Aquaculture—the process of farming fish in protected areas off the coast—offers one solution to the market's transparency problem. However, the industry has a rocky past, and stories of antibiotic use, chemical spills, and poor management tarnished its reputation for a while. Today, though, new regulations and passionate growers are forging a cleaner, more sustainable industry. Half of the seafood consumed in the United States is now farmed, and the World Bank predicts that this figure could rise to 75 percent by 2030.
Advances in farm management practices include the harvesting of more native species, larger pen systems, and feed formulations that use plant-based proteins. Jacqueline Claudia, co-founder and CEO of LoveTheWild, a frozen seafood brand that serves farmed fish (and recently brought in a wave of funding from one Leonardo DiCaprio), still sees some misconceptions about the industry, despite its impressive progress.
"Folks have a lot of ideas about what fish can or should eat that really have nothing to do with their nutritional needs or what is sustainable," she tells mbg. "They say that fish farms are 'crowded,' forgetting that natural behavior of fish is to school tightly together even in the wide-open ocean. Folks think farmed fish is 'pumped full of drugs,' without realizing that because the feed and water parameters are controlled, most farmed fish is completely free of contaminants. Even the worst aquaculture in the world has less environmental impact than the best hog farm."
She adds that farmed fish can even be cleaner than wild-caught fish in many cases. "Wild fish is romantic, and the epitome of natural, but our wild fish isn't as clean as it used to be."
The first open-ocean aquaculture system (one that lives more than 3 miles off the coast) was recently approved in the United States, so it's safe to say you'll be seeing a lot more farmed fish cropping up in stores. Claudia says it's important to make sure that your farmed fish is BAP or ASC certified, especially if it's a popular species like salmon or tilapia. "In the U.S., consumers should look for BAP (Best Aquaculture Practices)-certified fish. ASC is another strong certification, but it's more prevalent in Europe. Whole Foods Market has their own stringent sustainability standards against which farms are evaluated, making any farmed fish sold in Whole Foods a good choice. Seafood Watch also has several farmed fish rated Best Choice."
Plus, you should remember that not all species are appropriate candidates for aquaculture. "Tuna, for example, have poor feed conversion ratios and won't eat sustainable pelletized feed formulations. For this reason, it's difficult and expensive to raise, so it's hard to find farmed tuna," says Claudia. "Price can be another red flag: As in nearly every large commodity category, when the product is too cheap, you know corners are being cut."