farm-raised fish vs wild caught

Farm-Raised Fish vs. Wild Caught: Pros and Cons

Jane Marsh - August 26, 2020

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Farm-raised fish vs. wild-caught — which is better? Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple. The climate is changing, and the seafood industry is adjusting with it. Wild-caught fish may be more nutritious and support a more localized economy, but farmed fish provides a stable supply for a growing population. Comparing the two requires examining the social, economic and environmental impact of each. 

Pros of Fish Farming

Some of the advantages of farm-raised fish include a more reliable supply of fish, and the ability to support various fish species in the same system. Fish farms are a rapidly growing industry, and there is considerable job growth to be considered. While fish farms historically have had a terrible toll on the environment, new technology and monitoring systems are advancing the way operations work.

1. Stable, Diverse Supplies

As wild fish populations dwindle due to climate change, fish farms may provide a more stable source of protein. Some certain species of farmed fish, like salmon, are genetically modified to grow more quickly and require less fish meal than non-modified types, as issued by FDA in 2015. Additionally, modern technologies like the Internet of Things and AI enable farms to have greater oversight on their fish farms, improving quality of life and growth potential.

The impact of the fish farm depends heavily on the species being farmed. Shellfish, high-protein fish like trout and salmon and herbivorous ones like tilapia and carp can all be farmed. In the United States, shrimp, Atlantic salmon and tilapia are the most produced species. Since many wild fish species also flourish in a farmed setting, farmed fish may provide population stability for threatened species.

2. Monitored, Closed Systems

One of the biggest issues with farmed fish is environmental waste, but it may also be an advantage. Innovations in technology are helping fish farms reuse and remove water, often through recirculatory aquaponic systems that use microbes to clean the water. They promote circular economic practices and can be used as fertilizer. 

In these closed systems, farmers have increased governance.  Since farmed fish has received a hefty dose of bad press, the aquaculture industry is working hard to make sustainable changes. New policies include carbon credits and sustainable certifications, holding fish farms more accountable. The controlled environment makes it easier to comply with regulatory bodies.

3. Job Potential

Aquaculture is a growing industry, and it may be a stable job opportunity in an industry that has dealt with economic highs and lows in the past few years. For example, the state of Maine invested in training institutions and educational resources in 2020 to support the next wave of seafood employees. Revolutions like this are seen across the world.

Pros of Wild-Caught Fish

While farmed fish may grow faster and larger, wild-caught species are still more nutritious. It’s also important to consider when it comes to considering farm-raised fish vs wild caught, fishing still is the dominant industry in many coastal economies, and there are entire communities that depend on wild-caught fish for their livelihood. New policies also seek to allow habitat restoration, by limiting the area and scope of fishing.

1. More Nutritious

While the taste may be comparable, farmed salmon is lower in omega-3s than wild-caught salmon. Many people eat fish for its nutrition, making wild-caught salmon worth the higher investment.

Wild-salmon is not only more nutritious but also less toxic. Farmed fish and shellfish have reportedly high levels of dioxins, due to the closed system and persistent pollution due to food waste and the use of antibiotics and pesticides. Some farms may use unethical practices to force extreme growth on their fish, which usually means hormones and toxins that aren’t the best for human consumption.

2. Support Communities and Local Consumption

Most small fishing companies support their local communities, and many coastal towns rely heavily on wild-caught fish for their livelihood. There are some nations where much of their gross domestic product is based on the strength of their fishing communities. Without the seafood industry, many regions would be vulnerable to economic depression. They would also be vulnerable to food scarcity, because these areas typically rely on fish as their major source of protein.

Traditional fishing supports communities, which in turn supports local consumption. It’s easy to forget, but most fish is flown all around the world before it reaches the consumer. If local fishing communities were able to supply fish for themselves without needing to export the majority of their catch, they would be much more resilient. They would also reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of fisheries worldwide by eliminating unnecessary transportation.

3. Habitat Restoration

Awareness is growing around the issues surrounding wild fish. This means more advocacy and funding is going toward protecting their homes to support sustainable growth and maintaining species numbers. Today, protective measures are implemented to support vulnerable populations.

In the United States, rights-based methods have reduced overfishing, showing that better management practices and designated seasons reduce the impact of fishing on wild populations. 

Cons of Fish Farming

The main environmental complaints regarding farmed fish center around water pollution, disease, nutrition and escape impacting wild fish. 

1. Reduced Fish Health and Nutrition

It is easier for diseases to spread in small fish farming environments. There are few places for illnesses to dissolve, and it’s more contagious in a small space. In addition to waste and pesticides, fish farms can also lead to the spread of viral, bacterial and fungal diseases, including a parasite known as sea lice. 

Water pollution is a huge problem in aquaculture that impacts health and nutritional value. While some companies are looking for innovative waste to manage contaminated water, the majority of operations leach toxic pollution into open waters, including disease, pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

Farmed fish are also not fed the purest ingredients. While some fish are now being marketed as fed a “herbivorous diet,” in reality, this means they are being fed a soy-based meal, that lacks the nutrients most fish need to thrive. One study found that the health risks of eating farmed salmon may outweigh the potential health benefits of eating fish.

2. Escape

It is possible for fish to escape farms, which makes many wonder why companies shouldn’t just default to wild-caught options. The issue with escaped fish is cross-contamination if the fish are sick. They may have also grown up in captivity, and rewilding captive fish is dangerous. They likely do not know how to survive in natural environments, reducing their potential life span.

3. Input Demand

Considering the environmental impacts of farmed fish, scientists do not think that fish farms could replace the supply of wild-fish, even if land-based farms became more widespread. Massive systemic overhauls would have to occur or fish demand would have to decrease which is not happening any time soon. It will only grow until 2050, where fish consumption will be at its highest in history.

Cons of Wild-Caught Fish

Wild-caught fish are not without fault, and overfishing has decimated certain species so badly they may never fully recover. Habitat destruction and bycatch are other factors that negatively affect the environment.

1. Overfishing and Bycatch

With populations dwindling, fishing boats travel further into the open sea to find certain species, burning fossil fuels to catch fish that are already suffering from habitat loss. These species were already overfished, and now more habitats are bearing the brunt of human exploitation.

Bycatch refers to the process of catching unwanted species, usually through trawling or dredging catch methods. As people enter new regions of the water they’re not used to fishing in, collateral damage in the form of bycatch increases. Unwanted types of fish and other aquatic animals, like turtles, can end up in the catch. 

2. Habitat Destruction and Extinction

Anthropogenic influences are destroyed aquatic ecosystems. Nets are sinking to the bottom of oceans, and fuels are poisoning the waters. It is uncertain if the damage is too much for the environments to ever revitalize. Declaring marine protected areas could potentially limit the impact on habitats, restoring marine ecosystems and allowing populations to recover.

Getting rid of an entire species’ home could put numerous fish in jeopardy. Population collapse is an environmental and economic crisis. Subsidizing larger fishing fleets leads to a decrease in fishing jobs around the world, and potential species collapse could be extremely detrimental to communities that rely on the fishing industry for their livelihood. 

3. Transportation

The majority of wild fish is exported, processed elsewhere, and shipped for weeks before it reaches anyone’s dinner plate. The transportation of wild-caught fish in the global economy is not sustainable and has a significant carbon footprint. From catch to shipment, each kilogram of fish makes between one and five kilograms of carbon emissions.

Farm-Raised Fish vs. Wild Caught, Moving Forward

Both wild and farmed fish have their benefits, both environmental and economic. When comparing farm-raised fish vs wild caught, it is crucial to consider how current operation methods affect the environment, and what changes can be made to support a more sustainable system. In the face of climate change, sustainable seafood continues to adapt as best it can.

This post was updated on May 20, 2024, with more updated information.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.