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Eco Etiquette: 5 Farmed Fish That Get The Green Light

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

My friend said that I shouldn't eat farmed fish because it's bad for the environment. But aren't wild fish disappearing from the ocean because of overfishing? It seems to me like it would make more sense to eat farmed seafood...

-Gordon

Remember when we all thought choosing environmentally friendly fish was as simple as buying a can of dolphin-safe tuna? Since then, negotiating the world of sustainable seafood has become as labyrinthine as piloting a trawler through icy waters. Overfishing has left former kings of the sea like bluefin tuna teetering on the brink of extinction; mercury and PCB contamination have rendered many species unfit for frequent consumption; and the toxic chemical bisphenol A in the packaging of canned fish like tuna and sardines has raised additional health concerns.

Heck, we can't even count on swanky sushi joints to not serve endangered marine mammals, as we so shockingly learned this month when Santa Monica, CA, restaurant The Hump was found to be smuggling whale meat into the mouths of certain plugged-in patrons.

Appalling as the practice of eating whale meat may seem, equally disquieting is what we may face if the consumption of sea creatures continues unchecked: Scientists are predicting the worldwide collapse of most seafood species by the year 2048. Given this ominous prediction, it's likely that the majority of fish we eat in the decades to come will have to be farm-raised and not wild-caught.

Unfortunately, in most cases the practice of large-scale fish farming is equally as environmentally detrimental as the factory farming of livestock on land: Floating sea cages are crammed with fish fed unnatural diets of corn and soy and administered antibiotics and other drugs to ward of disease. Often, their untreated waste is released directly into the ocean, spreading disease and parasites to surrounding marine life.

But don't put down that spicy salmon roll just yet: According to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, there are several aquaculture options that are both good for you and our oceans. Here, my top five farmed faves:

Freshwater Coho Salmon. While nearly all farmed salmon are a big environmental no-no due to open net pens that allow fish waste and other pollutants to contaminate surrounding ocean waters, one US producer -- SweetSpring Salmon in Washington State -- raises coho salmon in inland freshwater tanks that eliminate this threat. The freshwater coho also require less wild fish in their feed than other farmed salmon, reducing the strain on marine resources.

Rainbow Trout. These eco-friendly fish are popular with recreational fishermen, but don't seem to appear often enough on restaurant menus. They should: Farmed trout are delicious (like a more delicate salmon), home-grown (nearly all trout in the US market are raised in Idaho), and abundant. Environmental pollution is also minimal, because of well-established industry practices and government regulations.

Oysters. Blue Point junkies may be surprised to know that 95 percent of the world's oysters are actually farmed; that's because the beloved bivalves are naturally suited to aquafarming environments, since there's little chance of them escaping and interbreeding with wild stocks. And because oysters are filter feeders, they can even scrub pollutants out of surrounding coastal waters.

Mussels. Like oysters, farmed mussels do not require fishmeal or fish oil for their diet. They also have a long and distinguished aquacultural history: The first mussel farm was supposedly started in the 13th century by a shipwrecked Irish sailor who discovered mussels growing on the wooden posts he planted in a failed seabird-catching attempt. Unlike oysters, however, the majority of mussels in this country are imported; if you have the option, choose ones from nearby Canada over far-flung New Zealand.

American Caviar. These days, beluga caviar is about as politically correct as a mink coat (and illegal, I might add), thanks to severe overfishing practices that have resulted in the near annihilation of Caspian Sea sturgeon. Imported caviar also comes with a health warning, due to high levels of PCBs and mercury. Roe from US-farmed sturgeon or paddlefish offer an excellent alternative that has come to rival the real stuff; revered caviar boutique Petrossian even offers a sustainable selection of the American variety.

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