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Wild-Caught vs. Aquaculture (Farm-Raised) Fish: Myths and Facts

By Kaleigh Jurgensmeyer
Sustainable Seafood Sampler featuring Arctic Char, Black Cod, and Copper River Sockeye Salmon

In a lot of the popular press, there seems to be a general desire to simplify the world with a “good” versus “bad” view on any given issue. Farm-raised versus wild-caught seafood is no different — and there are a lot of misconceptions about each.

Many (mistakenly) believe that farm-raised seafood is bad, and wild-caught fish is always the premium product. While there’s some merit to this misconception, this oversimplified message is far from the truth.

Farmed fish does sound scary. It’s been associated with public issues in regard to the environment and food safety in the past, which has resulted in confusion and lack of confidence in buying/eating seafood in general. After all, no one wants to eat fish that’s full of hormones and antibiotics, or that’s been raised in unhealthy and inhumane conditions. Nor do people want to buy a product that’s contributed to the destruction of wildlife habitats.

While there are definitely some bad practices in farmed fish, there’s also been a push to improve and clean-up the industry. Plus, there's places around the world that have always been doing it the right way — like Matorka’s technologically advanced aquaculture system.

In fact, when done the right way, farmed fish can be a sustainable complement to wild fisheries, supplement and support fishing livelihoods, and provide great-tasting, healthy seafood to people all over the world, including communities that otherwise wouldn’t have access to this kind of nutrition.

Today, aquaculture produces almost half of the world’s seafood supply, a trend that continues to be on the rise. And just like cattle farms — and any other farm for that matter — there are some good and some bad. You can have wild-fish that’s overfished, and you can have farmed fish that’s unsustainable.

Ultimately, it's up to you to pick the right product and make sure you know what you're getting.

So what exactly is the difference between aquaculture fish and wild-caught fish? And how do you pick the best product?

Put simply, aquaculture is the farming of fish (or other aquatic plants and organisms) under controlled conditions, while wild-caught fish (commercial fishing) is from a natural habitat like lakes, oceans and rivers. Aquaculture can be in land-based systems in tanks, or in enclosed portions of natural bodies of water.

Picking the best product isn’t so black and white — and a lot of the information you need (location, fishing practices, feed, etc.) is not readily available to consumers. Labeling can be deceptive — not clearly showing where the fish was raised versus packaged — and restaurants aren’t required to tell you the fish’s country of origin.

Crowd Cow is taking a step forward in this arena and is committed to transparency so you can get your seafood without wondering if it was raised ethically, cleanly and sustainably. We only work with farms that undergo thorough vetting processes (including taste testing!) to ensure customers get the most premium product. Whether you pick Atlantic Salmon from PrimeWaters, Black Cod from Sena Sea, Lobster from Tenant’s Harbor or Arctic Char from Matorka — you’re guaranteed fish that was caught or raised responsibly.

Matorka’s Land-Based Aquaculture System
Rich Wheeler of Sena Sea

How do you know what’s better? Farmed or wild-caught?

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There’s no right answer here. Some of this depends on the fish species, some on personal preference, and some on fishing practices. To find the best product, you have to make an educated choice about all these factors — so we wanted to uncover some myths and truths about both varieties, farmed and wild-caught, to make your decision a little easier. Because at the end of the day, you decide what's most important for you.

MYTH: Wild-caught fish tastes better.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference. Some people may prefer the taste of wild-caught fish, but many actually like farm-raised varieties because they oftentimes have a milder flavor. Wild-caught fish is usually leaner due to its time spent swimming in the ocean, and have more complex flavor components (which can sometimes be the “fishiness” people describe).  You can think of it like beer, with farmed fish being closer to a “light” variety and a little more neutral in taste, and wild fish being closer to darker beers, varying in flavor and leaning into richer distinctions.

MYTH: Farmed fish overuse antibiotics.

Antibiotics are mostly used to treat and prevent diseases, not to promote growth, and some aquaculture systems don’t use antibiotics at all. Matorka, for example, filters their water through lava rock, keeping their fish’s habitat incredibly clean and free of bacteria and parasites, so no antibiotics or hormones are ever needed or used. Our salmon from PrimeWaters is also raised without antibiotics, which are simply not necessary because the environment is so pristine — a habitat of free-flowing, icy marine waters off the coast of Norway.

MYTH: Wild-caught fish is more nutritious.

The nutrition of fish largely depends on what the fish eats. Farmed fish usually has added nutrients to their feed, which means you can get higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3s, the good fats that give fish delicious flavor and help it stay moist when cooking.  Wild-caught fish, on the other hand, is usually leaner with less fat.

MYTH: Farmed fish isn’t healthy.

Fish is a very nutritious source of food — farmed or wild-caught. And the nutrition levels of both are usually very similar.  Farmed salmon, for example, has virtually the same protein and cholesterol levels as wild-caught salmon.  It does have a higher fat content (but, as previously mentioned, contributes to a more buttery taste, helps it stay moist when cooking, and results in a milder flavor over wild). Wild has fewer calories and less saturated fat, so if you’re looking for the leanest option, our Sockeye and Coho varieties will be your best choice.

MYTH: Wild-caught fish has less pollutants and chemicals.

Fish can absorb some chemicals and pollutants through their diet and their environment — so the benefit of farm-raised here is the overall control aquaculture offers. We can't know where a wild fish was swimming, what they've eaten or have been exposed to — but we do know these things in aquaculture systems. This is why farmed salmon is actually what's recommended in sushi!

That said, not all farmed fish is the same and raised right. Feed and water quality are extremely important to the end product — that's why we're committed to only working with farms that are sustainable and eco-friendly. Arctic Char from Matorka and Atlantic Salmon from PrimeWaters, for example, are both raised at farms recognized by independent industry-recognized third parties to ensure the highest standards are met.

MYTH: Farm-fishing hurts the environment.

Farmed fish escapes can happen when fish pens and ponds are connected to natural bodies of water, impacting wild populations when they compete for food, habitat and spawning partners. However, responsible aquaculture takes important measures to avoid this and has little impact on natural habitats if done the right way.

Farm-fishing is actually a great complement to wild fisheries and can help restore environments and wild stocks over time. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council is one organization that works to certify environmentally and socially responsible aquaculture.

Many species of fish (like Arctic Char) also do well in “closed” farms onshore, raised in land-based tank systems where the water is recirculated and filtered, reducing the risk of disease transfer, pollution and escapes.

MYTH: Wild-caught fishing hurts the environment.

Commercial fishing can impact the environment through boat pollution, net breakage and bycatch — but proper fishing practices make a difference. Rich Wheeler of Sena Sea, for example, uses pots to fish so that there is zero bycatch (all other marine life stays protected).

MYTH: Farmed fish are unsustainable.

Farmed fish can be unsustainable, but many factors are considered here — including the type of feed given to the fish, chemical use, and environmental impact. This resource helps you make an educated decision about seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment.

MYTH: Wild-caught fish are unsustainable and overfished.

You can’t know if a particular fish is overfished just by the species. Location matters. For example, cod populations in the Pacific Ocean fisheries are well-managed and stocks are abundant, whereas cod from the Atlantic Ocean are overfished and should be avoided.

MYTH: Farmed fish uses synthetic coloring.

Salmon in particular, whether wild or farmed, get their pink to orange flesh color through what they eat. Wild salmon get their color from eating krill and other ocean life that have a chemical compound called astaxanthin. Farmed salmon get theirs from the same thing but it is added to the feed, specifically for color. There is no difference between this and the wild fish, but it’s for this reason that “color added” will be shown on farmed salmon food labeling.

Bottom line — do your research and make sure you know what you’re buying so that you can make informed choices. And whether it’s farmed or wild-caught, Crowd Cow has you covered. We've done our homework on all the fish we sell, and we'd put them on our own tables, too.

Ready to make your choice? Shop seafood now.

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