The truth about wild versus farm raised seafood

The truth about wild versus farm raised seafood

There are differences and similarities between wild and farm- raised seafood, and both have a place on menus.

Today’s restaurant-goers are proud of the fact that they are more informed about the food they’re eating than ever before. Unfortunately, they sometimes get the wrong information.

Some customers, for example, believe the misconception that wild-caught seafood tends be of higher quality than farm-raised seafood. At the same time, others accept the myth that fish farming — also known as aquaculture — damages the environment while catching fish in the wild does not.

This is clearly not the case, experts say, and while the terms wild-caught and farm-raised describe different methods of sourcing seafood, the two share important similarities. Knowledgeable chefs and restaurateurs, in fact, maintain
that both types of fish have their place on the menu and in society today.

Aquaculture is farmed fish

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aquaculture is a broad term that “refers to the breeding, rearing and harvesting of animals and plants in all types of water environments including ponds, rivers, lakes and the ocean” for the purpose of human consumption. Aquaculture is also employed to enhance wild fish and shellfish, restore threatened and endangered aquatic species, and rebuild ecologically important shellfish habitats.

Fish farming is necessary

NOAA supports sustainable aquaculture through research and policy. One of the central points the agency communicates to the public is that aquaculture is necessary to meet the demands of the growing global population.

“We cannot only rely on wild-caught seafood,” says James Morris, marine ecologist, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “We cannot do that globally and we cannot do that in the U.S. That is the reality, because the demand for seafood is more than the supply of wild catch.”

Both have a place in society and on menus

Diners enjoying Tilapia dishesMorris says the U.S. imports more than 80 percent of seafood Americans consume, and more than half of that is derived from aquaculture, primarily in Asia. “We need to look at how we can think differently and more sustainably,” he says. “We know that seafood is some of the healthiest diet choices we can make, and we need to be careful and strategic in how we source and supply it.”

In today’s seafood market farm-raised fish complements wild catch — a condition that is expected to remain unchanged. “We will never say aquaculture will replace wild,” Morris says. “Wild will always have a place at the table.”

Similarities between wild and farm-raised seafood

In the meantime, some consumers and chefs tend to harbor similarly flawed assumptions concerning the two types of seafood. For example, there are still customers who base their purchase decisions simply on whether a fish is wild-caught or farm-raised, says Ryan Bigelow, program engagement manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. “Both can be good or bad,” he says. “It depends on how they are farmed or harvested.”

In an effort to help consumers and chefs make their decisions, Seafood Watch researches and evaluates the environmental impact of aquaculture, making seafood recommendations based on standards. The standards reflect the amount of effluent discharge, siting of the aquaculture farm, the use of sustainable feed for the fish and other factors. Consumers and operators can look up names of seafood on the Seafood Watch website and determine whether the fish is posted as being Best Choice, Good Alternative, or Avoid.

Operators can find out about seafood

Chefs and restaurateurs who menu seafood need to ask their vendors questions beyond just whether the fish was wild or farmed. “You need to know what species you are buying, where it was farmed or caught, and how it was farmed or caught,” Bigelow says. “You really have to have a conversation with your supplier. Once you have that information, then you can come to a source like Seafood Watch, and compare the information they gave to our sustainability standards.”

Operators also should share the information about the seafood they’re menuing with their staff so they can pass it on to customers. A well-informed server can be a powerful force for not only educating the consumer, but also for selling sustainable seafood.

It’s also important to know that different cultures harbor different attitudes about aquaculture, says Contessa Kellogg-Winters, communications director for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), which is based in The Netherlands.
“Some cultures hold on to the idea that farmed fish is somehow the secondary choice,” she says. “In other cultures, however, farmed fish is preferred.”

ASC certifies environmentally and socially responsible seafood. The nonprofit organization establishes standards for different types of seafood. For example, for farm-raised tilapia, each farm is required to protect the biodiversity of the local ecosystem, adhere to strict limits to minimize the use of wild fish to feed the farmed fish, measure various parameters such as nitrogen levels to limit water pollution, use only approved medicines and not for preventive use, and establish safe working environments that do not employ child labor.

Aquaculture can provide a good story

Restaurants that purchase farmed seafood from ASC-certified suppliers should share the fish’s story with customers, just as operators do with locally sourced produce and beef. “Talk about the provenance, where the fish comes from,”
Kellogg-Winters says. “I hope to one day go into a restaurant and hear the server say, ‘We have this beautiful tilapia that is raised to a certification that lets you know workers are treated fairly, with safety measures in place, and they minimize antibiotics.’”

Often, however, it is the wild-caught seafood story that tends to be told — although it might not be the most accurate or up to date. “There is lot of romance involved in the fishing industry,” she says. “There is the idea of Hemingway, and
going fishing with your dad when you’re young.”

The future

Meanwhile, aquaculture, if practiced using the right standards and procedures, can play a vital role in feeding the global population. Wild-caught versus aquaculture should not be an all-or- nothing question. “We want to make sure there is room on the table for everything,” Kellogg-Winters says. “Especially when aquaculture will be the primary way we secure food for the future.”

Allied content by Penton Restaurant Group