Surf to Turf: U.S. Farmed Seafood That’s Safe and Sustainable
Wild-caught fish from pure waters is the gold standard of seafood, but sustainable populations from healthy waters are shrinking. That’s one reason why fish farms are appearing in unusual places—barramundi flourish on a Nebraska cattle ranch, shrimp in chilly Massachusetts and inland tilapia in Southern California.
With the demand for seafood outpacing what can safely be harvested in the wild, half the seafood we eat comes from aquaculture, says Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D., administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Yet, farmed seafood has a reputation for uneven quality and questionable farming practices. A primary reason is that much of what Americans buy comes from Asia, where aquaculture is less stringently managed. Meanwhile, domestic aquaculture provides only about 5 percent of the seafood consumed here, according to NOAA.
Safe Seafood Solutions
If we want to eat safer, sustainable, farmed seafood, there are two solutions. One is to purchase farmed fish raised in the U.S., says Sullivan. The agency’s FishWatch consumer information service assures: “If it’s harvested in the United States, it’s inherently sustainable as a result of the rigorous U.S. management process that ensures fisheries are continuously monitored, improved and sustainable.”
Whole Foods Markets have found that farming seafood (aquaculture) can provide a consistent, high-quality, year-round supply of healthy and delicious protein. Accordingly, “When it’s done right, aquaculture can be environmentally friendly and offer a crucial way to supplement wild-caught fish supplies. On the other hand, poor farming practices such as the overuse of chemicals and antibiotics and those that cause water pollution and other negative impacts on the environment are bad news.”
A second solution is to consult with a trusted fishmonger that has high standards for flavor, health, safety, sustainability and environmental concerns.
The Green Fish Farmer
Chefs like Rick Moonen, who owns RM Seafood, in Las Vegas, are getting behind U.S. aquaculture farms that do it right, raising healthy, sustainable and delicious fish. Moonen recently became a brand ambassador for True North Salmon, a farm system that integrates the way nature keeps fish healthy and fresh. “They have a salmon farm near a mussel farm near a kelp farm, mimicking the way these three species interact in the wild,” says Moonen.
The best seafood farms take what geography and climate offer—ocean inlets, a natural spring and a natural depression in the land or indoor controlled freshwater tanks—and use clean feed. With no antibiotics, non-GMO food (free of genetic modification) in the right ratio, good water quality and creative ways to use the effluent, they employ green farming practices to raise fish and shellfish that, in turn, are healthy to eat.
The Atlantic coasts of Maine and Canada are where families have been making their living from the sea for centuries, says Alan Craig, of Canada’s True North Salmon Company. “The fish are fed pellets made from all-natural, non-GMO sources with no dyes, chemicals or growth hormones added. Underwater cameras monitor the health of the fish to prevent overfeeding.”
True North Salmon follows a three-bay system, similar to crop rotation on land. Each bay is designated for a particular age of fish: young salmon, market-ready fish and a fallow, or empty, bay, breaking the cycle of any naturally occurring diseases and parasites.
Robin Hills Farm, near Ann Arbor, Michigan, offers vegetable, meat, egg and fruit community supported agriculture, U-pick fruit and a pair of stocked farm ponds. Farm Manager Mitzi Koors explains that the ponds are a way to leverage natural resources, add another income stream and attract visitors.
“We first discovered a low-lying area that would become a beautiful pond with a little work,” Koors relates. “We then expanded to two close ponds that don’t connect, to keep the older fish raised on at least six months of non-GMO organic feed separate from the newer fish. The ponds are spring fed, providing a great environment for trout.”
In northeastern Nebraska, five generations of the Garwood family have traditionally raised cattle and produced corn and tomatoes. To keep the farm thriving and sustainable, they have had to think outside the row crop. Today, they’re growing something new—barramundi, or Australian yellow perch. They built a warehouse that now holds 18, 10,000-gallon fish tanks full of growing fish. A Maryland company provides old-fashioned cow manure and leftover grain sorghum from area ethanol plants to create algae, naturally non-GMO, to use as biofuel and fish food. “People prefer to eat locally raised food, even if it’s fish in Nebraska,” says Scott Garwood.
The sophistication of closed containment systems like the Garwoods use means that chefs, too, can raise their own fish, besides growing their own herbs and vegetables. California Chef Adam Navidi, owner of the Oceans & Earth restaurant, in Yorba Linda, also runs nearby Future Foods Farms, encompassing 25 acres of herbs, lettuces, assorted vegetables and tank-raised tilapia. Baby greens, not GMO products, help feed the fish, while nitrates from the ammonia-rich fish waste fertilize the crops. The fish wastewater filters through the crops and returns to the fish tanks in an efficient, conservation-driven system that produces healthy, organic food.
“Someday, chefs will be known both by their recipes and the methods used to produce their food,” Navidi predicts.
Judith Fertig blogs at AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com from Overland Park, KS.
10 Seafood Choices to Feel Good AboutAccording to the nationally recognized Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch.org, these farmed fish and shellfish are current Best Choices. Under each fish or shellfish variety, check the Seafood Recommendations list for specific geographic areas, certified organic options, non-GMO feed, or other designations.
Arctic Char: The farmed variety, raised in closed-tank systems, produce little impact on local habitats in the Pacific Northwest.
Barramundi (Australian yellow perch): Look for it sourced from recirculating aquaculture systems in farms throughout the U.S.
Catfish: Pond-farmed American catfish, found mainly near the Mississippi River, are some of the most sustainable fish available.
Crawfish: Domestic production centers mainly in Louisiana, grown in ponds on existing agricultural lands. No feeds are added, but minimal fertilizer is used to support an aquatic food web that crawfish thrive on. As a native species, the potential impacts of escape are minimal.
Mussels: Most farmed mussels for sale in the U.S. hail from New England and the Pacific Northwest, or are imported from nations with stringent environmental regulations. The nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council independently certifies some of these mussel fisheries as sustainable.
Oysters: Nearly 95 percent of the oysters Americans eat are farmed in New England, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. Oyster farms in the U.S. and throughout the world are well managed and produce a sustainable product.
Salmon: Before ordering, Seafood Watch recommends finding out where salmon originated by asking the local grocer or restaurant manager if it’s wild caught or farmed and its source.
Shrimp: Most caught or farmed in U.S. and Canada also qualify as a Seafood Watch Good Alternative. However, avoid shrimp caught in Louisiana with otter trawls and in the Gulf of Mexico (except Florida) with skimmer trawls. All shrimp from recirculating aquaculture systems constitute a Best Choice.
Tilapia: Tank-farmed tilapia in the U.S. and Canada has become a popular standard.
Trout: Farmed rainbow trout from the U.S. gets a nod because it’s raised in environmentally friendly ways in spring-fed ponds.