The merits of wild versus farm-raised seafood have been hotly debated since the Norwegians first began farm-raising salmon. At first, farm-raised seafood seemed to be the responsible way to prevent over-fishing in the wild and protecting endangered species.
Yet, as with so many other ventures which began with good intentions, profit-seekers exploited it and the industry as a whole began to, well, stink a bit.
Farmed fish are those raised for commercial purposes within tanks or manmade enclosures. The most commonly farmed fish include carp, catfish, cod, salmon, sea bass and tilapia.
Much like cattle pens and poultry cages, farmed fish are cultivated in far more cramped quarters than in the wild. These congested conditions have given rise to several problems. For example, fish abrade their fins and tails against the cages as well as each other, dramatically increasing rate of disease and infection.
Sea lice have become particularly pervasive among fish farms, decimating populations by as much as 50 percent, and adversely affecting nearby wild fish species as well. In order to offset the damage of pests and disease, some operators rely upon strong doses of antibiotics to cut the mortality down to about 30 percent. This, by itself is controversial, as much has been made about the presence of antibiotics in our food supply, yet another potential contributor to the rise in antibiotic-resistant “super” bacteria. It also results in antibiotics being released into the water supply.
The argument for fish farming as a way of reducing stress on wild populations has been laid to waste particularly in the farmed salmon industry. Salmon are carnivorous and therefore require protein, often being fed fish oil and fishmeal from wild sources. As a result, farmed salmon actually consume nearly two-and-a-half times their own body weight in the equivalent of wild salmon, according to Rosamond L. Naylor at Stanford’s Center for Environmental Science and Policy. Hardly an effective conservation argument! There is also pressure to permit the cultivation of genetically modified fish, which terrifies some scientists who perceive these “frankenfish” as they’re now known, as an even greater threat to wild fish populations.
Add to this the fact that farmed fish often contain as much as 10 times cancer-causing PCBs, mercury (a neurotoxin by-product of the coal-burning industry) and other toxic dioxins in their systems than fish existing in the wild. These pollutants make their way into the ocean, are absorbed by marine life and stored in their accumulated fat, the same fat later distilled into the concentrated fish oil that is a primary ingredient of a farmed salmon’s diet.
Even those labeled as “organic” farmed fish are packed tightly into confined spaces, and pumped full of chemicals and drugs to fend off disease as well as speed up their growth rates and reproductive systems. Artificial colors are fed to all farmed fish because they are otherwise often an unappealing grey color due to their unnatural living conditions and food supply. Farmed salmon, for example, is deliberately custom-tinted varying shades of pink, chosen by the farm operators, to avoid revolting consumers.
If that wasn’t sufficient argument to choose wild over farmed fish, the overcrowded living conditions result in excessive amounts of fish waste and feed collecting beneath the pens, destroying nearby shellfish and other marine life.
Yet, demand for seafood is rising higher than ever and is estimated to double by 2040, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of this supply will no doubt have to come from fish farms because virtually half of the wild fisheries on our planet have been over-fished and natural supplies are exhausted.
The commonsense alternative to farmed fish would be to eat wild fish, but this once healthy food source is no longer as safe as it once was because they are subject to the same water polluting toxins, PCBs, that all fish are, even those labeled organic. Arguably, the safest fish supplies are Alaskan wild varieties certified by the Maine Stewardship Council but even these may soon be in danger if farms in British Columbia keep encroaching on Alaska’s southern border. Wild fish, particularly salmon, from Scotland and Ireland are also considered to be among the safest to consume.
The sad truth is that, in general, fish is no longer the health food it was once touted to be and should be consumed in moderation, and avoided completely by women who are pregnant as mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect the unborn child.