Farmed or Wild? Which Fish to Pick.

Most health and nutrition experts agree that Americans should increase their consumption of fish. Fish are high in protein and are low in calories, cholesterol and saturated fat.

Some varieties also are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Omega-3 fatty acids can promote fetal brain development during pregnancy. These benefits come from fatty fish such as salmon, lake trout, herring, sardines and albacore tuna.

It used to be that wild-caught fish were considered healthy. Over the past several decades, however, concerns have arisen about the effects heavy metal contaminants (such as mercury), pollutants (such as polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs), pesticides, fertilizers and even trash have on the safety of water and fish. The demand for certain types of fish and some fishing practices, such as bottom trolling, have taken their toll on the environment and the availability of fish.

While fish farming (known as aquaculture) has been in place for centuries, its popularity has exploded in recent years because of the above concerns and the continued high demand for fish. 

Although modern-day fish farming is designed to address safety concerns, it also has drawbacks. Some pens built in open water can be at the expense of the surrounding ecosystems, such as coastlines, underwater reefs, trees and swamps, and the wildlife that depend on them. Fish that are raised in areas where they're not normally found may escape and breed or compete with local fish — resulting in decreases in the wild species. Fish farms — including those in contained reservoirs — create enormous quantities of organic waste (feces) that can contaminate water in the surrounding environment if not handled properly.

At this time there's no easy answer when it comes to what type of fish to choose — wild-caught or farm-raised. However, to help you navigate the farm versus wild dilemma, here are a few tips:

  • Pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding and young children should avoid tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
  • When buying local fish, check for advice. If information isn't available, adults should limit their consumption to 6 ounces a week, while young children should eat no more than 1 to 3 ounces a week.
  • Know which fish are overfished and avoid them. This gives at-risk species a chance to repopulate. There are groups that identify which fish are overfished, or caught or farmed in ways that cut the population or harm the environment. These include the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector. Both have apps you can download.
  • Buy U.S. fish. The U.S. has strict environmental and food safety laws governing farmed and wild-caught fish. Purchasing U.S. fish is one way you can help ensure safety and sustainability.
  • Be an advocate. Whenever you purchase fish, ask where it's from and if it's sustainable. Grocers and restaurant owners in turn will question their suppliers and become advocates too.

Source: Mayo Clinic, Jennifer K. Nelson R.D, L.D.