The Natural Stocks
The FAO reports 31% of the world’s fish stocks are overfished, and 58% are fully exploited. An excess of fishing effort, lack of foresight in management, and demand for particular species puts pressure on the world’s oceans. Seafood that comes from wild-caught stocks often contributes to overfishing. In contrast, the species that can be successful grown through aquaculture help reduce fishing pressure on natural stocks while still providing food for a growing population.
In wild caught fisheries, destructive gear such as bottom trawls and long lines often damage the seafloor and result in large quantities of bycatch. Bycatch includes discarded animals fishermen do not want, cannot sell, or are not allowed to keep; these are the species not being targeted by fishermen but that still end up in their catch (NOAA). “According to some estimates, global bycatch may account for 40 percent of the world’s catch, totaling 63 billion pounds per year” (Oceana, 2014). Not only is this devastating to the marine environment, but it is a waste of food as bycatch is typically thrown back to the sea, dead.
In the U.S., aquaculture seafood is produced in a controlled environment with strict laws and regulations that ensure traceability and health standards for the consumer. Conventional fisheries often suffer from a lack of traceability and uncertain care for the fish once it has been caught. In some cases, wild populations of fish are even exposed to chemicals in the water that then turn up in their tissue. For these reasons, the USDA does not currently certify any seafoods as “organic,” but there is hope that in the coming years, some of the most health-conscious farms will gain the “organic” designation.
A controversial topic in aquaculture is the use of antibiotics. It’s important to note that not every fish farm uses antibiotics. An alternative to antibiotics is being tried at a salmon farm in Norway, which keeps just one generation of fish in a single location at a time. The World Health Organization identifies this strategy as being ideal, but “If that’s not possible, farmers periodically empty holding areas for fish, disinfect them and leave them empty for a few months. Such methods help prevent cross-contamination between old and new generations” (WHO, 2015). Others have tried introducing smaller fish to eat pests off the larger fish as a non-antibiotic means of health treatment.
The aquaculture operations that do use antibiotics, however, have proven to have large benefits in fish production by preventing diseases. In the U.S. all antibiotic use in aquaculture is regulated and managed through the US Food and Drug Administration (USDA), which maintains standards for safe levels of consumption.
Learn more about aquaculture regulations here.