Wild vs. Farmed Fish: What's the Difference?

fresh, packaged fish
Courtesy of A Couple Cooks

From protein and vitamins to those famous omega-3 fatty acids, the reasons to incorporate more fish into your diet are virtually endless. According to the American Heart Association, eating fish at least twice a week can serve as an important part of a healthy diet. In recent years, options for wild fish has become increasingly popular, but it can be difficult to understand what exactly the constitutes "wild" fish and how its benefits may differ from farmed fish. So how do the two varieties stack up? Read on for everything you need to know about wild versus farmed fish.

How They Compare Nutritionally

As is true of both land and seafood, an animal’s background can have a major impact on its nutritional profile. As nutrition expert Monica Reinagel points out, "The nutritional differences between wild and farmed fish are not as great as you might imagine." These discrepancies are typically limited to specific aspects of a fish's nutritional profile. For instance, rainbow trout that are farmed tend to be higher in selenium and vitamin A, whereas trout that are wild-caught tend to be higher in iron and calcium. Likewise, omega-3 fats are often found in substantially higher amounts in farm-raised Atlantic salmon than in their wild-caught counterparts.

Overall Safety

Likewise, the degree to which contaminants are present in fish has little to do with the wild-versus-farmed fish debate. Polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs) are a common environmental offender, and while they tend to be found in higher amounts in farmed fish, this amount is still significantly lower (about 98% lower) than any level that would merit concern. To avoid these toxins, it's far more important where your fish comes from than whether it's been wild-caught or farm-raised.

The Ethics of Wild vs. Farmed Fish

While strides are being made in the area of agricultural law, fish and other sea life are still substantially less protected than land animals. This is yet another reason to learn where your fish comes from. Fish farming standards can vary widely and have a dramatic impact not only the well-being of fish but also on health and safety factors for consumers. While one might assume that wild-caught fishing is more ethical, methods by which fish are killed, stored, and transported can also be less than humane. Overall, it's a good idea to review the ways in which fish are sourced on a case-by-case basis.

In choosing between wild and farmed fish, research is your best friend. For an easy-to-navigate guide to healthy and sustainable seafood consumption, we recommend this outstanding resource from the Seafood Watch organization.

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