Do these look like happy fish?

It bothers me that people are confused about what to eat. I take pride in distilling intricate nutrition information into something straight forward and easy to follow. For today’s blog, my plan was to explain the differences between wild and farmed fish but something new happened. The more I researched, the more questions I had. While wild fish has its clear virtues, some farms are better than others. I don’t consider myself an aquaculture expert and as I delved deeper into this topic I really felt- well much like a fish out of water (or in this case a fish out of the wild). I thought to scrap this post but realized something, if the ins and outs of fish farming are confusing to me, chances are I’m not alone. So here we go.
For starters, why is wild better than farmed fish?
  • Wild fish, as the name implies, have room to swim. Farmed fish, on the other hand, are often confined to crowded spaces. One consequence of this is that farmed fish is fattier. Unfortunately this increase in fat isn’t the “good” fat. Wild salmon is 20% higher in protein and 20% lower in far than farm raised.
  • Farmed fish is lower in omega 3’s than wild fish
  • Fish farming is similar in many ways to factory farms for animals. Crowded conditions lead to contamination and the need for antibiotic use. Sulfa drugs with your salmon anyone?
  • Farmed fish aren’t searching for their next meal, they are “fed”. Their diet is very different from their wild counterparts. I had no idea farmed fish weren’t fed fish or other marine “stuff” until I read an article in the NYT last spring about tilapia farms. Corn, soy, wheat and even chicken (yes chicken) are used at fish farms.
  • Due to the change from natural feed, farmed fish looks different than wild. Two red food dyes are used to color the flesh of farmed salmon. Otherwise it would appear greyish. This dying is known as “color finishing”. One of these colors is made from a strain of red yeast.
  • Furthermore the proximity of many fish farms to wild fish adversely affects wild fish. A parasite known as sea lice has been on the rise due to this.
Antibiotics, corn and chicken in my fish? No thank you, I choose wild whenever possible but have certain lingering questions:

How do you know if fish is farmed or wild?
My general rule is that stores and companies using or selling wild fish want you to know and this fish is generally labeled. If it doesn’t say wild, it is almost always farmed. “Bred”, “raised” and “cultivated” are euphemisms for farmed. Atlantic salmon is farmed.

Are all farms flawed?
As I scoured Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site, I learned that fish farming or aquaculture is part of our future. “The ecological impact of fish farming depends on the species chosen, where the farm is located, and how they are raised.” Not all fish farms are polluting the oceans and not all farms use chicken feathers as feed. The problem is that you can’t very well ask the waiter at the restaurant if your fish came from a good farm or a nasty one.  I would hope at some point there will be language much like “grass fed beef” to inform consumers.

Until the time when we can distinguish better farms from foul (or fowl) ones. Wild is the better bet. Canned wild salmon and wild sardines are more affordable options. And though farmed fish has its drawbacks and is inferior to wild nutritionally, I wouldn’t go ordering the steak.
Do you find fish facts confusing? Do you pay attention to where your fish comes from? Does coloring, antibiotics, soy or wheat used with farmed fish worry you?

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