Students often ask which is better: Farmed fish or wild caught. Sometimes we should go wild. Other times, it may be better to stay down on the farm. Many wild-caught fish face extinction due to habitat loss, overfishing, and pollution. And some fish farming (aquaculture) operations avoid the unhealthy, ecologically unwise, and ethically bankrupt practices of the worst players in that industry.
While populations of large, predatory fish like tunas, billfish, wild salmon, and sharks have plummeted in recent years, and should be subject to a worldwide fishing moratorium, other marine food sources have proven resilient to fishing pressure, especially within well-managed fisheries. Wild striped bass recovered well from depletion in the 1980s. Squid, certain wild crabs, lobsters, Pacific halibuts, Atlantic mahi-mahi, and others are carefully monitored by marine conservation organizations like the Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium, who track their numbers, and advise consumers on which species are abundant enough to withstand fishing pressure. These organizations provide free downloadable guides to fish and seafood choices from their websites. Among their suggestions right now are herrings, domestic shrimp, bluefish, Alaskan Pollock, and Maine lobsters.
Most of the recommended choices are now aquaculture fish. When I started in the cooking field, salmon farming was the big new thing. Chefs viewed it as a solution to dwindling wild catches, and a source of consistent, fresh product. Salmon farming caused cruel conditions, environmental damage, drain on wild resources for feed, and health threats created by the massive concentration of these carnivorous fish in rivers, streams, and ocean pens. Since then fish farmers learned lessons from the salmon farming industry’s mistakes, and now raise other fish on largely vegetarian diets, including tilapia, catfish, barramundi, and cobia. These fish are raised in closed systems that prevent escape of farmed fish or their waste into wild ecosystems. They have been chosen in part for their tendency to school tightly together, so that they aren’t deprived of natural behavior in aquaculture ponds.
The greatest success story in aquaculture is the cultivation of mussels, clams, and oysters. Their normal diet of algae requires virtually no wild harvesting of fish to feed them. And their filtering of algae from coastal waterways has mitigated some of the excessive algae blooms caused by runoff of fertilizer from suburban lawns, agriculture, and other human activities. It’s a case of unintended positive consequences.
Those who choose to eat fish and seafood have sustainable options from both wild and farmed sources. To ensure that threatened species aren’t further depleted and that harmful aquaculture practices aren’t encouraged, consumers should regularly check with marine conservation organizations like those listed above to stay abreast of the latest data and best seafood choices.
Jay Weinstein, part-time instructor, was trained at the Culinary Institute of America. A New York based food writer, editor, culinary instructor, and cookbook author, his food articles and recipes have been featured in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Newsday, Time Out New York, National Geographic Traveler, and numerous other publications. Jay’s latest book, The Ethical Gourmet (Random House/Broadway Books), focuses on ecologically sustainable fine foods. He is also author of The Everything Vegetarian Cookbook (Adams), and A Cup of Comfort Cookbook (Adams). He is a veteran of some of America’s top restaurant kitchens, including New York’s Le Bernardin and Orso, and Boston’s Jasper’s and The Four Seasons Hotel.