Skip to content

Farm Raised vs. Wild Caught Seafood

Farmed Seafood vs Wild Caught Seafood

One of the most hotly debated topics in the seafood business, and of increasing concern to our customers, is the question, “Is wild-caught seafood better than farm raised seafood?” These days people are becoming more concerned about where their food comes from, and the impact of producing that food on the environment, in particular what effects producing that food has on global warming/climate change. However, there are pros and cons to farmed seafood, just as there are pros and cons to wild-caught seafood.

First, let’s define these terms.

What is Wild-Caught Seafood?

Wild-caught seafood refers to fish and shellfish that are captured in their natural environment by various means depending on the target species. 

What is Farmed Seafood?

Farmed seafood, or aquaculture, refers to fish that are raised in a controlled environment, such as ocean pens or tanks. In other words, to a large extent controlling their environment, what they eat, and how they grow.

 Facts About Aquaculture

  • Many would be surprised to learn that around half of the seafood consumed globally is produced by aquaculture as reported by the World Economic Forum.
  • According to OECD, the United States produced 5.2 million tons of fish in 2021, with 17% of that coming from aquaculture.
  • NOAA has reported the United States imports between 70-85% of its seafood with more than half of that produced by aquaculture.

So whether we know it or not, here in the U.S., we’re eating a lot of farmed fish. The vast majority of shrimp, salmon, trout, and tilapia are farm-raised. On all of our product pages, we let you know if the item is farmed or wild.

Aquaculture has been around since ancient times. There is evidence that the Egyptians and Chinese used fish farming 3,000 years ago. There are also ancient Roman murals, dating back more than 2,000 years depicting aquaculture, along with physical remains of man-made fish ponds used to grow certain kinds of fish as a source of food.

Fish farming did not become a commercial thing in America until the 1950s with trout farms out west and catfish farms down south. These were not large scale enterprises yet, mainly just regional.

 Is Farmed Seafood Bad?

Many of the concerns people have with farmed fish today stem from the early days of aquaculture. In the 1970s and 80s, when commercial fish farming began to boom globally, there were a lot of problems and concerns. The industry was new, and many of the problems had never been encountered before. Problems like overcrowding of fish pens and the resulting mortality, how to control the waste and effluent (including pesticides, uneaten food and dead fish) from being flushed into the surrounding environment, and how to develop better, more organic feed were just some of the challenges facing this new industry. Farmed fish seemed unnatural to people, another example of human interference with nature. They did not take into account that even though virtually everything else people ate, whether it be fruits, vegetables, beef, pork, chicken, etc. was farm raised. This visceral objection to farmed fish never seemed to add up.

Aquaculture has made great strides since those early days. Today’s fish farms vie for important and prestigious certifications such as ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council), BAP (Best Aquaculture Practices) and FOS (Friend of the Sea). Becoming certified by these international organizations means the farming operation has met very strict requirements and has been through very rigorous, meticulous inspections regarding every aspect of its operation. For example, the feed must be fully traceable, the farm must develop and implement impact assessments to protect birds, marine mammals and sensitive habitats and steps must be taken to protect the seabed and the environment surrounding the farming operation. At Fulton Fish Market, we are committed to providing you with a wide variety of responsibly sourced seafood, procured from well-managed wild fisheries and sustainable aquaculture producers. To find out more information, read our Sustainability Pledge.

Benefits of Farmed Seafood

Today, the fish farming industry is very aware of its carbon footprint and is taking every step possible to reduce it. To accurately estimate the carbon footprint of farmed seafood is a difficult thing to do, considering the various methods and technologies used in modern aquaculture. However, the SU-EATABLE LIFE database indicates that with farmed salmon, for example, the rate is 1.61kg of greenhouse gas emissions generated for every one kilo of salmon produced. Compare that to beef, which comes in at 51kg of greenhouse gas emissions generated for every one kilo of beef produced.

Today’s certified fish farms are very clean, highly regulated, and safe. When done correctly, aquaculture provides a consistent and sustainable supply of food, creates jobs, and reduces the pressure on wild fish populations.

One of the main benefits of farmed seafood for consumers is its availability. Farmed fishing provides a consistent and predictable supply of seafood, making it more accessible and affordable for consumers. Farmed seafood also relieves the pressure on wild stocks that are still in the process of recovering. No species has gone extinct because of farming. As the world population increases, the need for protein sources increases as well. Farmed seafood plays a vital role in providing additional resources for food.

Is Wild-Caught Seafood Better?

It depends on what you consider “better.”

​​One benefit of wild-caught seafood is its natural diet. Fish caught in the wild feed on a diverse range of food, which gives them a range of nutrients and wild-caught fish often has a distinct flavor that is not present in farmed fish.

The United States has some of the most regulated fisheries in the world. Regulating and controlling the seafood industry here in America is an industry in itself. There are a myriad of federal regulations, state regulations, local regulations, rules, orders, directives and statutes that must be followed. While it may seem cumbersome and excessive, the results are healthy fisheries. The fish stocks that aren’t quite there yet are closely scrutinized so no further damage will be done and can be rebuilt.

Unfortunately, not every place in the world is as forward thinking and environmentally conscious as we are. In 2009, scientists working with the United Nations graded 53 major fishing nations as to how they comply with the UN’s voluntary code of conduct enacted in 1995 to combat overfishing. The 53 nations in question are responsible for 96% of the world’s catch, and it was found that more than 40% of the world’s fishing is conducted unsustainably and largely in defiance of international codes of conduct. The US and Norway finished at the top of the list with the highest compliance rates. The bottom 28 countries, representing 40% of the world’s catch, finished so poorly they were not even given a number grade, just listed as “FAIL.”

The United States is recognized as a global leader in sustainable fishing. According to NOAA, wild capture fisheries in the US are conducted under science based management plans, and by law these plans must:

  • consider social and economic impact for fishing communities
  • prevent overfishing
  • rebuild depleted stocks
  • minimize bycatch
  • conserve essential fish habitat

It may take some time to accomplish all of these goals. However, by taking these steps, along with others such as quotas, area closures, and size requirements, the US is working to guarantee there will be fish in the future.

At Fulton Fish Market, you can trust our commitment to responsibly source all your seafood.

What Impact Does the Fishing Industry Have On the Environment?

As fishermen respond to different environments, climate change, seasonal shifts, and a never ending avalanche of paperwork, their fishing efforts and methods have to evolve as well. This is mainly seen in better made boats and more functional gear. Lately a big driver in improving fishing gear is concern for bycatch and the marine environment. 

Fishermen have a vested interest in preserving their “workplace,” so to speak, and to make sure their supply of raw goods doesn’t run out. According to Fisheries of the United States, in 2020 alone, commercial fishermen landed 8.4 billion pounds of seafood using all kinds of gear – including trawls, traps, pots, gill nets, and dredges to name a few. Not all of this gear is gentle on the reefs and seabed, and not all of this gear discriminates enough as to what is being caught. Therein lies the catalyst and motivation to change methods and modify the gear.

  • Longliners, by nature of the way they operate, used to have a big problem with bycatch. So they changed the kind of hooks they use. Fishermen now use circle hooks which can only hook a fish in the cartilage of the mouth, preventing some species from even being hooked in the first place.
  • Shark bycatch has been reduced by attaching magnets to the lines. Sharks can sense the electrical fields generated by the magnets and therefore are deterred from taking the bait.
  • Shrimpers used to unintentionally capture sea turtles in their gear. In order to prevent this, a device called TED (Turtle Excluder Device) has been required since 1987. These devices give turtles a backdoor out of the gear, thereby saving thousands of sea turtles since.
  • Gill netters now use mesh size more specific to their target, allowing smaller fish to swim through.
  • Bottom trawlers used to be rough on the seabed, so modifications are being mandated. These modifications include raising the footropes on the trawl to raise it off the bottom and the banning of specific kinds of gear altogether.

Commercial fishing has taken great strides in reducing unintended bycatch and reducing the impact their work may have upon some marine environments. This work continues and better methods will continue to evolve. This demonstrates a real commitment by the industry and demonstrates a real concern for the oceans and the life therein.

Benefits of Wild-Caught Seafood

Not only are wild fish delicious, in general, wild-caught fish is a healthy protein with slightly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and higher levels of potassium, zinc and iron than farmed fish. Wild-caught fish may have less calories as well. They roam, hunt and eat only what nature provides them. Keep in mind, this is all marginal. The healthiest choice is eating seafood, regardless whether it is farmed or wild.

Benefits of Farmed & Wild-Caught Seafood

According to Oceana, a non-profit organization focused on preserving and restoring the world’s oceans, wild seafood has a lower carbon footprint than beef, pork, chicken and cheese. Here are some numbers relating CO2 emissions of protein sources:

  • 1 gram of beef = 238g of CO2
  • 1 gram of cheese = 84g of CO2
  • 1 gram of pork = 65g of CO2
  • 1 gram of poultry = 43g of CO2
  • 1 gram of wild fish = 39g of CO2
  • 1 gram of aquaculture seafood = 24g of CO2

There are other considerations as well further illustrating the benefits of eating seafood. For example, as inland populations increase around the world there will be a rising demand for land based protein. Increased demand for meat and dairy means fewer trees as land must be cleared for pastures. There will also be less land available for raising crops, less fresh water and more planet warming greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere.

According to the U.N., by 2050, there will be two billion more people to feed, and the world will have to produce 70% more food to accommodate this increase. Healthy oceans and well regulated fisheries can feed one billion people a day and carbon emissions from wild-caught fisheries are 6x lower than beef, and carbon emissions from aquaculture are 10x lower than beef.

Life began in the ocean. There is literally salt in our blood. Eating fish, whether responsibly farmed or wild-caught, is an excellent choice.

Previous article How to Smoke Fish at Home
Next article How The Fulton Fish Market Works