Farmed fish has a bad rap—and for good reason. Aquaculture—described as the “breeding, rearing and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of environments, including ponds, rivers, lakes and the ocean” or contained environments—is a decades-long practice that historically had highly negative impacts on fish health and the environment. One scary 2009 study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health found that some farmed fish had a “higher body burden of natural and man-made toxic substances,” including antibiotics and pesticides—chemicals applied to mitigate disease in densely stocked fisheries—than did wild fish. Old-school aquaculture operations also failed to properly recycle water, causing excess fish and water waste to pollute nearby waterways. 

But aquaculture remains an important sector in seafood production. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) found that in 2012 aquaculture provided almost half of all fish for human food globally—by 2030, this share is projected to rise to 62 percent. “If responsibly developed and practiced, aquaculture can generate lasting benefits for global food security and economic growth,” says the report—a statement that sounds, well, fishy if you’ve heard that farmed seafood harms the environment.

But over the past decade, farmed seafood not only increased output to feed a growing population, it did so responsibly. And some operations have figured out how to produce healthy fish in a highly sustainable manner. Take Australis Barramundi, for example, a fresh and frozen farmed fish company that raises barramundi in both closed-containment (land-based) tanks in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, and offshore in central Vietnam. Australis is considered the gold standard in large-scale aquaculture—the company recycles and purifies 99 percent of its water and donates fish waste as fertilizer to local farmers; in Vietnam, Australis is the only open-ocean aquaculture to receive the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch “Best Choice” rating for sustainability, arguably the most robust seafood rating guide in the United States.

Another smart choice? Farmed oysters. Often raised in coastal areas, farmed oysters don’t need external feed (they instead eat nutrient-dense phytoplankton floating in the water), nor do they require application of chemicals like antibiotics or pesticides. They can filter murky water—one oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day—and cultured oyster reefs even provide a natural coastal buffer that can mitigate shoreline erosion, according to a 2014 Seafood Watch report. Although Seaver typically recommends that shoppers eat small portions of seafood, he wholeheartedly encourages eating oysters and other farm-raised mollusks.

“I consider clams, mussels and oysters to be restorative. Every time you eat the oyster, you’re incentivizing oyster farmers to raise more and you’re putting more people to work in oyster farms,” he says.

Just as there are some bad poultry, beef and pork factory farms, there are bad fish farms. Not all aquaculture is good. But a growing number of seafood farms operate with ecological and social integrity—and that’s something to get excited about.

The wild card 

Wild-caught fish in the United States are well managed. Thanks to stringent regulations by state fishery management agencies, overfishing concerns are minimal. “It’s important to consider that our fisheries are doing well,” affirms Eddy. “The developed world has done a pretty good job at managing [healthy fish stocks].” Part of the reason why U.S. fisheries are doing so well is because there’s economic motivation to preserve wild species of fish—it’s in each state’s best interest to encourage fishermen to employ sustainable fishing practices, with methods such as pole-and-line and trolling.

Alaska has one of the best-controlled wild-fish stocks—especially salmon. Biologists use sonar technology to assess salmon populations, and “a limited number of licensed fishermen using regulated gear are allowed to fish in state waters up to three nautical miles offshore for restricted periods of time,” writes Diane Morgan, author of Salmon: Everything You Need to Know + 45 Recipes (Chronicle, 2016). As a result, wild-caught Alaskan salmon are considered a sterling seafood option.

When buying wild-caught fish, both Seaver and Eddy recommend buying domestic species. Not only because it supports American fishermen and boosts local economies, but also because developing nations still lag behind in fishing regulations. “About 50 percent of our global catch is harvested from fragmented fisheries in developing nations. How do we bring these fisheries up to par?” asks Eddy, who says some of these fisheries lack infrastructure to handle fish from a quality, traceability or social standpoint (example: Thailand’s slavery allegations in shrimp processing). If domestic fish stocks are an industry bright point, poorly managed wild-catch operations overseas still need work.

What now?

Sustainability is complicated. And because there’s ample variation in how fish is caught and raised, buying it can be an arduous task. It’s hard to remember that whitefish from Lake Michigan, Wisconsin, is good but whitefish from Lake Superior, Wisconsin, is bad. But overall expert consensus agrees with the Dietary Guidelines: Yes, eat more seafood. But be picky.

Morgan recommends befriending your fishmonger, the person in your grocery or natural retail store who receives and orders seafood. Ask where it came from; ask when it was caught. Also download the Seafood Watch app (it’s free!) to search for the best fish options when you’re at the store (you can also download and print out a guide from seafoodwatch.org).

Seek out manufacturers of packaged seafood products that don’t just tout their traceability commitment but also prove it via information on their website or back-of-package tracking information. Don’t know where the fish in your favorite canned tuna came from? Call the company and ask. Your inquiry will show mainstream food manufacturers that shoppers care about catch location.

But perhaps Seaver’s recommendation is the easiest (and tastiest) to follow: Diversify your protein choices by eating chicken, beef, tofu, nuts, legumes and seafood—and choose smaller portions. Prioritize eating small fish and shellfish such as anchovies, sardines, clams, mussels and oysters. If you do buy larger, predatory fish like tuna, make it count: Buy the freshest and best 16-ounce piece of tuna you can buy, cut it into four pieces, and cook it with care. Invite over three friends, open a bottle of Burgundy wine, and serve the fish with a lot of vegetables. Savor, and repeat twice per year. Doing so will respect the integrity of the fish and inspire you, your friends and your community to cherish fish—and the people who caught it—as an important resource, Seaver says. “This is the only chance we have to honor the role food producers play in our food system.”