Wild vs. Farm Raised Comparison

Written By: Tisha Bullock - May• 05•12

Do you know the difference between wild and farm raised seafood?

There is a debate raging over which is better “wild-caught” or “farmed-raised” fish? Seedtime 4 Harvest Grocery Delivery recently received numerous questions regarding the safety of wild-caught and farm-raised fish, and PCBs. On one hand, the American Heart Association recommends eating fish to prevent heart disease. On the other hand, recent media reports about wild-caught and farm-raised salmon containing high levels of toxic substances, has many fish lovers scratching their heads. We will discuss the pros and cons of farm-raised and wild-caught fish so that you can make an educated decision.

Over crowded fish farm

The Pros & Cons of Wild-Caught Fish

The major downside of wild-caught fish is the risk of overharvesting and depleting of wild populations. Thanks to technology and the highly destructive fishing methods used by many ocean fisheries today, the term “wild-caught” can mean anything from dynamiting reefs, to high-seas bottom-trawling, and drift nets (according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, each pound of shrimp caught in a trawl net contains an average of two to ten pounds of other marine by-catch, which is usually discarded overboard).

Overharvesting: Overharvesting is a serious threat to many species of our favorite fish, such as Bluefin tuna, Atlantic salmon, Mediterranean sea bass and North Atlantic cod.  The resulting scarcity of such longtime staples opened the door for farms sprouting up throughout the United States to make the fish more widely available.

But the term wild-caught can also encompass more desirable lower-impact techniques, such as hand-lines, divers, or the use of pots or traps. When seafood is caught in this manner, it means that the waters where the fish are caught are not controlled by any meaningful way and is reserved for fishing only. Wild fisheries exist for the most part in oceans especially around coasts and continental shelves. They can also exist in lakes and rivers. When fish is caught in the wild, the fish contain more omega 3 essential fatty acids (the good kind of fat). In addition, wild-caught fish contain 20% more protein while the calorie content is 20% less than farm-raised fish.

The Pros & Cons of Farm-Raised Fish

In contrast to wild-caught seafood, “farm-raised” seafood is the process of raising fish commercially on land, usually in pools or tanks, or offshore fish farms—areas of ocean that are netted off to keep the stock fish from escaping. In farms, operators control the production of fish as well as what they eat. Thousands of fish are crammed into pens, which leads to the growth of diseases and parasites that require antibiotics and pesticides.

Antibiotics and Pesticides: Disease and parasites, which would normally exist at relatively low levels in fish scattered around the oceans, can run rampant in densely packed oceanic feedlots. To survive, farmed fish are vaccinated when they are small. Later, they are given antibiotics or pesticides to ward off infection.

PCBs: PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), are man-made chlorinated industrial chemicals that are highly toxic. PCBs accumulate in the sediments at the bottoms of streams, rivers, lakes and coastal areas. These chemicals can build up in the fatty tissues of fish and other animals, and in high concentrations pose serious health risks to people who frequently eat contaminated fish. Based on available data on PCB concentrations in fish, Environmental Defense recommends limiting consumption of certain fish (see Health Alerts).

According to EPA, contaminated fish are a persistent source of PCBs in the human diet. PCBs are not highly toxic with a single dose (as in a single meal), but continued low levels of exposure (for example, eating contaminated fish over an extended period of time) may be harmful. EPA rates PCBs as “probable human carcinogens,” since they cause cancer in laboratory animals. Other tests on laboratory animals show damage from PCBs to their circulatory, nervous, immune, endocrine and digestive systems.

      Reduce the risks of eating seafood contaminated with PCBs
PCBs build up in fish and animal fat, and therefore proper cooking methods can help reduce your exposure:

  • Before cooking, remove the skin, fat (found along the back, sides and belly), internal organs, tomalley of lobster and the mustard of crabs, where toxins are likely to accumulate.
  • When cooking, be sure to let the fat drain away and avoid or reduce fish drippings.
  • Serve less fried fish; frying seals in chemical pollutants that might be in the fish’s fat, while grilling or broiling allows fat to drain away.
  • For smoked fish, it is best to fillet the fish and remove the skin before the fish is smoked.

Synthetic pigment colors in farm-raised seafood: In the wild, fish absorb carotenoids, primarily astaxanthin (any of a class of mainly yellow, orange, or red fat-soluble pigments, including carotene, which give color to plant parts, etc.) from their native habitat, insects or crustaceans and the plants on which they feed. On the aquafarm, fish are unable to synthesize astaxanthin, thus carotenoid pigments must be supplied in their artificial aquaculture diet. In other words, their rich hue is supplied by the use of synthetic pigments. Industrial salmon farms use artificial color to make farmed fish—whose flesh is typically grayish white—appear a more appetizing “salmon” pink. There is debate on whether canthaxanthin, as a feed and a food additive, poses any human health risk. In 2003, the European Commission ordered salmon farmers to sharply reduce the use of Canthaxanthin, and most countries, including the U.S., require labels to identify farmed and dyed salmon as such. Yet, fish are occasionally sold without labels: Safeway, Kroger, and Albertsons were sued in 2003 for failing to identify artificially colored, factory raised salmon.

Some of the most common farm-raised seafood include:

  • Salmon
  • Tilapia
  • Bluefin tuna
  • U.S. Catfish
  • Rainbow trout
  • Striped bass
  • Mussels
  • Shrimp
  • U.S. sturgeon caviar

Wild Atlantic salmon still spawn in some Canadian or Irish rivers, but the familiar orange fillets are either grown in ocean pens or come from some other species of salmon. Even in Alaska “nearly one in three ‘wild’ . . . salmon begins its life in a hatchery.”

European sea bass were historically a “fish version of the euro, a valuable silvery commodity that finds its way into near-shore pockets in virtually every continental country’s coast.” Now, the wild populations are depleted. Whether sold as branzino, loup de mer, or robalo, commercially available sea bass are standardized plate-size creatures grown in net cages.

North Atlantic cod, the original industrial fish, once fed much of Europe. But by the end of the 20th century, the fishery was exhausted. To protect the remnants of its once vast schools of cod, Canada closed the Grand Banks in 1992, and New England’s richest fishing grounds, the Georges Bank, was closed in 1994. Today, cod seem to be recovering. Not because farmed cod have supplanted the wild variety, however. When cod populations collapsed, whitefish like haddock, hake and pollock replaced cod in fish-and-chips and fried fish sandwiches. Now these species too are being harvested in unsustainable numbers from waters around the world.

Some of the most common wild-caught seafood include:

  • Alaskan salmon (avoid Atlantic salmon; it’s farmed in a destructive manner)
  • Dungeness or stone crab
Pacific cod (not New England cod)
  • Pacific halibut (Atlantic halibut is overfished and high in contaminants)
  • Sea scallops
  • Shrimp (but farmed U.S. Pacific white shrimp, West Coast white shrimp, or ebi is OK; avoid imported farmed or wild black tiger shrimp, tiger prawn, white shrimp, and ebi)
  • Spiny lobster from Maine, Australia, and Mexico’s Pacific coast
White seabass (sometimes called “king croaker”)
  • Wreckfish
 Yellow perch (preferably from Lake Erie)

For the most ecofriendly fish, look for the Marine Stewardship Council label, which is applied to responsibly managed wild fisheries.


The Marine Stewardship Council fishery certification program and seafood ecolabel recognize and reward sustainable fishing. MSC is a global organization working with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium recommending which seafood to buy or avoid, helping consumers and businesses become advocates for ocean-friendly seafood. www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx

“Food safety associated with products from aquaculture,” World Health Organization, Technical Report Series, No 883, 1999, www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/fs_management/aquaculture/en/

National Marine Fisheries Service, Seafood Supply and U.S. Trade, [PowerPoint graph]: “US Imports of Farmed Salmon: 1989–2003,” www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ocs/tradecommercial/documents/ustrade2004F.ppt

“Seafood: Farmed vs. wild,” Consumer Reports, January 2005, www.consumerreports.org/cro/food/animal-feed-and-the-food-supply-105/seafoodfarmed-vs-wild.htm

“Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Animal Nutrition on the use of Canthaxanthin in feedinstuffs for salmon and trout, laying hens and other poultry,” European Commission, Health and Consumer Protection Directorate, Brussels, 2002, http://europa.eu.int/comm/food/fs

US FDA:“Colour Additive Status List”. Retrieved 2011-10-27

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