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As we become more aware of what we eat, we begin to wonder about how we get our food, especially in regard to fish. This leads to a long-standing debate on whether one should eat farmed fish, wild caught fish, or if there is even a difference between the two methods. We may assume that wild-caught fish is the best option, but the actual answer may not be as clear.
It’s no secret that fish are a great part of your potential diet. According to the American Heart Association, the average person is recommended to eat fish twice a week to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke (Washington State Department of Health). They are a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient important for heart and brain health that we can’t get on our own. At this point, there are two main categories of fishing that are responsible for bringing fish into the supermarkets—wild caught fish and farm raised fish. The two methods are pretty self-explanatory. Wild caught fish are fish caught in their natural habitats by fishermen, and farm raised fish are born and raised within an enclosure. Sometimes, fish are both wild-caught and farm-raised, in which fish are caught in the wild and raised in a farm to be fattened up to be sold in a market. More than 50% of fish are caught in farms, and the World Bank predicts that by 2030, more than 2/3rds of fish will be farm-raised (WTOP). Because of recent concerns about contaminants in fish such as mercury and antibiotics, people are beginning to become more concerned about what kinds of fish they are eating and through what means.
More often than not, the first assumption between the health effects of farm raised and wild caught fish is that wild caught fish is the better option due to the fact that it is seen as more natural. However, assumptions are not always reflective of reality. This assumption may be from a study in 2004 that found that the levels of PCBs (a cancer-causing chemical) where 10 times higher in farm raised fish than in wild caught fish. That certainly does sound like a terrifying statistic until one realizes that even at that level, the level of PCBs within farm raised fish still sit below the 2% legal threshold (Quick and Dirty Tips). Another important toxin that people frequently worry about is mercury, a poisonous metal commonly associated with fish. The most dangerous fish in regard to mercury are wild caught such as swordfish, tuna, and shark. This is normally also because big predator fish often have the highest mercury levels because they get all their mercury from eating smaller fish. Another big consideration in this regard is during pregnancy because mercury can also have the chance to cross over the placenta and affect the baby’s cognitive and motor skills. However, this does not mean that pregnant women should forgo fish all together. In fact, in a Danish study, pregnant women who ate more fish per week had babies with better cognitive skills than pregnant mothers who ate little fish (Baby Center). Pregnant mothers just have to avoid fish mentioned above with higher rates of mercury and stick to fish such as salmon, trout, and anchovies. Purdue University also has a wallet card on its website that gives a more detailed guide on what kinds of fish and how much of it pregnant women can eat per week (you can find it here).
Another large concern in regard to farmed fish versus wild caught are the environmental impacts of these methods. There is currently a lot of debate going on in regard to what fishing method is more sustainable. The biggest problem with fish farms is that the farms can aversely affect the natural habitats of the fish around the farms (Washington State Department of Health). Two concerns include concerns about fish escaping from enclosures and affecting the natural species or the pollution that can ensue from the waste provided by the fish and leftover feed. However, the United States keeps stringent laws that consider the public’s health and the effect fish farms have on an ecosystem. There have also been more innovations in regard to making more sustainable farms. For instance, in Chicago, there is a hydroponic garden that uses the water to both raise tilapia and grow salad greens at the same time (WTOP). Wildlife groups are also debating the sustainability of wild fishing, and some groups have even called to stop the practice due to overfishing in natural habitats. The amount of resources used to go out to sea sometimes outweighs the resource use of city-centered aquaponic farms. There is no cut and dry answer at this point whether you should always buy farm raised or wild caught fish. Luckily, the Seafood Watch Website provides a great resource where you can search for any fish, and it provides the best method to request the fish given the species (you can find it here).
It’s hard to say whether or not there is a truly reliable rule when it comes to whether or not one should buy wild caught or farm raised fish. While it is easy to assume that wild caught is the best choice in each case, farm raised fish in the United States are heavily regulated for both environmental impact and health concerns. No matter what, health professionals recommend that you should eat fish twice a week, no matter how it was caught or raised (New York Times). There are also assorted guides you can check out that will give you information on what fish you can eat (and how frequently) and whether you should prefer farm or wild-caught fish according to the kind of fish you are looking to have for lunch or dinner. If you do eat fish, you don't necessarily have to forgo eating fish for the sake of what method it was procured. You'll still be getting the important health benefits from fish.