The choice between wild-caught and farmed fish has been framed as a debate between two very different fishing practices. On the one hand, wild-caught fish tend to be cleaner and healthier, while farmed fish are marketed as having a lower impact on ocean health and wild fish populations, as well as on the populations of non-food marine life and endangered species. New evidence, however, shows that the wild-caught variety of fish may come with a bigger price tag than previously thought.
Farming fish has been a development which was marketed to be the answer to declining tuna populations in the wild, and as a way to ensure that all tuna catches were composed entirely of tuna and not of non-food animals such as turtles, dolphins and sharks. In the farmed-fish system, bluefin tuna, which are declining badly in the wild, are raised in a few managed areas inside giant netted “corrals” until they are harvested. In this way, a badly endangered food fish species is grown and easily caught, while other species, such as dolphins and unwanted fish are kept outside of the netting. This cuts down on what the fishing industry calls “bycatch”, or the catching of fish and other marine life that is not useful in food production.
Farmed fish might then be considered the healthy, ecologically-friendly choice. Unfortunately, farming fish has a dark side. These tuna “ranches” are densely overpopulated, consisting of thousands of fish contained in a small area of the ocean for long periods. Fed with vast quantities of forage fish, these tuna cost as much in resources to fatten up as might be lost in waste if the fish were wild-caught.
Another downside to tuna farming is that because of the overpopulation in these “ranches”, the animals trapped within the corrals suffer from high levels of fecal contamination as they pollute the vicinity with high concentrations of body wastes and PCBs. They also suffer other effects of overpopulation in close quarters, such as infected sores from fighting and incidental contact caused by thrashing around in close proximity with nowhere else to go.
Many people still tout wild-caught fish as the healthier option, and indeed in many cases, due to migratory needs or the deep-sea environment which is required by some species of fish, farming many kinds of marine life is not possible. Recently, however, a conservation group called Oceana has published a report which tags nine U.S. fisheries as some of the greatest offenders in the struggle to make wild-caught fishing a viable and sustainable operation, competitive with the farmed fish industry.
Oceana identifies the California set gillnet and drift gillnet fisheries, the southeast snapper-grouper longline and shrimp trawl fisheries, and the northeast bottom trawl and Alaska flatfish trawl fisheries as industries which use lines and nets more likely to produce wasteful bycatch. These “dirty” fisheries are shown to use methods which contribute to greater waste of unwanted fish, which are often thrown away by the thousands, already dead, after being caught in nets made for commercial species. These nets and lines are also guilty of killing greater numbers of endangered and non-food marine life such as turtles and dolphins than was previously thought.
Gillnet fisheries snag fish by the gills, but their two-mile-wide nets often catch unusable fish. Longlines are lines up to 50 miles long baited with thousands of hooks which catch unintended sharks as often as the target species. As sharks are an apex predator in their environments, a heavy loss to a local shark population can throw a whole ecosystem out of balance. Trawl fisheries will drag football-field-sized nets across the sea floor or the surface of the water to catch everything in their path. Such methods can be adjusted to reduce bycatch and waste, but the fisheries cited by Oceana are accused of using outdated methods which increase waste and bycatch.
One cited example was the southeast bottom longline fishery, which has been shown to discard up to 66 percent of its catch on average. Another is the southeast trawl fishery, which is shown to have a discard rate of up to 64 percent. Many of the animals discarded come from protected species, as fisheries discard the unwanted animals to avoid being fined for harming these species. Much of the waste also comes when nets are hauled in and any animals which are over the daily quota are tossed back after expiring in the sun in an excessive waste of food resources.
Oceana states that such waste could be diminished drastically by tightening regulations as to which kinds of nets and lines can be used in these fisheries, as there are materials available now which can significantly reduce the numbers of unwanted animals caught. With fishing limits based on new scientific data regarding the movements of marine populations, and with cleaner gear and more thorough monitoring of the industry, Oceana has said there is hope that these “dirty” fisheries can clean up their act. In this way, the pros and cons of fresh-caught fishing can be better balanced.
The debate regarding the relative merits of wild-caught and farmed fish is ongoing, but both industries could use a clean-up. With research such as was recently published by Oceana, the fresh-caught fishing industry may remain competitive without further environmental damage and waste.
By Kat Turner