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Why You Need to Rethink Farmed Fish

Why You Need to Rethink Farmed Fish

As the world’s population continues to grow, ensuring that sustainable food production systems are in place will be increasingly critical. Our planet is 70 percent ocean, which means sourcing food from marine environments is unavoidable. Couple that with current reports of global fisheries reaching production capacity, and it’s no surprise that experts expect farmed species to make up the majority of seafood in our future diets. After all, 50 percent of the seafood currently imported into the United States comes from a farm.

Aquaculture, or the farming of fish and shellfish in marine or freshwater environments, has been a key method of global food production for thousands of years. It is one of the most efficient forms of food production and outperforms land animal proteins, as shown in the graphic below. But for many in the United States, aquaculture is a dirty word.

Different sources of animal protein place different demands on natural resources (photo: National Geographic)
Different sources of animal protein place different demands on natural resources (photo: National Geographic)

Part of the reason aquaculture has such a negative reputation is that it is perceived in the West as being a relatively new industry. While aquaculture has existed for thousands of years globally, salmon farms, for example, have only been used in Canada and Europe for the last 40 years. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the industry started to mature and grow in scale and intensity. Reports arose around scientifically documented impacts like the mixing and breeding of escaped farmed salmon with wild populations, and the harming of juvenile salmon by sea lice from salmon farms.

Around roughly the same time, the “pink gold rush” of shrimp farming took off in Asia and was found to be spreading chemicals to the environment, disrupting local communities, and destroying mangroves forests. Furthermore, some of the first sustainable seafood organizations were developing their rating programs during this period and ended up focusing on the negative effects of salmon and shrimp farming. All of this resulted in the sustainable seafood movement having a less-than-favorable view of aquaculture in its early days.

With rising global protein demands, low-impact, cost-effective solutions are critical to helping move more sustainable proteins into our diet. However, there is a balance that needs to be found in the discussion about the future of aquaculture.

Many proponents oversell aquaculture, suggesting that farmed salmon could feed the planet. Despite the extensive history of aquaculture throughout the world, including in places like China where freshwater fish farms have existed for thousands of years, salmon farming is not a magic bullet. Although salmon farming is more efficient than land-based agriculture (i.e. poultry, pork, and beef), it still requires an average of 2 kg of wild-caught fish to produce 1 kg of farmed salmon and it cannot be grown at the equator where the need for sustainable protein is the highest. The efforts going into improving feed formulas and reducing other impacts of salmon farming, however, are transferable to many other species of fish that are more efficient and can be grown in warmer climates.

Aquaculture’s bad rap persists amongst consumers, including influential members of the culinary world. In the United States, aquaculture development is well below global averages. The U.S. has one of the largest exclusive economic zones on the planet yet remains relatively devoid of aquaculture compared to other countries.

So, the question is, how can we do better? To start, we need to know what good aquaculture looks like and how it can benefit the American consumer. Fortunately, there are already some great examples of aquaculture in the U.S. right now:

  • Rainbow trout raised in raceway systems along the Snake River in Idaho has been consistently rated as a “best choice” by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, and has been well-received by chefs

  • Hawaiian kanpachi is a species of yellowtail farmed in open net pens off the coast of Kona, Hawaii. This particular species of yellowtail is not commercially available from the wild because it is affected by a parasite that renders it toxic for consumption, but the farming of this species has found a way around this problem and delivers a high-quality sashimi-grade product

  • The determined pursuit of sustainable caviar has resulted in a popular, “best choice” rated sturgeon farming industry in the U.S. These fish are bred in hatcheries and raised in land-based systems, which eliminates the risk of most environmental impacts.

  • There is a terrific oyster aquaculture industry in the U.S. that has quickly gained prominence. In fact, approximately 40 percent of total U.S. aquaculture is represented by “best choice” shellfish species (including eastern oysters, Pacific oysters, blue mussels and hard clams).

It is time to move on from the question of whether aquaculture should play a role in sustainable food production in the U.S. and focus instead on how we can truly develop an industry to be an example for the rest of the world. More than 80 percent of the seafood we already consume in the U.S. is imported, and at least 50 percent of that is produced by aquaculture. We cannot allow the “not in my backyard” approach to thrive here while others around the planet bear the burden of our food production.

There is a tremendous economic opportunity in this arena, but if the industry continues to insist that there are no issues, the criticisms of aquaculture will endure. We need to be honest and ensure that the debate moves forward in a collaborative way, bringing all stakeholders to the table to work together to achieve a sustainable American aquaculture industry.


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