Seafood Choices: Wild or Farmed?

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Photos by (clockwise from top left) LAYeiser/Flickr CC; FotoosVanRobin/Flickr CC; Sporkist/Flickr CC; avlxyz/Flickr CC


I read a paper this week about the state of the world's seafood supplies. As a peer reviewer, I gave it closer attention than I otherwise might, but I was hooked because it was well-articulated and offered visually compelling charts to keep me reading way past my bedtime. Forty-odd pages of facts, figures, and stories later, though, I came to view the paper as very depressing.

Fish farms now provide more than 50 percent of the world's supply of seafood. Ultimately, this is depressing because it represents both a decline in seafood landings (i.e. the quantity of fish brought into port) and also the rise of industrial-scale production instead of the regional-scale fishing that has sustained coastal communities for 1,000 years. Policy analysts who measure protein available per person--a key indicator in regions of the world where there are chronic shortages--will see some positive news in this report. It will also offer good news for consumers who eat fish for the primary purpose of ingesting fish as a source of omega 3s or lean protein.

But the oceans are in serious trouble, lakes aren't in great shape either, and those of us who like seafood because we enjoy the taste are losing out. I like my fish to taste like, well, fish, whether it's pan-fried, smoked in a wok, crisped on a grill, or pickled with onions and spices. If I want tofu, I'll eat tofu, but my fish should taste like it comes from a natural waterway, not...nowhere.

Awareness of sustainable seafood issues has grown enormously among consumers. Their purchasing behavior, however, hasn't yet matched their concern.

Because my job involves purchasing strategy, I often get to taste foods before we encourage our chefs to buy them--one of the great reasons to work in food, as opposed to, say, insurance. I've tasted two aquaculture species lately: one that is on the "Best Choice" list for Seafood Watch, the gold standard for seafood sustainability, and one whose production system is being evaluated by a science panel next week. The first, a flash-frozen Arctic char, was delicious. I can't say it matched the flavor of wild char, because it's been too many years since I had a wild version. But the farmed salmon was simply awful.

Nearly all farmed salmon is grown in a manner analogous to cattle: their open-ocean net pens are enormous (the size of airline hangars); they are fed four to five times the fish protein over the course of their maturation process that they produce (much like the inefficient grain-to-meat conversion of beef); and they generally wreck the habitats of native species with their waste droppings--abundant, untreated, and unregulated. Some salmon farmers are trying to do better. The salmon I tasted is grown under much more positive environmental circumstances. But is growing bland seafood a good thing?

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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