When it comes to fish, consumers receive mixed messages. It's good because of omega-3 fatty acids, but bad because of mercury levels and PCBs. Then there is the question of wild versus farm-raised fish, each of which has pros and cons, and the lack of a single national certification, such as an organic standard, that can make buying choices simpler.
"The seafood category is the most complex food category there is," says Henry Lovejoy, founder of EcoFish, an environmentally responsible seafood company based in Dover, N.H. "Consumers and retailers really need someone to decipher the whole thing for them."
Some advocate an organic standard, but many issues surrounding aquaculture, or fish farming, complicate the debate. Sustainability, pollution and ecological impacts, and interaction with wild species all factor in. Generally, the farmed fish that are considered most eco-friendly are those that can be raised with land-based aquaculture and subsist on vegetarian feed.
The ecology of fishing
"Catfish and tilapia are practically vegetarians," says Teresa Ish, director of science for FishWise, an organization in Santa Cruz, Calif., that has created a science-based, sustainable, seafood-labeling program designed for grocery stores. "For farmed fish to make our list, we want to make sure that we actually are getting more out of the fish than we put in, so there's a net gain in fish protein." Char, trout and striped bass are right on the line in terms of protein-conversion ratio, but are good for other reasons. On the other hand, salmon, one of the most common farmed fish, requires four pounds of fishmeal for every pound of salmon harvested.
"We also look at how the fish itself is farmed," Ish says. "Farms that can separate themselves from natural bodies of water reduce the ability of fish to escape, and can prevent pollution from entering the environment. It also helps prevent the spread of disease from farmed to wild fish, which is one of the bad raps that salmon has."
"Two species that exemplify the issues are salmon and shrimp, because they are both wild-caught and farmed," Lovejoy says. A chief concern is pollution caused by salmon farmed in ocean pens, because the salmon waste falls to the ocean floor. In addition, farmed salmon can escape, potentially endangering native populations through interbreeding. That's because farmed fish grow larger faster, competing with the wild fish for resources. In addition, wild fish are genetically programmed to swim back to their particular ancestral river, and scientists worry that, through interbreeding, they could simply forget where to go.
Another concern is the feed given to salmon in ocean-based aquaculture. "Often the feed has growth hormones and antibiotics in it," Lovejoy says. These ingredients not only end up in the salmon, but also in other marine animals that eat the excess feed that falls through the net pen. This feed, made of ground fishmeal, often contains artificial colorants to replicate the color wild-caught salmon naturally get from their diets.
"Concern about fishmeal is one of the big criticisms against replacing wild-caught salmon with farmed," Ish says. "Because farmed fish are fed with wild fish, a lot of contaminants are introduced into their diet." Wild fish, on the other hand, eat a wide variety of foods. As a result, farmed fish often have higher concentrations of PCBs than their wild-caught cousins.
There are, Ish says, conscientious aquaculture salmon producers. These farmers reduce the density of salmon in their pens to eliminate the need for antibiotics, and provide dietary sources of astaxanthin, the carotenoid responsible for salmon color. Currently, one salmon producer is working with FishWise to bring to market a product raised in land-based pens, to avoid many of the issues with ocean-based farming.
Farmed shrimp are also common, and again, the methods of individual producers largely determine whether aquaculture shrimp are sustainable. "Shrimp are often farmed in mangrove swamps, which are fragile ecosystems," Ish says. But some producers are working toward a more sustainable product.
"A handful of land-based shrimp farms are doing a really good job, with no growth hormones or antibiotics and lower densities in ponds," Lovejoy says. In fact, EcoFish sells a shrimp product labeled organic, which is certified by Naturland, a German certifier with a standard for aquaculture sourced from shrimp farms in Central America.
The organic dilemma
However, at this point no U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification exists for seafood of any kind, whether farm-raised or wild-caught, though there is a great deal of discussion within the industry on what such regulations should include.
"It's far more complex than land-based agriculture," Lovejoy says. "I'd say we're at least two years away from having any USDA standards." One key question is whether wild-caught fish, or even ocean-based aquaculture, can ever be included in an organic standard.
"Under USDA organic standards, it's critical that you control your inputs entirely," Lovejoy says. "I don't see how you could certify open-ocean, net-pen aquaculture because, again, you're not controlling the water they're living in. You may use organic feed, but a lot of wildlife swims through the pen, [which] salmon eat as well."
Nonetheless, a handful of European firms have had their ocean net-pen salmon certified by foreign agencies, including the U.K.-based Soil Association. The Soil Association has instituted requirements such as low animal density, sustainable sources for salmon feed, the use of natural colorant from crushed prawn shells, and net-pen locations only in areas with strong tidal flushing to combat waste buildup. Though these operations might be termed sustainable or eco-friendly, Lovejoy says it's hard to imagine how they could truly be termed organic because of the inputs issue.
Ish points out, for example, that a 2006 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology showed significantly higher levels of PCBs in certified-organic farmed salmon from Norway than in wild-caught salmon.
If ocean-based net pens are included in any eventual organic rule for aquaculture, Ish says they'll need to find ways to deal with the issues of pollution and escapes.
Currently, the best guarantee that wild-caught fish are ecologically sustainable is a seal from the Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC standard is the only internationally recognized assessment to determine whether fisheries are well-managed and sustainable. MSC examines the conditions of the fish stocks, the impact of the fishery on the marine environment and the fishery's management systems before awarding a seal to a fishery.
Groups such as EcoFish and FishWise can also help retailers, both with additional testing for contaminants and stringent environmental standards for fish they bring to market. "We can help retailers give information to customers, and to make better choices with what they're buying, and ultimately to help both the oceans and the fisheries," Ish says.
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 78-79