Wild Caught seafood or Farmed Seafood: What's the Difference?

Fish and shellfish are packed with healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. It’s a power food that is great for both physical and mental well being and always a positive addition to a nutritious, complete diet.

But not all seafood is the same, even when it’s the same fish. What’s the difference between wild-caught trout and farm-raised trout, for instance? We’ll dive into some of the contrasts between farmed fish and wild-caught.

One of the common thoughts in the debate between farm-raised or wild-caught fish is that eating wild-caught only is the best choice while farm-raised is bad, both flavor and environmentally wise. The truth is there’s so much that influences whether farm-raised fish or wild-caught is the best choice that can differ from fish to fish and from fisheries to fisheries. Unfortunately, that makes the answer not as crystal clear as many would like it.

First, let’s understand the easiest difference between wild-caught or farmed seafood.

Wild-Caught Fish

Wild-caught seafood is fished or captured from natural habitats (lakes, oceans, rivers).

Farmed Fish

Farmed seafood can be fish raised in large man-made tanks or the fish are caught and raised in cages that are placed in oceans, rivers or lakes until they are grown enough for harvest. The capture and raising of seafood in cages until they are ready for harvesting is a type of fish farm referred to as “ranching,” but still considered farmed seafood.

Farmed or wild-caught often ends up looking the same when presented cooked on a plate or delicately arranged as part of a fresh sushi dish. But the circumstances of how they ended up on your plate is what can often make the two wildly different.

The Good and the Bad of Wild-Caught Seafood

Some of the great reasons why eating wild-caught fish is a good choice:

  • Wild-caught most often is a better flavor. This is because wild fish usually have a more diverse diet than their farm-raised alternatives, which in turn affects the flavor of seafood.
  • The meat of wild-caught is leaner and less fatty. Wild fish are constantly moving and on the hunt for food and avoiding predators makes their meat leaner than most farm-raised options. So less fatty equals much healthier.
  • The color of wild-caught fish is often better and brighter, especially when comparing wild-caught versus farmed salmon. Varied diets of wild fish help improve the color of a fish and simply a better plate presentation when served as a meal.

And while aesthetically and perhaps more flavorful than farm-raised, there are downsides to wild-caught as well:

  • Wild fish have higher levels of mercury. There are worrying amounts of mercury levels in wild-caught fish today, and while the levels remain low enough not to be toxic to humans, farmed fish have a significantly lower amount than wild-caught.
  • Ocean wild-caught fish mean fishing boats using rapidly depleting fossil fuel. The burning of oil and gas contribute to polluting emissions. Fishing nets don’t always capture one type of fish, capturing many varieties. The boats then need to return, keeping the catch fresh, then companies, in turn, need to transport them, usually in trucks which also use fossil fuels before they arrive at a market. This makes wild-caught fish not very carbon friendly.

The Good and the Bad of Farm-Raised Fish

Farm-raised fish or ranching fish are raised either in floating net pens near the ocean shore, in a lake or river, or raised in man-made containers on land. Farm-raised fish are often commonly referred to as part of “aquaculture,” or marked as “ocean-raised,” and quickly becoming the more popular way to raise as well as catch fish.

Some of the positives of choosing farm-raised for your table are:

  • Farmed seafood is far more readily available than wild. While some wild fish can only be caught or captured during fish seasons at certain times of the year, aquaculture fish are available year-round.
  • Farm-raised is far more affordable than wild. Farmed seafood is cheaper because they cost less to harvest, process, and ship.

There are of course a few downsides with farm-raised fish.

  • The levels of Omega 3 fatty acids can be lower in farm-raised fish. They may not be as good of a healthy alternative as wild-caught.
  • Where you get the farm-raised fish and how the farm operates can impact whether it’s truly a viable choice. Chemicals and waste from some fish farms that don’t adhere to environmental standards can spread and contaminate the environment around them. Sometimes, a disease easily spreads from farm fish to wild and that can, in turn, spread to wildlife on land.
  • If you are concerned with eating fish free of antibiotics, fish that are raised in captivity won’t be free of them. Since in captivity, the risks of spreading illnesses are increased, farmed seafood is often fed antibiotics.

The Difference Between Farm and Wild Caught Seafood

It’s where the seafood comes from which makes it different. Finding out the source of your seafood whether it is wild-caught or farmed locally is what ultimately separates the two.

First, make sure that you are purchasing your fish from a reputable, local market source if possible. Regulations in the United States for farmed fish are held to high inspection standards to ensure both environmental haphazard is avoided and the fish is the best quality it can be. So consider either purchasing farmed seafood from the U.S. or pay keen attention to seafood labels. Seafood should always have two labels: one that tells you where the seafood was packaged and one that will tell you where it was caught or farmed. Occasionally the label will say it was packaged in the U.S. but farmed or caught elsewhere.

There isn’t a 100% clear choice between choosing wild or ocean raised fish, and so the best option remains on us, the consumer and customers who enjoy eating and preparing fish to find the best choice that fits us. There are positives and negatives to both wild-caught and farmed. With articles like this and the right research beforehand, you’ll be able to find the best option that works well for your family and table.

There isn’t a 100% clear choice between choosing wild or ocean raised fish, and so the best option remains on us, the consumer and customers who enjoy eating and preparing fish to find the best choice that fits us. There are positives and negatives to both wild caught and farmed. With articles like this and the right research beforehand, you’ll be able to find the best option that works well for your family and table.