6 Things You Need to Know About Farmed Seafood

by Ryan Nebeker


If you have eaten seafood recently, odds are you have eaten farmed seafood. You might have believed you were making a sustainable and healthy choice, one that helps protect wild populations and is a smart way to feed a growing population. But the real story of farmed fish is more complicated.

Dig Into The FoodPrint of Farmed Seafood

The truth is, the farming of seafood has many of the same problems that the factory farming of land animals does. Just like chicken, beef, pork, and eggs from factory farms have disastrous impacts on the soil, water, and air, industrial fish farms flush their problems into a shared, delicate resource: the ocean. And while they promise they will boost local economies and feed the world a healthy protein it so desperately needs, they are instead replicating the worst offenses of factory farming. But just as with the farming of land animals, there are better, more sustainable ways to farm seafood that don’t cause all these problems.

People are eating more fish than ever before, but it can be hard to know exactly what you’re buying. While labels and certifications can help provide information, it can be difficult to know what they mean — and some fish have no labels at all. Different ecolabels address various standards, but no one label addresses all dimensions of environmental and social sustainability. It can also be difficult to tell if a label honestly addresses a standard, or if it is simply a marketing claim.

If you’re one of those people eating fish, and you’re trying to understand how your fish gets to your plate, keep these things in mind:

Local, Wild-Caught Fish is Best

There’s nobody more attuned to what’s freshest and most plentiful than someone who fishes every day. Whenever you can, try to support fishermen by shopping at your local market or fishmonger. However, it’s important to remember to stay attuned to seafood products sold from small and mid-scale fishing vessels vs. industrial vessels. The Local Catch Network’s seafood finder can pair you with a local supplier to ensure you’re finding local and wild-caught fish.

Say “No” to Imported Seafood, Especially Shrimp

It’s always good to support your local economy, but there are other reasons to avoid imported farmed seafood. Laws about drug and chemical use overseas can be inconsistently enforced, and not all imported seafood is checked carefully. Some fish farms overseas also have serious issues with labor exploitation and habitat destruction. This is especially true for shrimp, which you should only buy from domestic sources. Imported seafood comes at a tempting price, but think about buying domestic seafood as an investment in your community and a more sustainable world.

Most Salmon is Farmed and Most of It Isn’t Great

The ocean-based cages used for farmed salmon, have all kinds of problems: too many fish get crowded into small areas, leading to diseases and parasites that take antibiotics and harsh chemicals to control. Fish waste pollutes the water, and escaped fish disturb native species. Feeding the fish takes a mix of industrially farmed soy and wild-caught small fish, meaning that these farms aren’t even helping to avoid overfishing.

Not All Fish Farms Are Bad 

But remember: fish farms come in all shapes, sizes and locales, and this means they have different impacts. Not all fish farms have the problems described above. In some land-based fish ponds, fish rely on naturally growing algae or low-impact food like insects. A growing number of farms use a recirculating setup that filters and recycles water, creating a closed-loop system where extra nutrients are recycled to feed crops like lettuce and tomatoes. To help find a sustainable fish farm near you, Recirculating Farms Coalition has put together a map to find the nearest farm in your vicinity.

Check Out Bivalves and Seaweed, Both Farmed and Wild

Some of the lowest-impact farms (which are, by definition, not the massive operations) aren’t even for fish at all. Bivalves — like mussels, clams, and oysters — aren’t just delicious, they also help make coastal waters cleaner by filtering out extra algae and nutrients. Seaweed does the same, and it’s becoming more mainstream. Keep an eye out for seaweed pickles, kimchi, and salads along with the traditional nori used for sushi.

Knowledge is Power

Farming fish can be complicated! While food companies love to advertise their products as sustainable, it’s hard to know whether that’s really the case. Unfortunately, inconsistent standards mean that labels and certifications aren’t an easy way out either. The best way to know whether your seafood is sustainable is to understand where it comes from and how it’s produced. Read FoodPrint’s report on Farmed Seafood, where you can learn to separate the facts about aquaculture from the marketing buzz.


Top photo by Alexey Stiop/ Adobe Stock.

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