9 Things Everyone Should Know About Farmed Fish

Fish Farming

Story at-a-glance -

  • About half of the world’s seafood now comes from fish farms, including in the US, and this is expected to increase
  • Levels of omega-3 fats are reduced by about 50 percent in farmed salmon, compared to wild salmon, due to the use of grain and legume feed
  • Farmed salmon may spread diseases to wild populations, interbreed with wild species, threatening the wild gene pool with irreversible biopollution
  • Fish farms may drive small fish like sardines (used for farmed fish feed) to extinction
  • Fish farms, or aquaculture, has been deemed both ecologically and economically unstable, with “an unequal tradeoff between environmental costs and economic benefits”
  • High levels of contaminants are common in farm-raised salmon; the Norwegian Health Department went on the record recently warning against eating too much farmed salmon for this reason

By Dr. Mercola

Industrial fish farming, or aquaculture, is the fastest growing form of food production in the world.1 About half of the world's seafood now comes from fish farms, including in the US, and this is expected to increase.

Already, for the first time in modern history, in 2011 global farmed fish production topped beef production, and the gap widened in 2012 when 66 million tons of farmed fish were produced, compared to 63 million tons of beef.2

At first glance, farmed fish may seem like a good idea to help protect wild seafood populations from overfishing while meeting the nutritional needs of an ever-expanding global population.

In reality, however, the industry is plagued with many of the same problems surrounding land-based concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), including pollution, disease and inferior nutritional quality. It's getting so bad that fish farms can easily be described as "CAFOs of the sea."

9 Facts About Farmed Fish: Read This Before Your Next Seafood Meal…

1. The Omega-3 Levels Are Not What You Think

If you're eating fish, you're probably doing so, in part, to take advantage of their beneficial omega-3 fats. But levels of critical omega-3 fats may be reduced by about 50 percent in farmed salmon, compared to wild salmon, due to increasing amounts of grain and legume (e.g. soy) feed.

Farmed salmon, for example, is much fattier than wild salmon, but it contains FAR LESS healthful omega-3 fats and less protein.3

2. Small Prey Fish May Be Driven to Extinction

Many farmed fish are being fed genetically modified (GM) corn and soy, but others require a fish-based diet. Ironically, tiny prey fish like anchovies and herring are now being dangerously overfished to meet the growing feed demands of farmed-fish populations.

The non-profit group Oceana blames aquaculture for declines in whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, penguins, albatross and many other species. They stated:4

"Rather than relieving pressure on wild fish, growing these large carnivores [salmon and tuna on fish farms] requires a steady supply of prey that are caught and ground into oil and meal. As the industry grows, it is straining the existing supply of prey fish, putting additional pressure on populations that cannot supply the demand."

3. Fish Feel Pain and Stress

Research has shown that, like birds and mammals, fish feel pain and stress.5 The practices of raising fish in extremely confined environments, and killing them in painful ways like evisceration, starvation or asphyxiation must therefore be regarded as inhumane.

4. Farmed Fish May Spread Disease to Wild Fish

The close quarters where farmed fish are raised (combined with their unnatural diets) means disease can spread quickly, and because farmed fish are often raised in pens in the ocean, pathogens can spread like wildfire and contaminate any wild fish swimming past.

Sea lice, a type of crustacean that is easily incubated by captive fish on farms, have become a significant problem and have been blamed for declining numbers of wild pink salmon, as well as the species that eat them (bears, eagles, orcas and others). Other types of lethal viruses spread from fish farms are also now being detected in wild populations, including:

  • Salmon leukemia virus, which attacks the salmon's immune system so it dies of something else, much like HIV's role in producing the opportunistic infections that kill AIDS patients
  • Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus (ISA), also known as salmon influenza, which is highly lethal
  • Piscine reovirus, which gives salmon a heart attack and prevents them from swimming upriver

5. Fish Farms Pollute the Environment and Damage Local Ecosystems

Concentrated antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals are commonly used to fight diseases and parasites common to fish farms. What effect this has on the environment is only beginning to be understood, but it doesn't look good. Take one study, which found a drug used to kill sea lice also kills other marine invertebrates, can travel up to half a mile and persists in the water for hours…6

6. Fish Feces Harm Coral Reefs

Fish waste and uneaten feed further litter the sea floor beneath these farms, generating bacteria that consume oxygen vital to shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea creatures. Farmed fish waste promotes algal growth that that harms the water's oxygen content, posing risks to coral reefs and other aquatic life. Reportedly, the Israeli government shut down two fish farms in the Red Sea after learning that they were promoting algal growth that was harming coral reefs.

7. Farmed Fish Escape

There are multiple problems that result when farmed fish escape into the wild (which they do, in the numbers of millions each year). For starters, the 'wild' North Atlantic salmon that you purchase may actually be a farmed escapee, making it difficult to know what you're really eating. The escaped fish also breed with wild fish, and research shows that these hybrid-born fish are less viable and die earlier than wild salmon. This could contaminate the entire gene pool and harm the future of the wild population.

8. The Jevons Paradox in Practice

The Jevons Paradox says that "as production methods grow more efficient, demand for resources actually increases – rather than decreasing, as you might expect," MindBodyGreen reports.7 This is precisely what has happened with aquaculture. As fish production became more efficient, demand for salmon has increased significantly. This has, in turn, put increased demand on fish farms, which are using even more resources as a result.

9. Revenues Can't Offset the Heavy Environmental Costs

Aquaculture has been deemed both ecologically and economically unstable, with "an unequal tradeoff between environmental costs and economic benefits."8 In the US, hidden environmental costs are said to cost $700 million a year, which is half the annual production value of the farms.9

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Norwegian Health Department Warned Against Eating Too Much Farmed Salmon

Dr. Anne-Lise Birch Monsen at the University of Bergen, Norway has raised serious concerns about high levels of contaminants in farm-raised salmon. The contaminants in question originate in wild fish, courtesy of environmental pollution. These toxic contaminants bind to the fat molecules in wild fish, and when these fish are ground up for use in fish meal together with added high-fat fish oils, ultimately these molecules can enter your body where they bind to your cells.

In 2006 Russia actually banned Norwegian farmed salmon, claiming it contained excessive amounts of lead and cadmium (originating from the feed). Norway is the world's top producer of farmed salmon.

The Norwegian Food Safety Authority (FSA) rejected the accusations, but Dr. Claudette Bethune, a researcher at the National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research (NIFES) spoke out10 saying that "given the amount of research, there is no way Norway can be so sure its salmon is completely safe." She also told the media that the FSA's recommendations on how much salmon is safe to eat actually exceeded the level set by the World Health Organization (WHO) for poison ingestion.

Despite that, and in the midst of all these rising concerns over the past several years, a story in the Norwegian media11 revealed that Norway lobbied the EU to raise the permissible level of toxins in salmon feed, which has now been granted. Earlier this year, reports of farmed salmon toxicity actually spread through Norwegian news, and the Norwegian Health Department went on the record warning against eating too much farmed salmon:12

"We have reviewed the Scientific Committee report again and looked at the recommendations that were there and how this was discussed in the report of the National Nutrition Council in 2011. There, they discussed all research related to toxicology and health effects thoroughly, and we have based our evaluations on their report. They did not provide this clarification. Now we see that there is a need for clarifications to pregnant women and young women."

The new, official recommendation to Norwegian women of childbearing age or who are pregnant is to limit consumption of fatty fish such as salmon to a maximum of two such meals per week.

Alaskan Salmon Cannot Be Farmed

Most people don't realize that seafood labeled 'Alaskan' cannot be farmed. Alaska does an incredible job at protecting their brand integrity when it comes to seafood, in addition to ensuring quality and sustainability. If you don't see the 'Alaska' label or a logo from the Marine Stewardship Council, the seafood you are buying is likely farmed.

In the video above, I interview Randy Hartnell, founder-president of Vital Choice Wild Seafood and Organics. In the video, he shares some valuable tips on how to discern sustainably caught wild salmon from farmed varieties. According to Hartnell, studies have discovered that as much as 70 percent to 80 percent of the fish marked "wild" were actually farmed.

This includes restaurants, where 90-95 percent of salmon is farmed, yet may be mis-listed on the menu as "wild." The following tips that can help you determine whether the salmon you're buying is authentically wild harvested. Needless to say, purchasing wild-caught seafood instead of farmed is important not only for your health but also for the protection of our oceans, wild fish populations and the futures of many other species.

  1. Canned salmon labeled "Alaskan Salmon" is a good bet, as Alaskan salmon is not permitted to be farmed.
  2. In restaurants, mislabeled salmon will typically be described as "wild" but not "wild Alaskan." This is because authentic "wild Alaskan" is easier to trace. The term "wild" is more nebulous and therefore more often misused. In many ways it is very similar to the highly abused "natural" designation.
  3. Whether you're in a grocery store or a restaurant, ask the seafood clerk or waiter where the fish is from. If it's wild, they will have paid more for it, so they're likely to understand the value proposition. Since it's a selling point, they will know where it came from. If they don't have an answer for you, it's a red flag that it's farmed.
  4. Avoid Atlantic salmon, as typically salmon labeled "Atlantic Salmon" currently comes from fish farms.
  5. Sockeye salmon cannot be farmed, so if you find sockeye salmon, it's bound to be wild. You can tell sockeye salmon from other salmon by its color. It's bright red as opposed to pale pink because of its superior astaxanthin content. Sockeye salmon has one of the highest concentrations of astaxanthin of any food known.