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Something's fishy down on the farm

I’d like to be a vegetarian, but the times I tried led to significant health problems. My current compromise is not eating beef or pork, limiting poultry and fish to a few meals a week and buying organic or hormone/antibiotic-free whenever I can.

Fish, of course, doesn’t come “organic,” since its food source and environment cannot be controlled in the same way poultry’s can. Wild-caught species are often over-fished with ecological consequences and also contain mercury and other environmental pollutants. Farm-raised fish are apparently even scarier – with a host of issues added to the mercury debate.

As far as mercury goes, I wish I could trust the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) – which only warns about danger to children and pregnant/nursing women – but history supports neither their impartiality nor their accuracy. Since the adverse health effects of mercury are pretty heinous – and not necessarily reversible – I prefer to err on the side of caution.

Diet-wise I choose fish lower in mercury more often and limit or eliminate those with higher levels. Environmentally, I try to stick with the species that set off the fewest alarms in my head. (Though on that basis I should eat oysters, which are actually benefiting the environment through farming, but I’m with Miss Piggy on this one: “I don’t know why anyone would want to eat something slimy that sits in an ashtray.”)

So what exactly are the “host of other” concerns about farmed fish? They include what the fish are fed; pollution in the raising environment; parasites, illnesses and the chemicals/antibiotics farmers administer to prevent them; sustainability of the practice as a whole; and humane treatment and slaughter issues.

Barring filter feeders, such as oysters, which consume plankton and algae, most species of farmed fish are carnivorous. They have to be fed a diet that includes other fish. The feeder fish are usually “trash” or bait fish caught (and often over-fished) in the wild, then processed into pellets with other ingredients. So whether raised in inland pools or ocean pens, farmed fish still consume mercury and environmental pollutants in their fishy kibble.

The other components of the kibble are often low in quality and high in fats, which accumulate fat-soluble pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls. Poor quality food keeps farmed fish from forming the high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids that are fish’s main health benefit.

Farmed fish are “inefficient” eaters, meaning their natural adaptations for catching and eating other fish do not prepare them to consume kibbles and bits. They are raised in pools or ocean pens in stressful, extremely crowded conditions, often swimming in a combination of their own waste and the fish kibble they fail to eat. When this effluent is flushed, it’s often directly into the wild environment, polluting that as well.

These conditions can lead to a high incidence of parasites, illness, and premature death. To try to prevent sickness, farmers often administer antibiotics or use chemicals – which end up in our diet as well. If any of the fish escape, they can carry disease and parasites into wild populations.

The primary means of slaughter is to pull the fish from the water and let them suffocate. This, along with the stressful, overcrowded and polluted living conditions, understandably raises concerns about humane treatment.

Some aquaculture producers have always tried to be sustainable and humane, but the fish-farming industry as a whole has had to become more sensitive to all these issues – in the interest of profit if nothing else.

Improvements are being made, with humane treatment and sustainability high on the list. But changes are in the early stages, so it pays to do a little research and choose the fish types and sources that best address your health and environmental concerns.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has an easy-to-follow Seafood Selector that combines information on health and ecological issues for both wild-caught and farmed fish (though they do not address humane-treatment in fishing or farming).

For those who prefer to get their Omega-3s in supplements, the EDF lists which manufacturers remove toxins and mercury from their fish oils.

I’m not ready to give up fish altogether, so I try to make choices that offer health benefits to me, to the fish and to the environment. I just wish there were more options that did all three.

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• Environmental Defense Fund (use the “Seafood Selector” link on the left):

• “Sustainable Fish That’s Safe to Eat”:

• Advocacy for Animals, “The Pros and Cons of Fish Farming”:

• FDA advisory for children and pregnant/nursing mothers:

• FDA mercury levels in fish by species:


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