Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised: Pros and Cons

wild caught salmon vs farm raised

Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised: Pros and Cons

Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised—How to Make the Right Choice

Where do you stand in the wild caught salmon vs farm raised debate? For some, farm raised salmon is the simple, more affordable option. (Or, the only option available in their grocery store.) For others, wild caught salmon is seen as the cleaner, healthier, and ONLY option. Or, maybe you just enjoy the taste of one more than the other! But, which is the ‘right’ choice: wild caught salmon vs farm raised?

Well, apologies up front: there’s no clear answer to this decades-long debate. (Sorry!) Both wild caught and farm raised salmon have their advantages, as well as their drawbacks. High levels of toxic contaminants have given farm raised salmon a bad reputation, but many wild caught salmon also contain these same contaminants. And, while eating wild caught fish can contribute to the growing environmental strain, many fish farms damage natural ecosystems as well.

Yes, there are some nutritional differences between wild caught salmon vs farm raised. But, those differences aren’t so massive that they’re the only factor to consider. And, many people argue that SOME superfood salmon in your diet, wild caught or farm raised, is better than NO salmon! Ultimately, the choice comes down to how you feel about: contaminants, the environmental impact, the taste, and the cost. There’s no black-and-white answer here—learn about the issues so you can make an informed choice!

The Difference Between Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised

Technically speaking, the difference is pretty simple. Wild caught salmon are caught in the wild, and farm raised salmon are raised on farms. But, the environment on a fish farm is VERY different from that in the wild. And, those different environments inevitably have an impact on the fish. On the surface, we can see these differences just in how the fish look:

wild caught salmon vs farm raised

Wild Caught Salmon:

  • Thinner and leaner filets
  • Darker in color, with a deeper reddish-pink-orange color
  • Fewer and smaller white stripes visible in the flesh (a.k.a. fat striations)
  • Harder to find in grocery stores, and not as common on restaurant menus

Farm Raised Salmon:

  • Thicker and fattier filets
  • Lighter in color, with more pale pink-orange color
  • More visible fat striations, that are thicker and deeper in the flesh
  • What most of us are used to seeing in grocery stores and eating at restaurants

 

But, the differences between wild caught salmon vs farm raised go beyond just the color and texture of the fish. WHY do these differences exist? And what do they mean—for our bodies and for the planet?

What Does ‘Wild Caught Fish’ Mean?

The label ‘wild caught fish’ refers to fish caught in their natural environments by fishermen. In their wild habitats—like oceans, lakes, rivers—fish have plenty of room to roam. After a lifetime of long-distance swimming, they tend to be leaner and less fatty than farm raised fish. And, wild caught fish have access to a diverse, natural diet, making them some of the healthiest eaters on the planet!

Generally, wild fish feed on small organisms in their environment, like smaller fish and krill. Luckily, many of those small organisms like krill eat algae, which is an incredible source of omega-3 fatty acids. Then, those superfood nutrients travel up the food chain, into the larger wild caught fish that we eventually eat. Plus, these fish consume lots of different food sources in their environment, with different nutrients. Not only does this diversity keep the fish healthy, but it also makes them a rich source of essential minerals and vitamins.

Also, the fish’s natural diet affects the color of their flesh. (You are what you eat, am I right?) For example, the deep reddish-orange-pink color seen in wild-caught salmon comes from the red-orange krill that they eat!

wild caught salmon vs farm raised

What Does ‘Farm Raised Fish’ Mean?

Any fish raised on a fish farm (or ‘aquaculture’) is known as a ‘farm raised fish.’ These fish live inside enclosed pens submerged in lakes, ponds, or even areas in the ocean, as well as some in large tanks on land. Unfortunately, fish pens can be small and very crowded, which is why farm raised fish are usually fattier. Plus, overcrowding can lead to problems like toxic contaminants and pollutants accumulating in pens or diseases spreading among the fish. Of course, every aquaculture is different—some are cleaner and more sustainable than others. And, while some countries (like the U.S. and Canada) enforce stricter fish farming regulations, many other areas of the world do not.

But, one of the biggest differences in farm raised fish is their less-nutritious and less-diverse diet. Most farm raised fish eat a highly-processed, high-fat feed made of corn, grains, fish oil, and fish meal (a.k.a. ground-up fish). Clearly, not-so-natural and not very diverse, but it’s a diet designed to fatten the fish up quickly and for the lowest cost. Granted, all of that fish oil and fish meal pack TONS of omega-3s into farm raised fish. But, their unnatural feed also alters the nutritional composition in other ways—not necessarily for the better.

Plus, eating the same, limited diet in an aquaculture changes the color of the fish’s flesh. Believe it or not, the pale pink-orange we recognize in farm raised salmon isn’t the fish’s true color! Naturally, that salmon and most farm-raised fish would actually be gray-ish in color. Instead, to make the fish look more like their wild caught cousins, many farmers add food dyes to their fish feed.

wild caught salmon vs farm raised

So, Farm Raised = Bad, Wild Caught = Good, Right? Not Quite…

I know, ‘ultra-processed, high-fat, food-dyed salmon’ doesn’t sound like a great choice… But, let me be clear: not all farm raised salmon is ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy.’ In fact, farm raised salmon can be an incredible source of essential omega-3s! And, as aquaculture practices start to improve in many countries, the quality of farm raised salmon is also improving. Most importantly, sustainable aquacultures are crucial to protecting the planet’s wild fish populations.

But, the bottom line here: before choosing farm raised fish, it’s really important to find out where the fish came from. Really, that goes for wild caught fish, too. (More on that at the end of the article!) Usually, wild caught fish are considered higher-quality, cleaner, and a safer choice. But, they come with an additional cost—both financially and on the environment.

Currently, around one-third of wild fish populations have been overfished, and two-thirds are fully-fished. That means we’re catching and removing these species faster than the fish can reproduce in the wild. Because humans eat a lot of fish! Today, the average person eats about twice as much fish as we did 50 years ago. That’s why, to keep up with the demand, now 50% of the world’s seafood stock is farm raised. And, that number is only expected to increase over time.

wild caught salmon vs farm raised

Pros and Cons of Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised

Again, there’s no clear ‘right’ choice here. So, let’s look at the pros (+) and cons (-) of wild caught salmon vs farm raised. And, as always, I encourage you to continue researching and dive deeper!

Taste & Cooking

Wild Caught Salmon:

  • (+) More potent, salmon-y flavor and lean texture.
  • (-) Not everyone is a fan of how wild caught salmon tastes!
  • (-) Tricky to cook—best medium to medium-rare, but can overcook quickly and become dry/rubbery.

 

Farm Raised Salmon:

  • (+) Milder flavor and fatty, tender texture.
  • (-) Not everyone is a fan of how farm raised salmon tastes!
  • (+) Can be cooked medium-rare or more well-done without drying out.

Cost & Availability

Wild Caught Salmon:

  • (-) Generally, more expensive.
  • (-) Can be difficult to find in some areas and grocery stores, or not available at all.

 

Farm Raised Salmon:

  • (+) Much lower priced and budget-friendly.
  • (+) Available and easier to find in most areas and grocery stores.
Picky Eater Strategies

Nutrition

Wild Caught Salmon:

  • (-) Lower in total fat content and total omega-3s.
  • (+) But, contain very few inflammatory omega-6s, resulting in an awesome omega-3 : omega-6 ratio as low as 1:14.
  • (+) Richer in some essential minerals, like selenium, from their diverse, natural feed in the wild.

 

Farm Raised Salmon:

  • (+) Higher in total fat content and total omega-3s.
  • (-) But, much higher in inflammatory omega-6s, resulting in a decent (although not-as-amazing) omega3 : omega-6 ratio of 1:2 or 1:3.
  • (-) Not as rich in certain minerals because farm raised fish eat a very limited diet.
  • (+) Can be richer in certain vitamins, like vitamin C, that are added to their feed.

Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised: Nutrition

The main difference: wild caught salmon is lower in calories and total fat than farm raised. On average, a 4-oz wild caught salmon filet contains 160-170 calories and 7-8 grams of fat. In the same portion of farm raised salmon, there are around 220-230 calories and 14-16 grams of fat. But, remember, salmon is chock-full of healthy fats—those anti-inflammatory, disease-fighting omega-3 fatty acids! (Also, important to note: there are several different species of salmon (i.e. Atlantic, Sockeye, Pacific), which can vary nutritionally.)

And, with their high-fat diet, farm raised salmon actually contain more total omega-3s (about 25% more) than wild caught. But, farm raised salmon also contain lots of inflammatory omega-6s, while wild caught contain very few. To truly benefit our health, omega-3s need to be in the right balance with omega-6s. Unfortunately, most people consume WAY too many inflammatory omega-6s, which fuel damaging chronic inflammation in the body. (Learn more about Chronic Inflammation and balancing your Omega-6 Omega-3 Ratio!) Ideally, we want foods with a lower omega-6 : omega-3 ratio—low in omega-6s, high in omega-3s.

So, this leaves farm raised salmon with a decent omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, around 1:2 or 1:3. Translation: farmed salmon contain 2 or 3 times the amount of omega-3s relative to omega-6s. But, wild caught salmon can have a ratio as low as 1:14—meaning up to 14 times more omega-3s relative to omega-6s! Granted, farm raised salmon still has a good ratio, and is a quality source of omega-3s. But, wild caught salmon’s ratio is just better, meaning it offers us even greater omega-3 benefits!

Contaminants

Wild Caught Salmon:

  • (+) Living in the wild and eating their natural diet, wild caught salmon have a lower risk of contamination from man-made toxins.
  • (+) Also, they’re less likely to be exposed to antibiotics, pesticides, colorings, and other harmful substances used in some aquacultures.
  • (-) Can be exposed to toxins like mercury and other trace metals in their natural environment. But, levels are generally so low in all kinds of salmon that it’s not a concern.

 

Farm Raised Salmon:

  • (-) Higher risk of contamination from toxic, cancer-causing chemicals, like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxins.
  • (-) Usually, raised in poor, crowded conditions, with higher rates of bacteria, parasites, and diseases.
  • (-) In some aquacultures, antibiotics are used to prevent illnesses, hormones are used to promote growth, and artificial coloring is added to the feed. Then, these substances can leach into the farm raised salmon that we eat.
  • (-) Every aquaculture is different—some enforce stricter health regulations, others do not.
  • (+) Very low risk for toxic mercury levels.

Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised: Contaminants

In the early 2000s, a series of studies comparing wild caught salmon vs farm raised found that contaminant levels were significantly higher in farm raised. So much so, researchers at the time determined that it was only safe to consume farm raised salmon at one to two meals each month—or not at all. But, other have studies found that contaminant levels were pretty much the same in wild caught salmon vs farm raised. And, more recent studies have found that contaminant levels in some areas have significantly decreased over the past decade.

So, farm raised salmon today is likely not as ‘toxic’ as it once was. Of course, more research needs to be done! Some argue that the omega-3 content of farm raised salmon outweighs the potential risks. (Others argue that contaminant levels may reduce overall health benefits.) Thankfully, many aquacultures today have dramatically improved their practices, like in the U.S., Canada, Denmark, and Norway.

But, so much of the farm raised seafood we eat is imported from other areas. In the U.S., we import around 90% of the fish we eat from other areas of the world, with different aquaculture practices and regulations. And, sadly, the majority of other countries don’t yet enforce strict enough regulations on fish farming. This is why it’s crucial to learn about the farm raised fish we’re buying and the aquacultures they were raised in!

Overall, one of the benefits of wild caught salmon is there’s less cause for worry about toxic contaminants!

SIDE NOTE:

Sadly, what you see labeled as ‘wild salmon’ on a restaurant menu or even in some grocery stores may actually be farm raised… Or, sometimes, it might even be a different fish entirely, like rainbow trout. In 2015, a study found that two-thirds of ‘wild’ salmon was mislabeled on restaurant menus. And, 20% of ‘wild’ salmon at grocery stores was mislabeled—particularly small grocery stores more so than chain stores. Be sure to ask questions and learn about the fish you’re buying!

wild caught salmon vs farm raised

Environmental Impact

Wild Caught Salmon:

  • (-) Due to industrial fishing, many wild fish populations are disappearing. In the last decade, overfishing has brought some species to an all-time low.
  • (-) In some cases, fishing practices contribute to pollution and can damage natural ecosystems.
  • (-) Fishing boats, trucks, etc. involved in commercial fishing have a significant carbon footprint.
  • (+) New regulations are being put into place to prevent overfishing and protect wild fish. (But, it will take a long time for natural populations to rebuild.)

 

Farm Raised Salmon:

  • (+) Farm raised fish can help reduce the overfishing of wild populations.
  • (+) Can build aquacultures in unused spaces and even in cities, so there’s less strain on the natural environments.
  • (-) Many aquacultures also seriously damage the environment by contaminating wild ecosystems with pollution and other poor farming practices.
  • (-) Sometimes, farmed fish escape from pens in lakes and oceans, overcrowding wild populations or even spreading disease. And, some aquacultures threaten wild species when they encroach on natural environments to use them for fish farming.
  • (-) In many cases, aquacultures use unsustainable fish feed, made from wild caught fish. This only contributes to overfishing and the same environmental strain caused by industrial fishing.
  • (+) Slowly, stricter regulations are improving aquaculture practices in some areas. (But, unfortunately, many areas of the world still use damaging and unsustainable farming methods.)

Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised: Environmental Impact

Globally, wild salmon stocks have shrunk down to just half their size over the course of the past few decades. In areas of the U.S., like the Pacific Northwest and Canada, many wild salmon populations have been depleted or completely disappeared. And, much of this is due to human activities, like deforestation and pollution, destroying wild salmon’s natural habitats. Now, with more and more people eating salmon, fishing pressure poses a serious threat to the remaining wild salmon in these depleted areas.

But, it IS possible to find sustainable, environmentally-friendly wild caught fish. In Alaska, for example fishermen have managed to preserve the Alaskan Pacific salmon populations and their natural environment. By implementing limits on fishing and pollution early on, many Alaskan salmon populations have actually increased in recent years! But, sadly, that’s just one rare area of the world where wild caught salmon come from.

All over the world, natural fish populations have declined dramatically in recent decades, making aquaculture the most viable option to protect wild fish and natural ecosystems. But, even though fish farming should ideally reduce damage to the environment, aquacultures can also contribute to environmental strain. Some fish farms contaminate natural ecosystems with pollution, as well as farmed fish that escape from netted pens. And, since fish feed often includes fish meal made from wild caught fish, some aquacultures still contribute to issues of overfishing and environmental strain.

As more fish farming regulations are put into place, aquacultures in places like the U.S., Canada, and some areas of Europe are improving. But, not all fish farms and countries enforce the same regulations. And, unfortunately, some major producers of our global seafood stock still use cheap, damaging, and unsustainable farming practices (like China, the #1 producer of farm raised fish). The key to making a smart choice with any type of fish, whether it’s wild caught salmon vs farm raised, is to find out where it came from.

wild caught salmon vs farm raised

How to Choose Wild Caught Salmon vs Farm Raised

With so much conflicting information out there about wild caught salmon vs farm raised, there’s really no clear, ‘right’ choice. But, no matter which you choose, it’s crucial to buy salmon from a reputable grocery store that you trust. Or, better yet, but straight from the source if there’s a fish market in your area. And, ALWAYS look into where the salmon comes from.

Read Labels

  • Read labels carefully and look for C.O.O.L (country of origin labeling). Both wild caught salmon and farm raised should have this information on the label!
  • For wild caught fish, look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label or a ‘sustainable seafood’
  • For farm raised fish, look for labels that include words like responsibly farmed, certified sustainable, ASC Certified, and best aquaculture practices certified.
  • You can also research reputable, trusted brands that raise farmed salmon in clean, sustainable aquacultures. If you can find them, look for Verlasso (a farm based in Chile) or Skuna Bay (based in Vancouver Island).

Ask Questions

  • For wild caught salmon, ask your fishmonger which species of salmon are available, where they were caught, and what the fishing operation is like. Often, the person working at the fish counter can offer loads of helpful information and insight!
  • For farm raised salmon, ask the fishmonger which farm it came from, and in what country. They may be able to give you the low-down on the farm personally!

Do Your Research

  • If you can find out from the label or your fishmonger where your salmon came from, get online and do some further research. Look into the origins of the salmon and the area that it’s from.
  • For farm raised fish, you can often look into specific farms and brands to learn more about what the aquaculture’s practices and standards are like.
  • Get online and check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch! It’s an amazing resource with recommendations for sustainable seafood of all kinds, including salmon.

What to Look For:

In general, these tips can help you shop smarter for wild caught salmon vs farm raised (as well as other types of seafood):

Wild Caught Salmon:

Look for sustainably caught seafood. This means that the fishermen follow specific practices and regulations that are designed to prevent overfishing and protect natural ecosystems. Because sustainable wild caught fish are lower in supply and costlier to get, they do come with a higher price tag. But, it can be worth the splurge to know you’re getting a cleaner fish and the most environmentally-friendly option!

  • In terms of wild caught salmon, wild Alaskan Pacific salmon are often a sound, sustainable choice—if you can find it in your area.
  • And, keep in mind that wild caught fish, like produce, will be easier to find when they’re in season. Plus, you’ll be less likely to get a farm raised fish that’s been deceivingly labeled as ‘wild.’
  • For wild Alaskan salmon, the in season generally ranges from April to September, and the off season from October to March.
  • Also, you can make an even more sustainable choice by less popular wild fish—like trout, halibut, or mackerel—rather than wild salmon.

Farm Raised Salmon:

Be wary of farm raised fish from international farms. Different countries follow different farming practices and regulations, and most are not as strict about cleanliness, safety, or sustainability as aquacultures in places like the U.S. and Canada. Many international fish farms raise fish in polluted water, use poor farming practices, and some treat their fish with antibiotics. Unless you do your own research about the international farms you buy from, you can’t know for sure!

When looking into farm raised salmon and the aquacultures they’re raised in, it’s important to know:

  • (-) Some farmed salmon are raised in densely populated net-pen aquacultures, which are large, open nets in the ocean filled with LOTS of fish. But, these are NOT the ideal choice health-wise, and the can be pretty bad for environment.
  • (+) For a better choice, look into farmed salmon raised in low-density net pens. These pens house fewer salmon than in large net-pen aquacultures, so the fish aren’t so crowded and live healthier lives. And, these have less of a negative impact on the environment and surrounding ecosystems.
  • (+) For an option with the least impact on the environment, and zero impact on wild fish ecosystems, look for fish raised in closed tank aquacultures. These are tanks, rather than net pens, and they are completely cut off from the open ocean.

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Nadia Sheikh About the author

Passionate wordsmith and weirdo, hungry for adventures.



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