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Eco-fish fight — farmed vs. wild-caught: Which is better?

4 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

(Photo: Thinkstock)

There is a lot of confusion about seafood, especially around fish labeling fraud, seafood’s environmental impact and whether wild-caught or farmed seafood is more sustainable.

Finding sustainably raised or caught fish in our global seafood marketplace can be complicated, but it is not hard. Taking the time to learn the differences and possible environmental impacts of the fish you are buying, cooking and serving can help ensure you are getting the fish species you paid for, and that the product you bought was raised or caught using the most sustainable practices possible.

So, which is better: farmed or wild-caught?

Really, one is not necessarily better than the other, but the differences depend on three factors:

  • The fish species you are buying
  • How it was caught or farmed, and
  • Where it was caught or raised

“Most people don’t realize that most of the seafood eaten in the United States comes from farmed sources,” said Sheila Bowman, manager of culinary and strategic initiatives at the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif. “Advancements in aquaculture techniques mean environmentally-responsible farmed seafood now exists! Chefs are bringing these new and interesting items to their menus so it is important consumers show support and stretch their palates beyond long-time favorites, like mussels and oysters.”

What you can do in three steps

You know what fits your business best, so follow these three steps when choosing which fish you put on your menu.

1.  Educate yourself about the issues. Each of the organizations below use their own methodologies so find one you agree with and stick with it.

  • FishChoice, a company that connects buyers and sellers of sustainable seafood.
  • FishWatch program of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tracks fish species and rates best choices for sustainability.
  • Global Aquaculture Alliance educates fish farmers about best practices and certifies their farms as sustainable.
  • SeafoodWatch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium monitors fish populations the world over and recommends what fish to buy.
  • Seafood Selector by the Environmental Defense Fund also monitors fish stocks and recommends what species of fish to purchase (they work closely with SeafoodWatch).

2. Next, talk to your suppliers and ask the following:

  • What species is the fish? For example, blue fin tuna is at 3% of its historical population while yellow tail and albacore are doing reasonably well (depending on location).
  • From where does the fish originate? Pacific salmon typically are well managed while wild Atlantic salmon populations are endangered. As a general rule though, most US wild-caught fisheries are well managed and tend to fish using more sustainable practices.
  • How was it caught or farmed? Some fishing or farming practices are more sustainable than others. Avoid purchasing fish caught in long lines or by bottom trawling since those methods can kill unintended species such as sea turtles and sharks.

Tip: Ask your supplier to answer these questions on your invoices for each type of fish so you know what it is, where it came from and how it was raised or caught.

Most suppliers will work to keep your business, but if one does not, find a new one!

3. Ensure you are flexible with your choices since fish has seasons and shifts in populations from year to year. Inspire your chefs to create interesting dishes by piloting little-used species, like chili pepper rockfish, which is well managed.

Finally, don’t take my word for it. Listen to chef, author and sustainable seafood champion Barton Seaver explain why sustainable seafood matters.



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