The Difference Between Farm-Raised vs. Wild-Caught Seafood

Each type has its pros and cons for your health and the environment.

You've likely seen seafood products labeled "farm-raised" or "wild-caught" at the supermarket, which may have left you wondering which one to purchase. Though opting for the cheapest or most familiar option might feel like the best choice, this may not be the best option for the environment or you.

Factors like where and how seafood is raised or caught can have an extensive impact on its quality, health benefits, and marine habitat. Here are a few tips for choosing the best seafood option that benefits your health and promotes sustainability.

What Is Wild-Caught Seafood?

Wild-caught seafood refers to various fishing methods that involve a wide range of gear to catch wildlife. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, each set of tools and fishing method affects the ocean and marine life differently. They note that by choosing the right gear, the fishing industry can help significantly minimize its impact on the environment. These fishing techniques include beach and boat seines (large nets that herd fish), bottom trawls (cone-shaped nets pulled by boats), and trolling lines (fishing lines with baited hooks that lure fish).

Environmental Impacts

Generally speaking, large nets that drag along the seafloor like seines, trawls, dredges, and gillnets, can damage sensitive seafloor habitats and result in bycatch — fish or other marine species that is caught unintentionally while catching certain target species. Limiting the areas where these nets are released, and using specialized gear like pingers that emit high-pitched signals to help detect passing marine mammals, can help reduce the damage that may result from casting large nets into the ocean.

Other methods for catching seafood in the wild include handlines, jigs, pole-and-lines, and trolling lines. Unlike nets, these methods are considered more environmentally responsible, as bycatch and habitat impact risks are much lower. Additionally, with most of these aforementioned line-dependent methods, animals that have been accidentally caught can be safely released back into their natural habitat.

What Is Farm-Raised Seafood?

Farm-raised seafood refers to seafood that is commercially raised in controlled and confined areas. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, "In the next decade, the majority of fish we eat will be farm-raised, not wild. Over 100 marine and freshwater species are farmed today using methods from traditional earthen ponds to high-tech tank systems." These aquaculture facilities are heavily regulated and must adhere to strict policies to meet the standards and qualifications to cultivate the seafood in their controlled environments. Methods include bottom culture, pens, ponds, and recirculating tanks.

Environmental Impacts

Methods used to produce farm-raised seafood vary, depending on the species cultivated and location. Shellfish, like clams and mussels, are typically grown in the bottom or off-bottom cultures that involve a containment structure placed in the ocean. Once they reach the appropriate size, the shellfish are harvested by hand. Off-bottom cultures involve large ropes or containers suspended with an anchor or buoy that don't touch the seafloor. Other types of marine products, like seaweed, can also be farmed using these two methods.

Pens, ponds, raceways, or recirculating tanks are used for tilapia, salmon, and trout that require a larger, open area. Pens, for instance, are fully enclosed and submerged in offshore marine waters, which allows water to flow freely through them. Typically farmed in raceways (long, linear containment structures), species like tilapia and rainbow trout inhabit clean, controlled waterways that reduce the risk of contamination and the spread of disease. In contrast to some wild-caught fishing methods, these farm-raising tactics effectively help regulate marine life populations and protect sensitive habitats from damage or bycatch.

Benefits and Risks of Each

Unfortunately, determining whether wild-caught or farm-raised seafood is better varies on a case-by-case basis. Generally, fish caught in the wild tends to have slightly less saturated fat than farm-raised fish, which rely on fortified feed. Additionally, farm-raised seafood can run the risk of contaminants and disease if the farming conditions are not carefully controlled and regulated.

However, wild-caught fish can also be exposed to industrial pollution in their natural habitats, such as oil spills or runoff. And both farm-raised and wild-caught seafood can contain traceable levels of mercury. Typically, the larger or more predatory the fish, the higher the level of mercury it contains.

The Bottom Line

Both wild-caught and farm-raised seafood have their pros and cons. Depending on the farming or fishing technique and the type of seafood, choosing between wild or farmed ultimately depends on the options available. For guidance, ask your local fishmonger for more information on the freshest, healthiest, and most sustainable catch, or use Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch for recommendations on the best seafood to consume.

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