that can infect local species. To combat the spread of disease and parasites, antibiotics are used. These are extremely damaging to the ecosystem and foster the development of resistant bacteria. Farmed fish also contaminate the water with nitrogen that is produced by fish “poo”. This can be problematic as it can lead to algal blooms that essentially suck the oxygen out of the water.

As I continued my research, it became clear that BOTH farmed and wild fish are problematic as they contain a multitude of contaminants that we should probably not be ingesting. Fish absorb contaminants such as POPs (persistent organic pollutants), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), mercury, and dioxins, to name a few.

POPs, also known as “forever chemicals”, end up in the oceans from pesticides, solvents, pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals that wash into the water. Due to their high fat content, marine mammals accumulate large concentrations of POPs (which are stored in fat), through a process called bioaccumulation. Humans also store POPs in fat cells. POPs suppress the immune system and pose elevated cancer and non-cancer risks including obesity and type 2 diabetes. POPs also increase the risk of stroke in women, alter endocrine functions, and have been linked to endometriosis in monkeys. It is thought that POPs may be responsible for endometriosis in humans.

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are cancer-causing toxic compounds that fish absorb from water and the sediments found on ocean floors. Although banned in the U.S. in 1976, PCBs still persist in the environment today. Like POPs, these compounds are also stored in animal fat so we ingest them when we consume fish, both wild and farmed. Some studies also show that farmed salmon accumulate PCBs from the fishmeal they are fed. As PCBs are stored in fat, and because fishmeal is largely made up of ground-up fish, the fishmeal ends up with a high concentration of fish oil, which, of course, would contain significant amounts of PCBs.

Mercury is found in ALL ocean-raised fish, regardless of whether they are farmed or wild. Smaller fish (herring, sardines, shellfish, anchovies) tend to have lower mercury levels than larger fish such as tuna and swordfish, but all fish contain mercury to some degree.

Farm-raised fish are here to stay as we have, for the most part, outpaced the ocean’s ability to supply fish naturally. If raised correctly through sustainable practices, farmed fish can indeed help meet the ongoing global demand for high-quality protein and could take some of the pressure off highly depleted populations of wild fish.

When shopping for fish, whether it be wild or farmed, be sure to select sustainable seafood. As always, know your “farmer”. When choosing wild, look for “pole-caught”, “troll-caught,” and/or “FAD-free”.

Find a local fisherman you can support (I buy my fish from the local business Skipper-Otto who buys direct from local fisherman). Try to avoid purchasing seafood caught by industrial vessels, as the practices often employed can be detrimental to the ocean floor.

When it comes to purchasing farmed fish, avoid imported farmed seafood. Different countries have different laws regarding drug and chemical use and these can be inconsistently enforced. This is especially true for shrimp. Always buy shrimp locally. Look for locally farmed fish raised without antibiotics, which is frequently tested for chemical contaminants (PCBs, mercury and other environmental contaminants), and that is sourced from a responsibly managed fish farm or a store that stocks sustainable seafood.  

Unfortunately, the bottom line is that both wild and farmed fish come with potential health risks and eating large amounts of either could ultimately expose you to a whole host of cancer-causing chemicals. Eating fish, whether it be sourced from the wild or a farm, ultimately needs to be done in moderation. We need to consider fish as only one piece of the all-important omega-3 puzzle. It is important to incorporate other omega-3 rich foods as well, including chia seeds, hemp seeds, certain oils, walnuts, and organic soy products into our diet.

A well-balanced diet that includes many different protein options on a rotating basis is our best bet. Continue to get creative and mix it up. And keep in mind that just because something is touted as a “healthy” option, doesn’t always make it so!


Find more great insight on Nutrition HERE

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