The question is this, farm raised or wild-caught? For years, I have been led to believe that farm raised was always better. Recently, I have read several items that have made me realize the answer is not so simple.

In this age of better health and trying to incorporate more fish in our diets, we also need to be responsible, and well-informed, fish eaters. A 2013 report from Earth Policy Institute stated that worldwide production of farmed fish now not only exceeds the production of beef, but that consumption of farmed fish is soon to exceed consumption of wild-caught fish.

Tilapia is near the top of the list for fish eaten in the United States and the fourth most consumed seafood after shrimp, tuna, and salmon. Tilapia is not a single species of fish, but rather a common name for dozens of different species of cichlid fish. Due to this increased demand, much of the tilapia is now farm-raised rather than wild-caught.

One of the reasons for tilapia’s popularity is that they are short-lived and are primarily vegetarians. Tuna and salmon are both carnivorous and consume other fish. So when farmed, salmon will eat upwards of five pounds of small fish to produce just one pound of salmon, creating a net loss of protein.

The main problem with farmed fish is where they come from. Fish farms in the U.S. and Canada use tanks with closed recirculating systems; a cleaner system with filters and regulated foods. However, most tilapia consumed in America is imported from Latin America and Asia (particularly Ecuador, China, and Taiwan). China produces 40 percent of the world’s tilapia with 40 percent of their exports going to the United States. The Environmental Defense Fund reported that China and Taiwan’s tilapia farming is a concern due to water pollution and use of chemicals.

Further concern is noted in what the tilapia are fed. Commercial fish food is expensive, so smaller Chinese operations use manure to feed the fish. This contaminates the water and makes the fish more susceptible to spreading foodborne diseases. A July 2009 report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the safety of food imports from China stated that, “Fish are often raised in ponds where they feed on waste from poultry and livestock,” and cited an increased rate of FDA rejection of fish imports from China between 2000 and 2008. (Forty percent of the tilapia imports from China were rejected in 2007 – 2008.) Food and Water Watch also drew attention to this rejection of fish and shellfish. Tilapia were not the only fish rejected, included in the 40 percent refused were, tuna, monkfish, squid, jellyfish, crawfish, crab, cod, mackerel, and other species.

The best way to know for sure if seafood at the counter or restaurant is ecologically sound, and safe to eat is to check out Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” program. Seafood Watch issued a report on pond-farmed tilapia from China in June 2012, which upgraded its previous, “Avoid” to “Good Alternative.” This upgrade seems to have more to do with the reduction in water use and the discharge of effluent by tilapia farmers – factors that are local environmental concerns – rather than enhanced food safety measures.

Moral of the story: Before getting hooked on fish – consider the source!

Reach Lynn Youngblood at