With many popular wild fish populations depleted and much fish farming done in an unsustainable manner, the decision about what seafood to eat can be difficult. Adding to these existing challenges, more than 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States has been imported from other countries, often from places with questionable health, safety, environmental and labor standards. However, by asking restaurants and markets about where their fish comes from and how it was caught or farmed, it is possible for concerned consumers to find healthy and sustainable seafood.
Fishing has a long history in the U.S. The tools originally were sticks and rocks, progressing to spears and nets, then to assorted gears, including variations of the popular hook and line. Today, there are intricate new technologies like bottom cameras that serve as fish finders. Some methods of catching fish are more ecologically friendly than others – for example, gears that can specifically target certain fish types, rather than catching (and potentially harming or killing) a variety of marine life unnecessarily and that have minimal impact on bottom habitat.
Fishing is both a commercial pursuit and a recreational sport. Because there is only one pool of fish so to speak, we have seen major declines in popular species due to overfishing and general declines in fish and other ocean wildlife due to negative impacts to the marine environment, like pollution. In an effort to address depleted fish populations, while meeting the public demand for seafood, various other methods of fish production have become popular – often collectively dubbed fish farming.
Fish farming is what it sounds like – the growing of fish in captivity for human use in many ways, including as food. Fish farming is not a new concept. Five thousand years ago, Chinese villagers trapped carp in artificial lakes formed when flooded rivers receded. Today, similar practices occur in near-shore or on-shore operations in Thailand, Japan, China and elsewhere worldwide.
In the U.S, we have many forms of fish farms, including those that raise clams, mussels, shrimp and finfish. Though ocean facilities are not yet permitted in most ocean waters, there are a few ocean farms in state waters, the best known of which are those off Hawaii and New Hampshire.
Farmed fish make up a growing percentage of the seafood available to U.S. consumers. While it is possible to farm fish sustainably, many farmed fish have been produced in ways that damage the environment and threaten human health. Sustainable fish farms do not pollute the environment with waste, use little or no wild fish in feed and have low energy usage. If you are buying farmed fish, its best to buy local so that you can personally check out the operation producing the fish.
More than 90 percent of shrimp consumed in the United States is imported, and the majority of it is farm-raised. Most imported shrimp comes from Asia and Latin America, where shrimp farms have caused environmental damage, have poor labor conditions and produce shrimp using assorted chemicals, even some considered toxic here in the U.S. The shrimp are grown in large man-made ponds along the coast, often damaging fragile and important ecosystems, including mangrove forests. When ponds are drained to collect the fish, polluted water that often contains antibiotics and pesticides is released into the surrounding environment.
Many of the chemicals used in shrimp farming can have negative effects on human health. From 2003 to 2006, shrimp accounted for between 15 and 84 percent of imports that were refused at the United States border for being contaminated with illegal antibiotic residues. 1 However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspects less than two percent of seafood imports, meaning a large amount of contaminated shrimp could be reaching U.S. consumers.
Of the 10 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. that are not imported, most (about 70 percent) came from the Gulf of Mexico, until the disastrous oil spill from BP’s Deep Water Horizon oil platform in April 2010. While much of the Gulf was contaminated by the oil and closed to fishing for some time, certain areas remained open. Today, Gulf shrimp are being caught again, but there are concerns that they might still be adversely affected by lingering impacts of the spill.
The best approach is to know your seafood. Rather than eating imported farmed shrimp, consumers should look for shrimp or prawns that were caught or sustainably farmed in the United States. Talk to your local fish market to find out where their shrimp came from and which types of local shrimp were caught or farmed in the most sustainable ways.
Plagued by disease, parasites, and mass fish escapes, farmed salmon has become a poster child for environmentally irresponsible fish farming. About 70 percent of the salmon consumed in the United States is farmed, primarily from Chile or Canada. Salmon are usually grown in large net pens moored in coves or inlets. Fish waste and uneaten feed flow out of these nets and pollute the surrounding environment. The farmed salmon, living in close quarters in the nets, are highly susceptible to diseases and parasites, such as sea lice, which can be transmitted to wild salmon that swim near the farm. When producers then treat the farmed fish with antibiotics or paraciticides, residues of chemicals can have a range of negative impacts on consumer health. Salmon production can also increase fishing pressure on wild stocks, because it takes about 3 to 4 pounds of wild fish in feed to raise one pound of farmed salmon. 2 The good news is that wild Alaskan salmon populations are well managed and sustainable, so choose wild salmon over farmed for your health and to protect the environment.
Shellfish farming like oysters, clams and mussels, depending on where and how it is done, is generally not considered nearly as ecologically harmful as raising finfish in open water pens, making farmed shellfish a good option for consumers. Other good choices are wild shellfish that have been collected by hand, with hand rakes or diver-caught.
There are many ways to catch fish, some of which are better for the environment and for protecting wild fish populations. The biggest problem is that certain methods of fishing unintentionally catch and kill extra fish or other marine wildlife – called bycatch. Unlike target species—fish specifically targeted for capture—bycatch is caught accidentally, and is often unwanted (or not legal to be kept due to certain regulations) and thus thrown back into the water dead or dying.
Consumers can support the use of more sustainable fishing gear such as troll, bandit, hand line, trap, spear gun, and rod and reel by buying fish caught through these methods. They should ask restaurants and markets how the fish they sell is caught. These gears often have lower levels of bycatch associated with them because they are constantly attended, and unwanted fish can be more easily and quickly released, increasing survival chances. Many also cause less damage to ocean bottom habitat. Reducing bycatch can contribute to healthier fish populations in the future, and less seafloor damage means a more intact environment for marine wildlife.
Currently, there are no U.S. government approved organic standards for seafood. Therefore, seafood products labeled “organic” are often produced in accordance with criteria set by a private certification company, or an organic standard established by another country or region (e.g., European Union organic standards). Neither of these usually equate to U.S. organic standards for other foods. Some of these “organic” standards are lax on minimizing pollution from production and allow the use of various chemicals, including antibiotics, because it can be difficult to produce farm-raised fish without them.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering organic standards for fish at the request of the aquaculture industry – so U.S. farmed fish may get an organic label soon. Unfortunately, USDA is considering significantly weakening U.S. organic standards in order to allow more farmed fish to be labeled USDA organic. If these standards are approved, organic farmed fish won’t have to meet the same criteria for environmental protection or restriction of additives required for other USDA organic foods.
In California and Georgia, it is illegal to label any seafood as “organic.” However, in the rest of the country, fish products that have been certified according to European standards or those of private organizations can legally claim to be organic, even though these standards are weaker than what U.S. consumers associate with USDA organic products. In the future, if you see fish labeled organic, even USDA organic, ask what it really means!
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
The Marine Stewardship Council is a private organization that has a set of criteria intended to evaluate whether a wild fishery is sustainably managed. Seafood from fisheries that meet the criteria can receive MSC certification and bear a blue logo on their product label. MSC is a private certification, however, so it decides what standards a fishery must meet to qualify as sustainable under its own label. Unfortunately, not all of the fisheries that have received MSC certification are actually sustainably managed, which makes the MSC label confusing and not the best guide to seafood for consumers.
Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).
The Aquaculture Stewardship Council is a newer entity (established 2009 ) related to and similar to the MSC in practice. It certifies only farm-raised seafood as “sustainable” if it meets certain criteria that the ASC establishes. Like MSC, ASC is a private entity that creates its own standards for what “sustainable” means. The ASC forms its standards based on “dialogues” – essentially group discussions with industry and some others. Also like the MSC, the fish that ASC labels as sustainable is not always actually sustainably farmed, which also makes the ASC label confusing and not an ideal way for consumers to select sustainably farmed seafood.
Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP).
The industry group Global Aquaculture Alliance developed the standards known as “Best Aquaculture Practices” to certify fish farms as sustainable. Unfortunately, operations can still receive Best Aquaculture Practices Certification if they use antibiotics and pesticides, and the certification has been criticized by conservation and human rights groups for failing to adequately protect the environment and workers' rights. 4 5
With all these different labels that have questionable value and meaning, one way to make sure you are getting what you expect in your fish is to ask questions about where it came from and how it was produced (see below). Also, various organizations publish seafood guides that can provide good information about seafood choices – for example, see Food & Water Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide.
A different way of raising fish in captivity, “recirculating aquaculture” has become increasingly popular around the globe in recent years. These fish farms need not be attached to any natural waters, and do not take from or dump into the environment, like the ocean. The farms raise fish in tanks, on land, very similar to the way fish are maintained in aquariums. Recirculating fish farms are entirely closed loop, meaning diseases and pests from outside the farm have a harder time getting in, and the fish inside the farm do not escape. Less contamination translates to reduced need for antibiotics and chemicals to keep the fish healthy and the system clean. Many recirculating fish farms run entirely without artificial chemical additives, creating a more natural product for consumers. No escapes mean that these farms can raise a wide variety of popular fish, and avoid growing and selling those caught by local fishermen to prevent competition with them in the market.
One very special characteristic of farms that use recirculating technology is that in addition to fish, they can grow plants (recirculating hydroponics) or plants and fish together in one system (recirculating aquaponics). Growing fish in conjunction with plants creates a mini ecosystem, where the waste excreted by fish adds nutrients to the water, and plants in the same water absorb these nutrients to grow. The plants thus “clean” the water for reuse by the fish. This cycle often creates an ideal growing environment, making both plants and fish naturally grow better and more quickly than in other forms of farming.
These “recirculating farms” can rely on renewable energy like solar, wind or geothermal power and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles. Their versatility in design and energy efficiency allows them to use unusual and/or small spaces, which might not otherwise be suitable for growing food. Recirculating farms can also be located virtually anywhere – indoors, outside, on rooftops and terraces – and most importantly, right in the communities in which food is needed. This reduces use of fuel for shipping and refrigeration and lowers costs – savings that can be passed on to the consumer, making good food more sustainable and affordable. These farms can provide a wide range of products, including finfish, shellfish, herbs, fruits, vegetables, and flowers. For more information, visit the Recirculating Farms Coalition.