Farm-raised vs. wild-caught fish

Anita Marlay
Special to the Lake Sun, USA TODAY NETWORK
Wild-caught fish are caught by fishermen in their natural habitat, whether that be a lake, ocean or river. Wild fish eat a diverse diet of organisms found in their environment.

You know you should be eating more fish but aren’t certain what kinds to buy. Does it matter if it is wild-caught or farm-raised? The answer isn’t always black and white, but here are the pros and cons of each to help make the best choice for you.

First, let’s look at the definitions. Wild-caught fish are caught by fishermen in their natural habitat, whether that be a lake, ocean or river. Wild fish eat a diverse diet of organisms found in their environment.

Farmed fish are commercially raised in controlled net pens that may exist within a lake, ocean or river, or they may be raised in large tanks above ground. The fish are fed a mixture of corn, grains, fish oil and ground-up wild-caught fish. Farm-raised fish are bred to make the fish cheaper and more available to consumers. Farm-raised fish makes up about 90% of the fish consumed in the United States.

While both types of fish are safe to eat and a good source of nutrition, there are some differences:

Overall Nutritional Content. The nutritional quality of the fish depends on what they eat and the water quality. Wild-caught fish have a more diverse diet and tend to be slightly lower in saturated fat content. Farm-raised fish may be fed premium fish food or low-quality by-products, depending on the farmer. Red food coloring is often added to farm-raised salmons’ diets to replicate the color that wild salmon have obtained by eating krill and algae. Because farm-raised fish tend to have more overall fat content, they are richer in omega 3 fats and vitamin A.

Contaminants. Mercury can be found in both types of fish but may be lower in tank-raised farmed fish. Generally, the larger the fish, the more mercury it may have, such as swordfish, shark or king mackerel. Farmed fish can be higher in PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are man-made chlorinated industrial chemicals. PCB exposure can have a negative effect on your health. It’s recommended that you remove the skin and fatty areas from any fish before eating because these areas are where pollutants accumulate. Additionally, wild-caught fish aren’t as prone to disease, illness and parasites. But farm-raised fish are often given antibiotics or other medicines.

Cost. Wild-caught seafood is typically more expensive than farm-raised options. The supply can be limited to many factors, such as fishing seasons, algae blooms or spawning cycles. Frozen or canned wild-caught seafood can be more budget-friendly than fresh varieties. Farm-raised fish are more predictable in availability and more consistent in price.

Taste. Ultimately, this comes down to personal preference. Farm-raised varieties often have a milder, more neutral flavor. They also have a higher fat content, which helps them stay moist when cooking. Wild-caught fish are usually leaner with a more complex, richer flavor.

Environmental impact. For many years, many people felt fish farms were synonymous with pollution and poor regard for ocean wildlife. Open-net cages can leach chemicals and disease into the ocean, putting wild fish at risk. Fish farmers must adhere to very strict environmental regulations. Certain wild fish populations have become over-harvested, and some fishing practices do little to prevent environmental damage when fishing.

The bottom line is to choose whichever fish fits in your budget and that tastes good to you; both are nutritious sources of lean protein. However, you should know where your fish comes from. Other countries are not as regulated as the United States, and that fish may have more contaminants. Country-of-origin labeling is required on all seafood. If the fish is frozen, there should be a label stating where the fish was caught and where it was processed. Restaurants do not have to disclose the origin of the fish they serve.

The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish, particularly fatty fish, per week. A serving is 3.5 ounces cooked, or about three-fourths cup of flaked fish. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna –– are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Children and pregnant women are advised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to:

• Avoid eating those fish with the potential for the highest level of mercury contamination, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish.

• Eat a variety of fish and shellfish lower in mercury such as canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish.

• Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in local lakes, rivers and coastal areas

For more information on this topic, visit or explore Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center’s blog at

Smoked Salmon and Asparagus Pasta Salad

Serves 6

3 oz smoked salmon

1 small bunch asparagus (about 20 spears)

8 oz orecchiette pasta

1 ½ Tbsp olive oil

Juice from 2 lemons

1 tsp crushed tarragon leaves, dried

2 tsp Dijon mustard

2 Tbsp feta cheese

Bring a large stockpot of lightly salted water to boil over high heat. Cut salmon into thins strips, and set aside. Trim asparagus, and discard ends. Cut spears into 2-inch pieces. Add pasta to boiling water, and cook to al dente, about 8 minutes. Drop asparagus into pasta water the last 3 minutes of cooking.

While pasta cooks, mix the oil, lemon juice, tarragon and mustard in a small bowl with a whisk. Drain pasta and asparagus into a colander, and run under cold water. Transfer to serving bowl. Pour dressing over the pasta and mix. Add salmon and feta, and mix in gently. Top with ground pepper if desired.

Nutrition Information: 204 calories, 6 g fat, 340 mg sodium, 31 g carbs, 2.5 g fiber, 9 g protein

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri.