“Is this fish farmed or wild?” That is a question often posed to markets and restaurants by savvy consumers hoping to make a more informed choice about which fish to eat. But is this question still very helpful now that there are various types of fish farming?
Many folks in the U.S. have a negative feeling toward most farmed seafood. This is fairly understandable, as we regularly hear stories from around the world about millions of fish escaping from net pens into the ocean, massive amounts of chemicals and antibiotics used to disinfect fish and their cages and illnesses wiping out entire fish farms.
Globally, open water farms – those that are located in water bodies like rivers and oceans or within coastal areas – have assorted problems, like those mentioned above, growing finfish and shrimp (farming of other shellfish is a topic for another post – stay tuned). These are some of the reasons that farmed fish often get a bad rap with consumers. But, importantly, not all fish farming is equal.
Fortunately, we can get fresh, local and affordable seafood that is also eco-friendly.
First, before talking about sustainable fish farming, I have to make a pitch for consumers to also seek out wild caught fish – there are still sustainable fisheries in the U.S. and many struggling historic fishing communities trying to make their living as they have for decades (and in some instances, centuries) bringing people fresh, local fish (for a list of seafood recommendations and good questions to ask about seafood generally – see Food and Water Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide).
Of course, with an ever-increasing population and seafood being so popular, our oceans aren’t able to supply all the fish we consume. Enter land-based, recirculating farms – farms that grow fish may also be called “recirculating aquaculture systems”, or “RAS”.
Recirculating farms may be indoors, like in a greenhouse or other structure, or outside, depending on the climate. Their main feature is that water is cleaned and recycled, then continuously circulated throughout the farm. These farms can be simple and inexpensive to build, and well designed farms are very energy, space and importantly, water efficient (check out our fact sheet on water usage in recirculating farms). Some farms can even re-purpose waste. This all makes it possible to locate a recirculating farm almost anywhere — in particular in the communities that will use the products, providing truly local food. When communities grow their own food, the amount of fuel used to transport food can be greatly reduced — a major plus given current concerns with carbon emissions and global warming.
Also, most recirculating farms are almost entirely closed-loop; it’s not easy for parasites and diseases to get in. So, the farms can run without antibiotics or other drugs and chemicals, providing a more natural product for consumers. Additionally, because the farms are mostly self-contained, they can grow a wide range of products without worrying about them “escaping” into the wild. This means recirculating farms can grow fish to supplement wild caught fish, rather than competing with fishing communities that make a living selling popular local fish.
Today, recirculating farms are increasingly bringing us fresh, sustainable seafood. These farms grow an array of fish like trout, tilapia, sea bass, barramundi, shrimp and a variety of other shellfish in tanks on-land. Some of these systems grow plants too, and in addition to fish, the farms provide vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers and more. Interested in seeing how they work? Check out our pix or watch a video. And click here to learn more.
So rather than just ask whether a fish is farmed or wild, asking HOW a fish was farmed could provide the critical piece of information on which to base the to-eat–or-not-to-eat decision.
Looking for fish from recirculating farms? Coming soon, our farm map! Do you know about a recirculating farm near you? Please let us know so we can add them to our map. THANKS!