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Wild or Farmed Fish: What's Better?

The Pros and Cons for Your Health and the Planet

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These days, an increasing number of health-conscious consumers are choosing to eat fish for its heart-healthy benefits. The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat fish twice a week to meet their needs for omega-3 fatty acids, but how do you know if the fish you're eating is beneficial?

There are many factors to consider when choosing which fish to eat, two of which include species (the type of fish, such as halibut, salmon, etc.) and source (where the fish was raised or caught). These aren't simple decisions when you consider that the nutritional value of fish varies from species to species, and that each source carries a different potential for contamination, nutrition and environmental impact.

There are millions of fish species, but only a handful are popular for eating and even fewer are considered healthy choices. To choose which species to eat, consider first its fatty acid profile. Fish that live in dark, cold waters naturally contain higher levels of Omega-3's. The fish richest in omega-3s are cold water fatty fish like salmon, rainbow trout, anchovies, sardines, bass, herring, and tuna. 

Next, consider the source. There are two categories of sources of fish: farmed or wild. Each method has its own list of pros and cons, which every consumer will have to weigh to make the best decision for his or her own health and priorities.

Farmed Fish
Fish farming, or aquaculture, means that the fish are raised in floating net pens near the ocean shore. Another name for this method is “ocean raised.”

Pros of Farmed Fish
  • Price: Farmed fish are often cheaper and more readily available than wild fish.
  • Controlled diet: Some farmed fish can have higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than wild fish. This is because fish farmers can better control the diets of the fish they raise—making sure that their fish eat more feed that is converted into Omega-3s than a fish might normally eat in the wild. However, there is really no way for consumers to gauge the amount of Omega-3's in one piece of fish versus another.
  • Ecology: When fish are farmed, there is a lower danger of overfishing (or depleting) the population of wild fish.
Cons of Farmed Fish
  • Contamination: Farmed fish usually contain more contaminants. Farmed fish are fed processed pellets, often made from processed anchovies, sardines and other small fish. Unfortunately, the types of fish used to make the pellets are usually caught in the polluted waters closer to shore and are often contaminated with industrial chemicals. As a result, farmed fish tends to have much higher levels of chemical contaminants that may cause cancer, memory problems, and neurobehavioral changes in children. Farmed salmon, for example, has been found to contain seven times more PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and pesticides than wild salmon. Consumers can reduce the amount of contaminants in farmed salmon by almost half by grilling or broiling it so that the juices drip off, cooking it until the internal temperature reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit and removing the skin before eating.
  • Antibiotics: Besides being prone to industrial contamination, farmed fish are more subject to disease, which spreads quickly throughout the entire pen. Sick fish can escape into surrounding open water and spread disease to wild fish populations. To control disease, farmed fish are often given antibiotics to prevent the whole group from becoming ill. Research has shown that farmed salmon, for example, are administered more antibiotics by weight than any other type of livestock.
  • Lower Omega-3's: While farmed fish can be fed an enhanced diet to increase its Omega-3's, there is no way for consumers to know whether one piece of fish contains more healthy fats than another. According to research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, farmed salmon contains two or three times fewer Omega-3's even though it contains more overall fat than wild salmon due to its grain-based diet. The same is is true for other popular farmed fish, such as catfish and tilapia.
Wild-Caught fish
Wild fish, in contrast to farmed, live in open waters and eat a natural diet. Fishermen catch wild fish on open waters, their natural habitat.

Pros of Wild Fish
  • Flavor: Many people prefer the taste of wild fish. Farmed fish do not have as much room to move as their wild counterparts, which reduces the amount of muscle they can develop and affects texture and taste.
  • Appearance: Wild salmon is naturally bright in color due to its food source (krill and other small sea creatures), while farmed salmon is grayish in color and dyes must be added to bring the flesh to an appealing shade.
  • Nutrition: Wild fish are usually healthier (higher in Omega-3s) and less contaminated than farmed fish.
Cons of Wild Fish
  • Overfishing: Most marine biologists agree that there will not be enough wild-captured fish available to meet the growing demand, and many fisheries do not catch wild fish in a sustainable way. Overfishing can deplete certain species of fish, which affects the ecosystem at large.
  • Price: Fresh wild fish is sometimes hard to find and usually more expensive than farmed fish.
  • Distance traveled: Unfortunately, not every fish lover lives on the coast or near a fishery. An Alaskan salmon, for example, must be shipped thousands of miles to reach a grocery store near you. The shipping of fish all over the world uses fossil fuels and pollutes the environment.
Although there are established health advantages to eating fatty fish, the risks of contaminants can’t be ignored either. All fish, wild or farmed, must adhere to FDA limits for PCB content and mercury levels, but some fish may measure in just below that cutoff. This content can build up in the body over time and cause problems later. However, many scientists believe that the heart-healthy benefits of consuming fish outweigh the risk, especially for older adults who may have already had a heart attack. But younger consumers, especially woman who may become pregnant and have a lifetime of exposure to these pollutants ahead of them, may wish to limit the amount of farmed fish they eat.

Only you can decide whether the cardiovascular benefits of fish outweigh the possible safety, nutritional or environmental issues associated with the type of fish you eat. If you eat fish regularly, ask about its source when ordering at a restaurant and read labels for origin when shopping at the supermarket.

No matter what type of fish or seafood you choose, SparkPeople Dietitian Becky Hand offers these top 5 tips for adults* to enjoy healthy fish:
  1. Make seafood a priority. Enjoy fish or seafood at least twice per week.
  2. Be adventurous. Try various types of seafood that you enjoy.
  3. Reel in fatty fish such as salmon and trout. These offer the most health benefits. If you enjoy lean fish such as tilapia and catfish, think about adding another serving of fatty fish to your weekly dinner menu to make up for it.
  4. Don't skimp on lean fish. They're healthy, too! Aside from being low in fat and calories, lean fish and shellfish are also loaded with micronutrients that are necessary for good health. For example, tilapia is high in selenium; clams are high in iron; and oysters are high in zinc.
  5. Prepare fish properly. Use low-fat cooking techniques such as broiling, baking, stir-frying, and sautéing. Avoid fried fish and highly processed fish foods such as fish sticks. Season with herbs, spices, marinades and rubs.
*These fish guidelines apply to adults who are not pregnant or breastfeeding. Seafood guidelines are different for children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Editor's Note: For more information on a variety of fish, sushi and seafood, including printable pocket-size reference guides, visit: www.MontereyBayAquarium.org or the Washington State Department of Health.

This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople nutrition expert, Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian.

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Member Comments

  • Thanks for the great information on wild or farmed fish. Good need to know info!
  • Need to incorporate more fish in my diet.
  • Why is no mention of the way the tilapia is raised??? To me this is hugely important information!!!
    Tilapia is raised in ponds in China where they ingest their own waste continually! Not my idea of a healthy fish. I see it on the menus of restaurants and it makes me want to puke. Living 90 miles from the coast and near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers gives me access to wild caught fish. I tend to lean toward wild caught cod and halibut, and get my Omega3s from supplements.
  • I am fortunate enough to live in Hawaii and have grown up eating a variety of ocean fishes, and can often get fresh, local caught in my local market. I know a lot of people eat Tilapia, but I grew up calling it the "rubbish" fish because it thrives in water that is less than clean. When I read up on most farming methods, I am even more inclined to stay away from those fish. I may not be getting high Omega 3 fish, but nothing beats the taste of fresh caught, and I am especially fond of Parrot fish (Uhu).
  • Being an Alabama girl from a small town, I am a long way from wild caught salmon and usually can find only frozen or canned fish. I am concerned about the Carbon Monoxide used to give the frozen fish a "fresh" appearance. We have decided as a family to find alternatives for Omega-3 until we can purchase a safer seafood.
  • CRAMPERELLA
    I would NEVER eat farmed salmon. It is just farmed Atlantic salmon . I'm not big on eating something that is covered in sea lice and swimming in its own excrement. I'm a Sockeye girl. Pacific salmon, caught in my own backyard and cooked on a cedar plank. The only way to eat it.
  • Very informative article and I appreciate your comments also.
  • I will only eat wild salmon. If you have ever been around a fish farm you would not eat the fish. It smells and the sea bed is dead under the farmed fish. Sorry you won't get me eating farmed salmon.
  • I enjoyed the article. It was very informative. I buy wild salmon instead of farmed. I didn't know, until I read the article, that tilapia and catfish are lean fish. We eat both of those every chance we get. I usually stick to one slice of tilapia and catfish but now that I know that they are lean, I think I'll enjoy that "extra" piece. I love to cook it in olive oil with different herbs.
  • I love to eat my fish. I can have fish every day. But what a great article.
  • Great article. When I buy fish, I only spend my money on wild-caught. Fish is a bit more expensive than some other forms of protein, but it's good for us, and I don't mind spending a little more to avoid getting healthier fish are aren't loaded up with antibiotics, etc.
  • Thanks so much for the very informative "Fish" article!! That was really worth the read.

    Great write up!! Thanks again,
    gmondello
  • Thank you for the great information. When I started SP, I also began reading all the labels on all the food I purchase. For fish, I was shocked to find that so much of the fish in our markets is farmed and raised in China, Vietnam and New Zealand. I personally want to enjoy fish caught closer to home, so I go for wild pacific or none at all. I have a new love for fish, wish I could have my own fish farm!
  • I go 100% by price. I know fish is good for me, and tuna is a good fish. So I buy tuna canned in water (5 oz cans) when they are seriously on sale (55 to 70 cents) When I have enough food, I eat a whole can, otherwise I make it into two meals. Whiting and Swai fish are often on sale - and one fish is dinner for two of us, Each fish always comes to under a dollar when it's on sale. I wish I could think about other considerations - like what's good for the ecology - but I have to worry daily about getting something to eat. So price is all that really matters to me. I only get salmon when I'm not paying for it. (RARE)
  • Thank you so much for clarifing this issue to the readers. I agree with the article. I live in So. Cal. It is easier than most places to get wild caught. However, I wonder about the quality of fish that is "flash frozen" at sea. Also, the article did not address wild caught fish in different countries. I often wonder do they adhere to the same scrutiny we have here in the States. Canada seems ok but what about fish in Vietnam or Brazil??

About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.