Next time your mouth waters as you flake off a piece of firm but tender poached salmon, you might want to think about this: Wild Northwest salmon have radiant pink flesh, a color that comes from the fish's diet of tiny crustaceans found in its natural ocean and river habitat. Farm-raised salmon, by contrast, are bred in close quarters and fed fishmeal pellets, which give their flesh a dull grey hue. Since the assumption is consumers wouldn't find that appealing, fish farmers add dye to the feed, which leaves even farm-raised salmon looking pink.
So, if the idea of dye-fed fish turns you off, try not to think about it -- or switch to meat. Already, about half the salmon sold in U.S. supermarkets and restaurants comes from fish farms in Western Canada, the North Sea, or South America. "Atlantic salmon are the cows of the fish-farming industry," explains Craig Orr, a marine scientist and salmon expert at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver. Farm-raised salmon costs about half as much as fish caught in the wild, so what used to be a seasonal delicacy is now available throughout the year.
Salmon is just part of this fish tale. Today, nearly all of the catfish and more than a third of the shrimp sold in the U.S. come from farms, as do more than half the oysters, clams, and mussels. Worldwide, about 31 million pounds of fish were grown in farms in 1999, according to fishing-industry researcher H.M. Johnson & Associates. That amounts to about 31% of all seafood sold, up from 19% in 1990. Marine scientists say that aquaculture may soon surpass the oceans as a source of fish for human consumption.
There's a simple explanation for this trend: Sales of fish worldwide are starting to significantly outpace nature's capacity to put seafood on the table. "We can't simply keep fishing the oceans to meet demand anymore, so there are all these species of fish being domesticated, and many farming methods aimed at producing higher yields," says Kevin Fitzsimmons, an environmental scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson and president of the U.S. Aquaculture Society. Also, many experts agree that there is little difference in taste between farm-raised fish and their wild cousins.
While fish farming may be a modern-day necessity, it has its virtues, aquaculturists like to point out. In cities where salmon demand is high, for instance, aquaculture provides reliable supplies for restaurateurs and fish-market managers, who often fret about unpredictable volumes of ocean fish. "We never know what the weather will do to us," says David Bracher, chief fish buyer for Fairway Markets in New York City. With farm-bred fish, markets and restaurants can fix prices of their offerings rather than write "market price" on the menu. As Bracher points out, "We rely on aquaculture for a tremendous amount of our supply."
Fish farming is a growing, lucrative business. There are more than 5,000 farms worldwide from British Columbia to Chile to Thailand. Most are independently owned. Together they produce more than 30 million metric tons of fish per year valued at about $50 billion, according to the World Aquaculture Society. Those numbers are expected to double over the next two decades, the organization predicts. This budding industry has created tens of thousands of jobs worldwide, including alternatives for out-of-work fishermen, often in economically depressed parts of the world.
CHICKEN OF THE POND.
Boosters point to the supposed environmental benefits from fish farming. For instance, it can help maintain wild-fish populations, whose stocks either have collapsed or might collapse without better management. Take the perch-like fish called tilapia, farm-raised from Thailand to Phoenix. It's fast becoming the most popular aquacultural product in the world. Tilapia are ideal for farm breeding because they're cheap to feed, eating algae and plant material instead of smaller fish.
They also yield a fillet that's neutral in color and tasty -- making them a perfect choice for fast-food chains that need fish with a consistent look and taste. No dyes here. Tilapia are known as St. Peter's fish because they came from the Sea of Galilee, but nowadays they're bred across the globe and provide a low-cost source of protein for many poor countries. "They're kind of like a fresh-water chicken," says Fitzsimmons.
Even so, many environmentalists observe that fish farming isn't always environmentally friendly. Shrimp farming, most of which occurs outside of the U.S., has created pollution and led to the destruction of tropical forests along the Asian coasts, which are torn down to make way for the farms. There are also concerns that new kinds of bioengineered fish will escape into the wild, altering the genetic line of the wild stock. Fish farming "can be done well," says Kimberly Davis, director of fish-conservation programs at The Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group. "But it's not a panacea and it's not without costs."
Some environmental groups have grown alarmed over the proliferation of cheap farm-raised salmon on restaurant platters. Partly because Atlantic salmon farms aren't strictly regulated, thousands of fish swim in close quarters where bacteria, viruses, and parasites can spread, they worry. Antibiotics control the problems in fish farming, salmon farmers point out. Retort environmentalists: When these fish escape from their coastal nets into the wild population, they could spread parasites and disease to other species. Marine experts say aquaculture should be done in closed systems where bred species can't escape into the wild. They'd like to see more inland farms to avoid the possibility of an escape.
Indeed, says Davis, more aquaculture won't solve the basic problem facing the seafood industry -- that many wild-fish populations are still being overharvested. Rather than farming more salmon, Orr believes the fishing industry should use fish wheels, which can scoop fish from a narrow salmon run without hooking them. They can be sorted and threatened species thrown back.
Finally, there is the issue of keeping the public informed. Few Americans realize that much of the fish they eat is grown on a farm. Orr believes salmon labeling in the markets should be mandatory so that customers know whether they're getting fish that is farm-raised or wild. Consumers would know where their dinner came from, and why one fillet costs so much more than the next.
Ultimately, however, economics will likely rule the day. Without fish farms, prices for salmon and trout would rise as their stocks are depleted. Customers used to the cheaper prices of farm-raised fish would probably find the high prices outrageous. Wild salmon at Fairway Market in Manhattan, for example, costs about twice as much as the farm-raised variety.
It's almost certain that the industry will need to do more to ensure that it operates responsibly if wild populations of fish are to be protected from overfishing. With the ocean unable to yield enough wild fish to satisfy human appetites, the choice may be aquaculture -- or else.
By David Shook in New York