Myth: Wild Seafood Is Better Than Farmed

The (Sea)food Network: Tuning In to the Wild Vs. Farmed Debate

What does the word “wild” mean to you? To us, it conjures up visions of salivating grizzly bears, gun-slinging outlaws, untamed facial hair…that sort of thing. But it can also evoke a fuzzy feeling of natural goodness—pesticide-free lands, clear skies, and clean water teeming with silvery fish.

Problem is, wild isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be—at least not when it comes to seafood. And like the ocean itself, the question of buying farmed versus wild seafood can be tough to navigate…unless you’ve got a Shedd Aquarium pro on your side. So let’s dive in (pun intended, per usual)!

Channel 1: Our Threatened Oceans

Before we tackle the farmed vs. wild question, it’s important to note that while the oceans may seem like the last of Earth’s great frontiers, they’re not as pristine as you might think.

According to a recent study published in Science magazine, no area of the ocean is unaffected by human activity. Yep, you read that right: no area, nada, zilch, nothing, etc. It’s a little mind-boggling when you think of how vast and deep those oceans are. And fishing plays a big part in that.

Okay, so a few billion people like to eat a little seafood now and then, so what? Let’s look at the numbers. A whopping 75 percent of global fisheries, and 38 percent of American ones, are being depleted at unsustainable levels according to Brooke Havlik, the Shedd Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood educator.

Grim stats like those inspired the Shedd to take action, partnering with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and running its own Right Bite program to help us all connect the fish in the ocean with the fish on our plates.

That educational effort is a bigger challenge than meets the eye. You might think that, alongside our growing interest in healthy agricultural products, we’d have developed a similar awareness of sustainable seafood. With seafood, though, going green is not as simple as looking for an organic or hormone-free label. When we see something marked “wild,” it might auto-register in the same way an agricultural product marked “all-natural” would. But that wouldn’t even be half the story.

There are some dramatic environmental challenges uniquely associated with the fish we eat, which we often don’t realize. Perhaps that’s because our fish comes from a seemingly infinite, mysterious source. Havlik warns against this: “The water veils the issues…Seafood tends to be the exception to other rules about proteins and meats, when really it’s one of the most critical environmental issues associated with food.”

She says many of us assume that all farmed is bad, and all wild is good—but that’s just not the case. From massive overfishing to habitat destruction, a lot has to be taken into consideration when buying fish.

Overfishing stats from the State of Seafood by the Monterey Bay Aquarium/Seafood Watch

Channel 2: The Big Problems of Non-Sustainably Caught Wild Fish

To put it simply, there are good (sustainable) and bad (environmentally destructive) ways to catch fish in the wild. In today’s industrial fisheries, all too often it’s the bad kind, which leads to issues like overfishing, bycatch, and habitat destruction.

  • Overfishing: Just like it sounds, industrial fishing can literally fish fish to the point of major population decline, throwing off the ecosystem. One mind-numbing example: According to the Seafood Watch State of Seafood report, the total amount of “commercially important species” (like bluefin tuna, cod, and halibut) declined by two thirds from 1950 to 2000.
  • Bycatch: Remember the dolphin-safe tuna campaigns of the early ’90s? The crisis of commercial fisheries unintentionally catching non-target animals is not over. Cases in point [PDF]: 17 percent of shark species, six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle, and most large whale populations are now listed as endangered, threatened, or vulnerable, mainly because of fishing. Havlik’s got more tough numbers: “One in four of total global catch becomes bycatch. For example…for every one pound of imported shrimp, there can be up to fifteen pounds of bycatch.” What happens to that bycatch varies depending on location and species, but can include being thrown back into the water as waste.
  • Habitat destruction: Industrial fishing practices can devastate marine habitats, from coral reefs to the ocean floor. Non-sustainable fishing methods such as bottom trawling or dredging are most to blame for this. A coral reef, which Havlik points out holds 25 percent of the ocean’s biodiversity, “can be easily decimated by the use of a bottom trawl.” So even though the trawl may be intended to catch groundfish species like cod and rockfish, crabs, and shrimp, it ends up wiping out the entire reef.

In fact, each of these problems is affected by the choice of fishing gear. Trawls—giant nets meant to catch everything in their path—regularly devastate entire ecosystems. Longlines, which stretch for miles and have as many as 3,000 baited hooks, result in flagrant bycatch.

The good news is that more fisheries are taking up sustainable practices all the time. Shedd’s Right Bite-approved fisheries are ones that take a variety of sustainable approaches, including setting a total allowable catch to help preserve future generations and opting for less destructive gear such as trolls and poles, both of which get high marks from the sustainability police.

So now we know there are plenty of reasons that wild isn’t always the way to go. Does that mean we should all just run over and jump on the farmed wagon?

Channel 3: Farmed Fish Can Be Sustainable or Not, Depending

One myth busted: Farmed seafood is not automatically bad. But…that doesn’t make it automatically good, either. Here’s the 411 on the dark side of farming fish.

  • Pollution and habitat destruction: The heightened population of a particular fish in a farmed area can increase waste, pollute water, and cut off the oxygen supply for other local marine life. Unfortunately, many farms use an open system, which allows that waste and other pollution to flow into surrounding waters.
  • Dietary issues: Some farmed fish eat wild fish processed into fishmeal, which becomes more problematic as you move up the food chain. Fish that are natural carnivores require a heavy diet of fish. “That doesn’t make sense in the long term, so we look for fish that are vegetarians or omnivores,” says Havlik. It’s called the fish-in, fish-out ratio, she adds. “How many fish are we putting into it to grow out of it? It takes up to three pounds of fishmeal to grow one pound of salmon.”

Okay, now that we’ve fully grossed you out, here’s the good news. There are plenty of great sustainable fish farms out there, too.

How to know the difference? Havlik explains that examples of the best farmed options are U.S. tilapia, catfish, and rainbow trout—all of which are vegetarians or omnivores, meaning fewer resources are needed to feed them. And as for pollution issues, she says Shedd advocates for farms using closed systems, which in the U.S. are required to clean the water before it’s allowed to reenter the water supply. Integrated management systems that use other species to reduce excess nutrients in the water can also yield sustainability points.

Program Listings: Cheat Sheet to Three Popular Picks

Feeling overwhelmed? We hear you. That’s why Shedd developed its handy dandy, wallet-size Right Bite card as a guide to seafood shopping. Smart phone fans might also try the Seafood Watch app. In the meantime, here are three fast(ish) things to commit to memory right now:

  • Tuna: Go wild. Wild albacore, skipjack, and yellowfin are Right Bite Best Choices when they’ve been troll/pole caught. Farmed tuna is not sustainable because, as a large carnivorous fish, it requires an unsustainable amount of other farmed fish to feed it. What’s more, many tuna farms use wild juveniles to stock their farms, adds Havlik, which further impacts many depleted populations. (Side note: Avoid bluefin like the plague, because its populations are already too dangerously depleted.)
  • Shrimp: Read the label. Wild or farmed can be equally wonderful or terrible, depending on where you get it. Good options include wild pink shrimp from Oregon, wild spot prawn from Canada, or farmed shrimp from the U.S. Havlik says these shrimp fisheries or farms have better regulations than other countries, for the most part.
  • Tilapia: Farmed is generally the way to go—in part because tilapia doesn’t live in the wild in the U.S. Havlik confirms that “U.S. farmed tilapia are a better choice because they eat a vegetarian or omnivore diet (versus a carnivorous diet for tuna) and are raised in closed, land-based systems with waste water regulations.”

EcoMyth Outcome

Myth partially busted. Wild is not necessarily more sustainable than farmed, and vice versa. What makes or break the case is the specific fish, location, and fishery. “Any fish that is farmed responsibly, using minimal resources and causing no pollution, is better than a fish caught that is contributing to overfishing,” concludes Havlik.

One Green Thing You Can Do

The best thing to do is buy responsibly sourced seafood, which include a mix of wild and farmed, based on the Shedd’s Right Bite program.

More ways to help include:

One thought on “Myth: Wild Seafood Is Better Than Farmed

  1. Is the salmon from Alaska considered wild or farmed, or something in between? In 2010, about 50% of the “wild” salmon in Alaska were born in hatcheries, which by definition are not considered wild. You card and rating system should seperate the two types.


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