5 Reasons to Avoid Factory-Farmed Fish

Fish Farm

While it may seem like a modern invention, “aquaculture,” has been around for ages – man has been “farming” fish in net enclosures, ponds, vats, urns and even woven baskets for thousands of years. More recently though, say within the last few decades, worldwide demand has exploded and farming fish has grown just as rapidly, evolving into a multi-billion dollar industry. Its mission: to produce more fish quicker, faster, larger and cheaper to meet the insatiable demand for what once seemed a limitless and inexpensive source of protein and good fat.

Not surprisingly, the extraordinary growth of the fish farm business has brought with it a number of industrial farming problems that concern me enough to advise all my patients to avoid factory-farmed fish. While there are some fish farmers producing eco-friendly and healthy fish, they are the exception, not the rule, so unless you’re able to purchase fish from those types of purveyors (usually smaller-scale, artisanal or boutique-style fish farms), just say No Tanks…that is, no to farmed fish – and here are five simple reasons why:

1) There’s no such thing as a free-range, farmed fish

In fact, it’s quite the opposite, with fish farm enclosures packing the creatures in, well, like sardines, leaving little room for the fish to swim freely or to engage in their normal behavioral patterns. The result? Stressed fish, who like us, tend to get sick more easily when their defenses are down. With their immune systems compromised, the fish become more prone to illness, parasitic infections and diseases, which then can spread quickly through their over-populated aquatic quarters.

2) Farmed fish are like really into drugs, dude

Next, the sickened fish have to be made well again, with you guessed it, drugs.  To do this, farmed fish are fed antibiotics, antifungals and/or pesticides – which means so are you, with every fork-full. Hardly an appetizing thought. As if that weren’t enough, farmed fish are often injected with booster shots of sex hormones. Turns out, captive fish populations tend to produce fewer offspring, so fish farms often enhance Mother Nature with fertility treatments (i.e., hormone shots, special feed, etc.) to stimulate offspring production and pump up the yield. With this in mind the question becomes, what are those fish hormones doing to our bodies? And is it worth the risk? I don’t think so.

3) Their diet is simply revolting

As is the case with industrially farmed, land-based livestock, top quality, 5-star feed isn’t on the menu, so what does the average farmed fish eat? Mostly fishmeal. Sound innocuous enough, that is till you discover that fishmeal is made up mostly of smaller fish mixed with (presumably genetically-modified) soybeans, grains and corn. Possible GMO issues aside, the larger issue is that in order to make all that fishmeal, a tremendous amount of smaller fish are fished out of the sea – anywhere from 3-to-6 pounds of small fish are needed to produce just one pound of farmed fish. In addition to being an enormously wasteful process, it also leaves less food available for wild fish to feed on, which contributes to their population declines. Oh, and what else do farmed fish snack on? The carcasses of deceased neighbors floating in or lying at the bottom of their tanks. It’s not a pretty picture.

4) If you’re looking for nutrition, farmed fish falls short

Even if you could overlook the drugs, hormone shots and less-than-optimal diet, farmed fish still comes up short in terms of nutrition, one of the reasons so many of us turned to fish in the first place. Compared to wild fish, farmed versions can have as much as 20% less protein, twice as much inflammation-boosting omega 6 fatty acid, less usable omega 3’s and fewer nutrients overall. In short, wild is better.

5) Industrial fish farms pollute their surroundings

Numerous studies report that water quality suffers in areas where fish farms operate, creating something akin to the aquatic version of agricultural run-off. Decaying fishmeal, diseased and dying fish and their waste products combine to create conditions that enable bacteria to flourish, polluting not only the fish farm waters but seeping into and damaging neighboring wild fish habitats, marshes and wetlands either by accident, carelessness or poor fish farming methods. Isn’t all this damage and pollution is too high an ecological price to pay for farmed fish-on-demand? I believe it is.

So, with all this in mind, what’s the alternative to farmed fish? The answer is wild fish though the wild stuff is not without its own set of issues, including over-fishing, dwindling populations and mercury concerns. To help you make the best possible choices, when buying fish at the market or dining out, ask questions and find out where your fish is sourced, and if it’s fished sustainably. Before you buy, check your choices with the Blue Ocean Institute’s helpful Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood or download printable lists of eco-friendly seafood recommendations from Seafoodwatch.org 

For more on how to make informed seafood choices, check out School Yourself the Smart Way to Eat Fish.

  • I’m convinced! I’ve also heard that fish feed can include undesirable chicken parts like feet, feathers, and even poop. Disgusting.

  • Thanks for the heads-up…

  • Anonymous

    There are indeed also problems with wild-caught fish: cholesterol, saturated fat, parasites, and rampant human slavery within the fishing industry, to name but a few. The importation of the vast majority of seafood into the U.S. and the inspection of a mere 2% of it is also highly problematic. Mislabeling is yet another problem, with a third of the seafood sold in the U.S. falsely labeled, so you don’t even really know what you’re getting.

    Science has shown that fish suffer fear and pain. Wild caught or captive raised, they are all subjected to needless agony. As the author Jonathan Safran Foer has stated: “You never have to wonder if the fish on your plate suffered. They did.” The millions of birds, dolphins, seals, whales, turtles and other non-targeted animals who are caught by fishing gear also suffer and die in agony.

    All of the nutrients derived from animal-sourced seafood (including fish oil) can instead be obtained more healthfully, humanely, and environmentally responsibly from plant sources. There is a bounty of delicious vegan food available, including many marvelous vegan seafood options! Better for us, for the animals, and for the environment. Recipes and products, along with information about why we should respect and protect fish instead of exploiting them can be found at FishFeel.org.


    STOP trying to push your vegan lifestyle on other people, if someone wants to eat that way thats fine, I have no problems with vegetarians or vegans or whatever, but please stop trying to convert the world.

    Why do you only mention the cons of eating the way we were naturally designed to eat? Why do you not mention the benefits of being an omnivore? Why do you not mention the negative health affects of eating a vegan diet? If humans evolved to be strictly herbivores, we wouldnt eat any meat but thats not how nature happened. Feel free to defy nature, but stop lying to everyone else saying its a healthier diet.

    What about animals that kill other animals for food is that wrong? Humans are animals, we get killed then eaten by other animals too.

    what about sardines, anchovies and other high fecundity fish that dont bio-accumulate toxins? Whats wrong with eating them? And whats wrong with eating Mahi Mahi, another high fecundity species with an incredible metabolism?

    Everything that lives… dies… including plants, so get over it. Killing plants is the same as killing animals, I guess you think because plants dont move fast enough for you to see that its ok to kill then eat them. Well guess what, plants do move, just really slowly.

    Why do you think its ok to eat plants but not animals?

    If your going to have this nature saint attitude then dont eat anything that was once alive or shut up because your no better then anyone else just because you eat differently.

  • Anonymous

    Do you really not realize the difference between plants and animals? There’s a reason there are laws against cruelty to animals but not against cruelty to plants. Animals can suffer fear and pain. Plants don’t, so far as we know. It also takes many more plants to cycle them through animals for food than if the plants are eaten directly.

    It’s not solely I who advocate veganism. Many health professionals do, too, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals.

    Other animals eat meat out of necessity. That isn’t the case for us. We have a choice and can thrive on a diet free of animal products. Needlessly harming animals is animal abuse, and there is no valid justification for it. If you think killing plants is the same as killing animals than you should have no problem with someone killing you instead of pulling a carrot out of the ground because humans are animals, too.

    I won’t stop trying to prevent cruelty to animals. Stop trying to justify your appetite for food that causes others to suffer and die. You’ll be healthier for it, and the environment will be better off for it, too. Do the right thing, for everyone’s sake: Go vegan.

  • Mark Caponigro

    A main problem with carnivores who complain about pro-vegan messages is that they have no sense of how perverse that looks, given that carnivory is supported by profound tradition, and by the dietary habits of a great majority of people, as well as by the immense wealth of powerful industries, with which wealth they have purchased all the politicians. So it is entirely unrealistic to think that there could be any threat to them coming from the tiny, relatively powerless pro-vegan minority.

    Another problem with such carnivores is their babyish, thoughtless resentment at encountering someone who thinks they might actually be doing something that is not good. The defensiveness, not to say paranoia, of those carnivores is disgracefully unreasonable.

    Another problem with such carnivores is their attempt to refute the pro-vegan message by pointing to the natural fact that lots of animals kill and eat lots of other prey-item animals as the way they survive, and by concluding from that fact that therefore it is perfectly natural and OK for human beings too to kill and eat other animals. This argument is a red herring, for two reasons. First, human beings do not need to eat the meat of other animals. Secondly, human beings are unlike all other animals in that they are moral agents, with (hopefully) a sense of right and wrong, connected to the possibility of developing a sense of empathy for what other sentient creatures experience.

    Another problem with such carnivores is their attempt to refute the pro-vegan message by challenging vegans to stop eating plant-origin food, especially from those plants that must be killed for the food part to be collected. Those carnivores miss the point, that the issue is sentience, the capacity to suffer pain and stress. And so far, we are unable to detect such sentience in plants. In my opinion, perhaps not shared by others in the pro-vegan crowd, it is an important project in ethics, to determine the degree of sentience in different plants; and if we discover that certain plants do indeed have a kind of sentience, such that they might deserve some moral regard, then we should behave accordingly toward those plants.

    For that matter, not all animals have impressively high sentience. Those animals to whom we should definitely accord high moral regard include all the vertebrates (including fish of course), and at least the cephalopod mollusks and some arthropods. But as I wrote about plants, it is an important project in ethics to study the sentience of all animals.

    In general, as a true pro-life Platonist (and I doubt many in the pro-vegan crowd follow me this far), I should like us all to realize that it is a systemic evil of life in this universe of ours, that in order to live, we must feed on the body parts of other organisms — which more or less amounts to our needing to kill in order to survive. All killing is a sad occasion; no killing is morally neutral. That does not mean that certain deadly acts are never justified; some of them are. It DOES mean that we must cultivate a sense of humility and regret, whenever we actively kill a fellow organism, or are complicit in its death, with regard to the way we eat, and what we eat, as well as with regard to all our relationships with fellow organisms.