In a world where we can get just about any type of food from land or sea delivered from just about anywhere in the world, it can be difficult to keep track of the many purchasing options, as well as the ethics and safety behind them. For example, there is so much talk about whether farm-raised fish is safe or good for the environment, or that wild-caught fish are better tasting and provide more nutrients than their farm-harvested counterparts. It’s far more nuanced than that.
To help you out, we’ve decided to take a deeper dive into the issue and figure out what’s healthier — farm-raised or wild-caught fish?
Table of Contents:
Definition of Farm-Raised and Wild-Caught Fish and Seafood
First things first, let’s explain how farm-raised and wild-caught seafood are defined
- Farm-Raised Fish
Farm-raised fish are commercially raised in controlled pens that exist within lakes, oceans or rivers, as well as fish raised in large tanks. Farm-raised fish are bred to make fish cheaper and more readily available to consumers. As it stands, farm-raised fish makes up about 90% of the fish consumption within the US.
The low quality that’s been associated with farmed fish is due in large part to the fact that the salmon are fed a low-quality fish feed that’s a mixture of corn, grains, fish oil and ground up, wild-caught fish. In the case of salmon farming, the fishmeal also includes food coloring, which gives the salmon the pink color we associate with the fish. Because of their limited diet, farm-raised fish are naturally a sort of gray color. Wild salmon are pink because they eat krill, which gets its color from red algae.
- Wild-Caught Fish
Wild-caught fish are caught by fishermen in their natural habitats — rivers, lakes, oceans, etc. The main benefit of wild-caught salmon is that the fish just eat organisms found in their existing environment, which by nature, is far more diverse than what farmed fish get to eat on a regular basis.
Additionally, wild-caught fish have the benefit of not containing antibiotics, as wild fish don’t have the same risk of disease or infection as farmed seafood.
While both types of seafood are generally safe to eat, should you buy them from a reputable dining establishment, supermarket, or better yet, straight from the source.
Regardless, there are some clear pros and cons associated with both methods. Here’s a deeper look at a few different factors such as nutritional value, environmental impact and more.
What’s Better for Me — Farm-Raised or Wild-Caught?
Both options have their advantages as well as drawbacks as far as nutritional content for the consumer:
- Overall Nutritional Content
The nutritional value in wild-caught fish is thought to be much higher than that of the farm-raised variety. Why? Well, for starters, wild fish are out in the wild, eating a diverse range of foods that create a varied blend of nutrients by the time we get the fish.
Farm-raised fish are generally fed the same crops day in and day out, and they live in a contained environment with no access to the variety of wildlife that’s, well, found in the wild. However, there may be a different set of benefits associated with eating farmed fish, depending on what you need in your diet.
Farmed salmon, in many cases, may actually be as nutritious as its wild counterparts and, in many cases, can be richer than wild in terms of omega-3s and omega-6s essential fatty acids. Farm-raised seafood has more omegas than fish raised in the wild, due to their higher fat content. Wild fish, on the other hand, is bursting with trace minerals found in the oceans.
As far as shellfish are concerned, the nutritional difference between say, farmed scallops and wild is minimal. Farming shellfish isn’t very common, but when they are farmed, it’s typically done so in the ocean rather than in separate vessels.
There’s also the myth that the color of the fish is a direct reflection of the fish’s nutritional content. That’s not 100% accurate. The color is a reflection of the diet, as well as the type of fish. Wild salmon that eat krill tend to turn pink, as the krill eats red algae. Atlantic salmon is naturally more of a pale orange color, while Sockeye salmon is a deep red. However, if you see a fish that looks dull or very grey, it may be a sign that it isn’t fresh.
- Mercury Content
In general, smaller types of fish may pack the most nutritional bang for their buck as opposed to larger fish. Think sardines, anchovies, herring and shellfish. Larger fish like swordfish, for example, may have a lot of mercury in their blood, and farmed fish may have lower instances of mercury than wild-caught fish. Farmed fish that are raised in the ocean generally have the same amount of mercury in their systems as their free-roaming counterparts.
If you’re worried about mercury, look toward shrimp or tuna. Both have very low levels of mercury.
- Fat Content
Farm-raised fish are generally subject to some pretty dismal culinary options since the primary goal is to fatten them up in short order. Because these fish don’t get the best food, or the most varied, the fat content of farm fish tends to be higher than wild-caught fish.
Wild fish are responsible for finding their own food and have the ability to swim long distances during their life at sea. For that reason, wild-caught fish tend to be leaner.
- Overall Freshness
Farm-raised fish sometimes gets a bad rap for being “fishy.” While it’s an interesting concept that “fishy” is not something you want your fish to taste like, the moniker typically refers to fish that simply haven’t been cleaned properly or handled with the care needed. Ideally, you want your fish to smell like the ocean, not cat food.
Similarly, wild-caught fish may be subject to the same fishy flavor fate should they not be handled properly — e.g. not put on ice right away. You should be in the clear at most restaurants with a good reputation. At USS Nemo, we handle all of our dishes, seafood and otherwise, with the utmost care. When shopping for fish, look for higher-end markets that you feel confident are always clean.
- The Preservative Factor
Fish may be treated with certain preservatives in an effort to make them last longer on grocery store shelves, as well as keep them nice and moist, as though they were caught in the wild. The most common chemical used to do this is called sodium tripolyphosphate, and it makes foods, especially those hailing from the sea look slicker, glossier and more appealing.
Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) is kind of a mouthful, and here are some reasons why you may want to keep an eye out for the additive:
- You’ll find STPP in seafood like shrimp or sea scallops, that generally appear to be soaking in water to keep them fresh before use. The seafood is bathed in STPP, which allows the food to absorb more water than it would without the ingredient, meaning it weighs more at the register than products without the substance.
- If you’re unsure whether your seafood purchase has been soaked in STPP, you’ll be able to detect its presence if you notice a milky white liquid that comes out when cooking the fish.
- It’s worth noting that STPP may be considered a neurotoxin if consumed in larger quantities. If you’re concerned about consuming the ingredient, ask your fish monger if you can order your seafood “dry.” “Wet” seafood is an industry term used to indicate whether or not there are phosphates included in the fish for longevity.
Another common question when comparing farm-raised fish to wild-caught, is whether or not there’s a difference in taste. The short answer is yes. But, whether one is better tasting than the other can only be determined by personal preferences. For example, we mentioned that farm-raised fish generally has a higher fat content than wild fish — some people prefer leaner cuts, while others appreciate the fatty richness you get in certain salmon.
When considering taste, there’s always the question of whether fresh is better than frozen. In most cases, fresh is always miles ahead of the frozen version of anything — think TV dinners vs. a home-cooked meal, or delivery pizza vs. frozen. However, it’s not exactly the case with fish. Flash freezing wild-caught fish is a great way to maintain straight-from-the-sea flavor all year long — meaning you don’t have to buy farmed fish if your usual isn’t in season.
What’s Better for the Environment — Farm-Raised or Wild-Caught?
The big question when it comes to fish and the environment is whether farm-raised fish are better for the environment than wild-caught. For many years, fish farms were synonymous with pollution and poor regard for ocean wildlife.
Practices such as using open net cages, which are placed in the ocean, can leach chemicals and disease into the ocean, putting ocean wildlife at risk. Plus, farmed fish have been known to escape their pens, meaning they’ll get out and intermingle with wild fish. This doesn’t sound so bad, but farmed-raised fish are at a greater risk for disease and parasites, and as a result, are fed regular cycles of antibiotics — not so good for the natural fish population.
In general, seafood is farmed in an effort to keep wild fish populations from being overfished. Stocks of wild salmon are being depleted as a result of both climate change and consumer demand. But, like genetically modified foods, farmed fish is no stranger to controversy. In some cases, fish have been known to escape pens and contaminate a wild fish population. Many farmed-raised fish are genetically modified to reduce the risk of disease and enable more growth in an effort to make more food.
In other cases, salmon on farms have been fed other fish, wild fish, that are dangerously low in supply, thereby depleting other species.
However, there are a number of seafood farmers that place an emphasis on sustainability and freshness. These days, fish farmers must adhere to very strict environmental regulations. For example, any water released by a farming operation back into the wild must be as clean, or cleaner, than the water that exists naturally within that habitat. Additionally, wildlife that eat fish, like seals and sea lions, may be attracted to fish farms and can get trapped in dangerous pens.
Sure, there’s the argument that farm-grown fish is simply unnatural and is full of dyes and additives all aimed at making the fish look more palatable on supermarket shelves. And yes, this practice remains — alongside GMO-laden junk food options, added sugar and the whole spectrum of what many food advocates see as wholly unnecessary practices that give American diets a bad rap.
Farming practices are improving in a lot of ways, though, and new methods are paving the way for a more sustainable future. However, just because times are changing doesn’t mean the fish farming industry has been fully reformed. Ultimately, it comes down to knowing your farmer and just knowing where your food supply comes from in general.
How Does Wild-Caught Seafood Impact the Environment?
Wild-caught fish isn’t entirely free from environmental missteps, either. For example, there are many fishing operations that don’t take environmental concerns into account. Certain fish populations have become overfished due to consumer demand, and some fishing practices do little to prevent environmental damage when fishing. It’s true that going into a natural habitat and mining for food poses the risk of decimating the population, but the answer is not as cut and dry as one might assume.
If you are concerned about the regulation of wild-caught fish, you’re not alone. In the US, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a set of standards in place in an effort to protect both the marine ecosystem and the fish that inhabit that space.
If you’d like to eat wild-caught seafood but are worried about an environmental concern, we’d recommend looking toward less popular wild fish for inspiration — try trout, halibut, mackerel or whatever strikes your fancy for dinner instead of the ubiquitous Alaskan salmon. You’ll challenge your culinary chops and can feel good about your choices.
When dining out, ask the waiter for recommendations, and feel free to ask questions about the food. While a restaurant that doesn’t specialize in seafood may not have all the answers, a good seafood place will know their wild salmon from their yellowtail and sea scallops. They’ll be able point you toward some dishes using less common seafood ingredients or let you know where the fish came from and whether or not it came from a farm. If you have a lot of questions, call ahead before eating at a particular establishment. That way you can get a sense of what to expect before walking in with an empty stomach.
If you want to become more aware of how to enjoy seafood more responsibly, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a good resource. Check out their official Seafood Watch site to stay in the know.
What Is the Cost and Availability of Farmed Fish vs. Wild?
As you might imagine, farmed fish is generally cheaper than wild-caught, primarily because there’s considerably less consistency in elements beyond human control. Wild fish, being wild, have no standard size or diet, and the supply is limited due to changes in a number of factors like algae blooms, fishing seasons and spawning cycles — all of which can have a significant impact on the price. Farm-raised fish have some more predictable measures in place, which allows the fish to be sold at a consistent price. Scientists can even predict when fish are ready for harvest, as well as figure out when it’s appropriate to increase production to meet demands.
Availability is a huge factor in keeping costs down and is sure to have a profound impact on the price of fish. Overfished areas or those subject to inclement weather or shifting currents may yield less wild fish and drive up the price.
Avoiding Farmed Fish Is More Challenging Than You Think
Now that we’ve taken a closer look at the clear differences between wild fish and farm-raised, it’s important to note, that while more biodiversity exists in natural fish habitats rather than man-made fish farms, ruling out all farmed seafood isn’t all that easy, particularly if you’re a big seafood fan.
Again, as we mentioned, knowing your farmer is the best way to make sure you’re not getting the kind of product that’s been pumped full of antibiotics and fed GMO-based fishmeal. Talk to the people at your farmer’s market, your favorite restaurants or the person in the seafood department at your local market — educating yourself on where your food came from is great no matter what you’re eating. Seafood just adds an extra layer of confusion to the mix since it’s generally not clearly labeled with an organic tag like your produce or even your favorite snack foods.
Bottom Line — Know Where Your Food Comes From
When it all comes down to it, there’s no cut-and-dry answer as to whether or not you should only eat wild-caught fish or give in and turn a blind eye to unsavory farming practices. While it’s great to see that more fish farms are looking toward the future of the planet and adopting greener practices, sustainably caught, wild fish are generally worth the higher price tag, both for nutritional content, as well as flavor.
Got Fish on the Brain? Stop in to USS Nemo’s
At USS Nemo’s, we use the best ingredients, even if they are a bit more inconvenient. From shrimp and scallops to a variety of fish, we’ve got it all. As a Naples, Florida-based restaurant, we take our fish seriously and don’t skimp on the quality. You’ll taste the freshness whether you go with the Scottish salmon, the Miso-Broiled Sea Bass or something with more of a Mediterranean flair.
Want to make a reservation or get some information about the catch of the day? Give us a call at 239-261-6366, and one of our knowledgeable staff members will answer any questions you might have about our fresh fish and culinary offerings.