If you’re an eco-minded seafood lover, you probably thought you’d mastered the basics. You eschew over-fished wild varieties for farmed fare, mind your mercury, and look for organic labels. But the conventional wisdom on sustainable seafood is changing as the stakes are raised higher: A recent study found that most popular wild fish species will be near extinction in 40 years if the world maintains its current dietary demand. Some experts believe fish farming will help offset the world’s diminishing stocks, but new research questions whether that will really make enough of a difference. Here’s what you need to know now to shop smart at your local fish market. 

Wild vs. farmed?

This flip-flopping debate may best be illustrated with farmed Atlantic salmon. Both chefs and environmentalists once thought farmed was preferable, since it’s available year-round and doesn’t deplete wild stocks. Not anymore. Dead fish, uneaten food, and feces that lurk below open-net pens on fish farms can suffocate the sea life on the ocean floor. Feed pellets—made from fish because salmon are carnivorous—may contain mercury and dioxins. And salmon that escape the nets wreak havoc on biodiversity and introduce disease. “Salmon farming is not as great as I’d once thought, and I’ve stopped buying and selling it,” says Rich Moonen, chef and owner of RM Seafood in Las Vegas.

Now, wild Pacific salmon is thought to be the catch of the day, since it doesn’t create pollution and health problems. Alaska’s wild-caught salmon is certified as sustainable by the nonprofit organization Marine Stewardship Council, and the states of California, Washington, and Oregon also operate well-managed wild salmon fisheries.

As for the other fish in the sea, for now, farmed is fine for species like tilapia, char, and catfish that are fed a vegetarian diet and live in brackish water. Wild is preferred for carnivorous fish such as tuna, salmon, halibut, and snapper. Line-caught fish are preferable to those gathered in nets, although you may not be privy to that information at the market or in a restaurant). For a list of smart seafood choices that includes which fish to buy farmed and which to buy wild, click on the Seafood Watch icon for a pocket guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website (mbayaq.org).

Long-term sustainable solutions

But some watchdog groups fear the law will create a vast network of unmonitored, polluted, and inhumane feedlots. “Fish farming can help meet demand, but only if it is done right,” says Rebecca Goldburg, a senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Defense. She says that as the act is currently written, “it doesn’t require that key environmental impacts be minimized.”

Until the issue has been hammered out, buy fish from farms with a good environmental record. For a list of those who are doing it right, see the sidebar “Solid Seafood Choices.”

Organic labeling

The organic issue remains fishy for consumers. Most of the seafood currently labeled as organic comes from abroad and might not meet the standards Americans have come to associate with an organic seal of approval. According to the Pure Salmon Campaign, some countries developed their own organic standards since there are presently no international guidelines in place.

There were once two U.S. fish companies—both shrimp farms—that bore a USDA organic seal, having received certification through the department’s livestock program in 2004. But the USDA blocked that avenue of approval soon afterward, and both companies voluntarily rescinded their organic distinction. The government has still yet to develop organic standards for farmed fish and won’t certify wild fish as organic because they can’t be monitored to the degree farmed fish can.

Establishing an organic fish labeling system has been a long time coming, but in March, the USDA issued interim standards for seafood that will prohibit a future organic seal for farmed fish raised in open-net pens or those that eat wild fish. They are reconvening in November to review public comments. Eco and consumer groups praise those prohibitions but worry that fishing-industry lobbyists could water down the final results. “The USDA must take a strong stance to ensure that the entire organic label is not diluted,” says Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pure Salmon Campaign. “We’re asking the U.S. to permanently close the door on organic certification for open-net-cage fish farming and the farming of carnivorous fish like salmon.”

If current organic labels are scarce and somewhat meaningless, what does it mean in terms of quality? Kavanagh says some organic-labeled fish from other countries contain more PCBs and chemicals than fish farmed in the U.S. So for now, buyer beware. Fish lovers should stay tuned to see how the labeling issue develops.

Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in Plenty in November 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Fish tales
Learn how to navigate the oft-murky waters of farmed, sustainable, and organic aquaculture.