Farmed Fish 101

by Robin Madel

Published: 12/02/16, Last updated: 5/24/19

October is National Seafood Month and this week we’re exploring aquaculture — also known as fish farming — through the lens of sustainability. Aquaculture has been around for centuries and, in some locations, has grown into an unsustainable industry. If, as predicted by the UN, we’re going to increasingly turn to fish to meet the protein needs of our rapidly growing, global population, it’s time to take a fresh look at how we can produce that fish in a way that is safe, plentiful and less damaging to the environment.

Aquaculture or fish farming has been practiced for centuries and is on the rise in the US and around the world. In 2013, Americans consumed almost 14.5 pounds of fish and shellfish per person and over half of that was produced from aquaculture. As of 2011, more protein was produced through fish farming than through beef production. Clearly, aquaculture holds great promise as a way to meet the nutritional needs of our ever expanding global population.

Unfortunately, some forms of aquaculture have earned an unsustainable reputation because of issues like pollution, mass escapes and unsustainably-produced fish food. Fortunately, smaller systems that combine fish production with plant farming are on the rise and are being constructed in some pretty unusual places — warehouses, rooftops and even hospital grounds. Land-based aquaculture and aquaponics (when combined with plants) systems are cropping up everywhere and are turning the tide on aquaculture’s unsustainable past.

I asked aquaculture expert, Marianne Cufone, Executive Director and Founder of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, for some simple tips on how to figure out what makes aquaculture sustainable and how to make the most sustainable seafood choices, whether the options are farmed or wild-caught.

What are the major forms of aquaculture and what are the major issues that make them unsustainable?

There are various forms of aquaculture, but for simplicity purposes, we can divide them into two main categories — we’ll call them “in-water” and “on-land.” Under each major category fall a number of subcategories. “In-water” aquaculture can be open-ocean or in a pond or river (or other). “On-land” aquaculture can be recirculating or flow-through — both in tank-type structures (or other types).

Each form of aquaculture comes with its own challenges: energy use, what to feed fish, escapes of fish, parasite infestations and more. What I think separates more sustainable methods from less sustainable methods are the following:

  1. Is there a high likelihood of escape of fish or contamination to the surrounding environment from the system (like from excess feed or fish waste)?
  2. Are the fish likely to become stressed, ill or infected with parasites? If so, how is this addressed?
  3. How much fuel/power does the system use?
  4. Does the system impact the use of space or enjoyment of the surroundings of other people?

Additionally, there are more detailed questions, such as:

  1. How many fish are being raised in how much space/water? “Stocking density” is important for the health and growth of the fish.
  2. What kind of fish are being raised? For example, large, highly migratory, predatory fish aren’t a good choice.
  3. What kind of feed is being used? Are wild fish being fed to farmed fish?
  4. What happens to all the waste created?

Learn more about why feeding wild fish to farmed fish is such a problem.

There are more questions to ask about aquaculture systems, but these are the basics.

How To Order Fish infographic
Click image for larger view.

How do I order fish? What questions should I ask?

Getting a straight answer about how the fish on your plate got there can be very tricky. Often restaurants and markets do not know where they source fish. If I can’t get a good answer about where the fish came from, I order something else.

Generally when I order fish I ask:

  • Do you have any local fish?

If yes, I order that; if no I ask:

  • Where did your fish come from?

Generally, anywhere in the US is better than anywhere out of the country — even if it is farmed in the US. This is because imports burn fuel, the fish is less fresh and is far less likely to have been inspected (less than 2 percent [of fish] that comes into the US is inspected for contaminants like insects or rat hair).

Also, if it came from another country, it is most likely farmed — over 80 percent of the fish we eat is farm-raised and more than 50 percent is imported — and under poorer conditions than in the US.

If nothing on the menu is from the US, I ask:

  • What countries do you get your fish from?

If they say Canada or South America, I ask if they know if it was farmed or wild. If it’s wild-caught, I might eat it. If not, I probably won’t, with the exception of fish that was farmed in a recirculating system in Canada — then it’s a go!

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