Farm Raised versus Wild Caught Fish

As more people become health conscious, they are watching what they eat. As a result, eating fish has become increasingly popular.

There are several reasons for this such as the bad rap about eating meat (good subject for a future post), fish is a good source of lean protein and most importantly, seafood has the healthiest fatty acid profile; low saturated fat and high in Omega-3 fats.

So eating fish, what type of fish and how the fish is raised has become a topic of discussion in many health magazines and articles. As always, I try to keep a very open mind about this rather than side with one particular interest group or another.

Wild versus Farm Raised…

Just as there is debate about the merits of grass fed cattle and free roaming chicken and eggs, the subject of which is better, wild caught versus farm raised fish exists.

First, not all fish that can be wild caught is farm raised. What puts a certain type of fish into the farm raised category is its demand and ease of which it can be farm raised. As such, the following are the most common types of farm raised fish:

Tilapia: due to it being a hardy fresh water fish, can be harvested at six months old, are vegetarians (easy to farm) and are very resistant to disease.

Catfish: also fed a vegetarian diet, also fresh water and very resistant to disease.

Trout: another freshwater fish (you see a trend here?), making them easier to farm in a nearly closed water system.

Salmon: not a freshwater fish but due to its popularity, is becoming a viable farming fish. They are carnivores unlike their fresh water counterparts.

Difference between Open and Closed Farming Systems…

The debate on wild caught versus farm raised centers a lot on open and closed farming systems where each type has its pro’s and con’s.

A Closed System is a method of fish production where the environment in which the fish is raised is controlled via containment within an enclosure. Some of the advantages of such a system are:

  • Can eliminate water pollution of the natural kind found in open systems as well as feces and chemical waste contamination of the seabed in open water system farms.
  • Reduce or eliminate escape of fish.
  • Eliminate deaths due to other fish or predators (thus increasing yield).
  • Reduce or eliminate the spread of disease and parasite transfer (this one is always being disputed as not valid in a closed system).
  • Reduce the need of antibiotics due to the controlled nature of the farm raising.

An Open System is one in which either a lake, pond, river or ocean is used to contain the fish while being raised. Even within an Open System there are a couple of ways of farm raising. One method is building the Open System close to shore. This is also known as Irrigation Ditch or Pond systems. Control of water quality is crucial.

Another Open method is called the Pinjra system where cages are placed off shore in lakes, ponds, rivers and even oceans. Fish are artificially fed (the food is taken to them rather than letting the natural food source of the water they are placed in utilized).

One advantage of fish farming in this way is that a variety of waters can be used.

Some farming concerns in the Open System are cages being damaged from severe weather and non-native fishes entering the cages.

Fish Farming Methods…

Depending on the species, each type of fish has different nutritional needs. Herbivorous fish such as tilapia, trout and catfish eat a mixture of plant proteins while salmon are carnivorous, they eat other fish.

Regardless of species, all animals require 40 essential nutrients. These include vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty and amino acids.

The concern in the fish farming industry is that some countries with lax health codes allow fish farmers to add additional ‘fattening’ ingredients that are not natural in order to speed up the harvesting time as well as the growth of the fish.

The NOAA-USDA Alternative Feeds Initiative launched in 2007 is a group created to accelerate the development of alternative feed material. Consumer advocacy groups are very leery of ‘big business’ setting the agenda and standards through lobbying.

One example of this is allowing fish farmers to use more grain and soy in their fish nutrients which is cheaper than pure fishmeal to increase profit margins but possibly impacting the quality of the nutrition value of the farmed fish. The result of more grain and soy in the diets used to feed the fish can lead to lower Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratios.

Other Concerns…

Mercury levels – most experts agree that farm raised fish have less exposure to mercury than wild caught fish because they are fed a controlled diet. Doubters say that is not necessarily true since ocean Open System farming would still be exposed to high mercury content that settles into the ocean.

In my opinion, this is almost a moot point. Whether it is wild caught salmon for example that most definitely is exposed to mercury or farm raised salmon which probably contains less exposure, one can’t say one definitely is better than the other. The key here is to educate yourself on how the farm raised salmon was cultivated, i.e. food source given and type of farming used.

Pesticides, antibiotics and other drugs used in fish farming have not been well studied since this industry is rather new compared to wild caught fishing.


I hope I at least educated you on what fish farming is and the different methods of containment and feeding farm fished entails.

The choice is really based on how you feel about eating fish caught the natural way versus farmed. For me, it all depends on price points and the type of fish I am eating.

Given the choice for example of salmon at a restaurant, I would always choose wild caught only because it seems to taste better and I ignore the issue of mercury content knowing I do not always eat wild caught salmon.  If I was buying at the grocery store, I would probably opt for farm raised due to lower cost.

Regardless of fish type, cost will always be a factor. Eating wild caught is going to cost you more at the grocery store than farm raised.

So for example, when it comes to tilapia, I always go for farm raised since most tilapia out there is produced that way. The only thing I avoid is those raised in China because I just don’t trust their regulatory guidelines (remember the dry wall fiasco!).

There is an excellent web site that goes into ‘best choices’ of what to buy called Seafood Watch. It not only educates you on the fishing industry, you can also search for any type of seafood and it will give you recommendations and why.

I will caution you that this site does also go into the environmental impact of fish farming based on the fish searched, for those people that are more ‘environmentally’ conscious than others which is a post all to itself!

Know your fish in order to be…Fit Forlife!

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