Is Farm-Raised Fish Healthy?


Blinky from The Simpsons

Perhaps you’ve heard the dietary health advice
“Eat less red meat and more fish”.

In a perfect world this is good advice, but in the real world there is a very important factor that is often ignored.  You should take the same approach to the food you eat as you do to the advice you’re given…

Consider the source.

The source of the fish you eat may not be something you’ve ever though twice about.  But you should.
It might surprise you to know that there are many breeds of fish with higher levels of toxins than red meat.
That’s right.  Some commercial fish is actually worse for you than commercial beef.

Once upon a time the fish we ate came from lakes, streams, and the ocean. Now the majority of fish in restaurants and grocery stores comes from fish farms.  We’ve all heard of “farm-raised fish” and it’s even promoted like it’s a good thing.  But when you take a closer look, farm-raised fish makes about as much sense as ocean-caught beef.

The most common fish species raised by fish farms are salmon, carp, tilapia, sea bass, catfish, and cod.

The fish are tightly packed in tanks or cages with thousands of other fish eating fish food or fish meal.  These close-quarter living conditions breed disease and parasites like sea lice, which requires the fish and their environment to be treated with antibiotics and fungicides.

Gross-out alert:  Salmon cage farms drop as much sewage into the sea as a city of 1,000 people. With as much as 50,000 fish in a two acre space, that’s a lot of fish poop!

Clearly this is not their natural habitat.

All farm-raised fish is basically unhealthy, but in the interest of brevity, let’s just look at the salmon industry.

In the wild, Salmon feed on smaller fish and krill, a little red shrimpy creature that actually turns their meat “salmon color”.

Salmon don’t eat krill at fish farms, they are fed “fish meal”, made up of ground fish parts, and as a result, farm-raised salmon meat is gray and has to be dyed to look like normal salmon does.

Think I’m making this up?

The SalmoFan is a color chart fish farmers use to pick various shades of salmon-colored fish dyes.  And if you read the fine print on farm-raised salmon packaging you will see the words “color added”.

Farm-raised fish is not clean meat.

In 2003 The Environmental Working Group released results of the extensive tests of cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) levels in farmed salmon consumed in the United States. EWG bought the salmon from local grocery stores and found seven of 10 fish were so contaminated with PCBs that they raise cancer-risk concerns, based on the health standards of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

PCBs were banned in the U.S. in the late 1970s and are among the “dirty dozen” chemical contaminants slated for global phase-out under the UN treaty on persistent organic pollutants. PCBs have been linked to cancer and impaired fetal brain development.

Farmed salmon are fattened with ground fish meal and fish oils that are high in PCBs. As a result, salmon farming operations that produce inexpensive fish unnaturally concentrate PCBs.

Farm-raised salmon has 5-10 times more PCB’s than wild caught.  In three independent studies scientists tested 37 fish meal samples from six countries, and found PCB contamination in nearly every sample (Jacobs 2002, Easton 2002, and CFIA 1999).  They are feeding the fish toxic food, which produces toxic meat.

According to USDA data, farm raised salmon has 52% more fat than wild caught. Toxins are stored in fat and the fat in farm raised salmon is found to be contaminated with over 100 pollutants and pesticides. (Source: Environmental Working Group)

If all that isn’t enough to convince you, the taste difference between farm-raised and wild-caught salmon will certainly do it. I’ve cooked them side by side on a grill and let me put it this way:  One tastes awesome, the other has no taste. This is why restaurants usually serve farm-raised salmon with a heavy cream sauce.  You’ll be surprised to find that wild caught salmon doesn’t need a fancy sauce.  Grill it, bake it, or pan fry it in coconut oil  and it is absolutely melt in your mouth delicious.

The down side of wild

Unfortunately in today’s world, wild-caught doesn’t always mean it’s good.  Let’s face it, there’s a lot of polluted bodies of water now. I wouldn’t touch anything from the Gulf of Mexico. And thanks to decades of pollution, many breeds of wild fish now contain high levels of mercury and other toxins.

In 2006 Consumer Reports busted companies selling farm raised fish as “wild-caught”.  Again, know your source.

Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is one of the cleanest healthiest fish on the planet, which is why it’s my fish of choice.

For complete list of healthy and unhealthy fish based on mercury exposure go HERE.

Restaurant Tips

Don’t be fooled by menu descriptions.  “North Atlantic Salmon” and “Chilean Sea Bass” are just breeds.
This does not mean they were caught wild in the North Atlantic or Chile.

When I eat out at a nice restaurant I make it a habit of asking if any of the fish on the menu is wild-caught, and where it’s from.  Most of the time the server doesn’t know and has to go ask the chef.   I realize this makes me look super snobby to anyone within earshot, so I try to be discrete.  What can I say, I’ve got standards.

My favorite excuse, inspired by my friend Ken Steorts is,
“I can’t help it, I know things.”

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This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. shanna

    Great source of information! I’ve never been a fish person, but I know people who do eat fish, so I will pass it on. I also heard they are experimented with feeding fish corn, really? Ridiculous.

  2. divinemphisem

    ewwwwwww! Glad I don’t like Salmon.

  3. Eddie

    Both wild and farmed salmon get their colour from ingesting similar carotenoids- some from krill and some from factories. Your comparison of wild vs farmed salmon without specifying species show your ignorance of the issue. Some wild salmon have higher levels of PCB and mercury than farmed, just like levels of Omega-3 fatty acids fluctuate between salmon of different species and sizes- irregardless of origin.

    1. chrisbeatcancer

      Hi Eddie thanks for the criticism!
      I included a link to my source (Environmental Working Group study) in the post.
      I understand your point that some fish will have more toxins than others, depending on what region they are from and who’s polluting the waters nearby. Isn’t that obvious?
      If you actually have information that shows toxicity of wild salmon by species and region I would love to see it.
      Please share a link.

      Your defense of farm-raised fish makes me think you might be a fish farmer…


  4. laura

    not all farm-raised fish are bad. your article also fails to point out the very serious environmental problem of overfishing.

    no, i am not a fish farmer, as you accused the other comment that did not agree with you.

    1. chrisbeatcancer

      Hi Laura
      I am not an environmental crusader. I am a health crusader.
      That’s more important to me and that’s what this blog is about.
      Which is why I didn’t mention “the environmental problem of overfishing”.
      If you’re concerned about overfishing, you should be happy to know that I only eat fish a few times per year.
      If you have research and resources documenting the superior health benefits of farm-raised fish over wild-caught from clean sources,
      I would like to see it. Please share some links.

  5. Frank

    Hi Chris and thanks.

    Like you I regulate what I put into my body. Unlike you, I have not had cancer. You are my hero.

    I have been a vegetarian for 22+ years. I have tried the fish thing, but after a while it got to be too much trouble to read labels and frankly, I started to hate the smell.

    Now my life is simply trying to figure out the best definition of “organic” vegetables. Ha, life was never supposed to be easy, but you’re living proof it is worth it. Thanks again for your blog

  6. Deane

    I’ve heard about salmon dye but seeing the color swatch fan makes me feel sick.

    I am glad I found your site. You are a strong, courageous, and inspirational young man!

  7. Halina

    Hi Chris,
    I try very hard to get the best inf. but is really hard and confusing. I notice, the fish, which show lowest Mercury
    contains unfortunately coming from the fish farms, and the one which have the most of Mercury, coming from the deep, cold water. Isn’t that viscous circle????

  8. Halina

    I try very hard to eat healthy. Cut on meat and instead, eat more fish, which should be beneficial. I research, wherever I could about farm fish and about mercury level in fish from the sea. Unfortunately, I fid out: – the fishes which contain the least Mercury coming from the farms. The one which have the a most of Mercury coming from cold, deep water. Isn’t that viscous circle????

  9. ken

    I have been feeding my family farm raised salmon, thinking I was doing good. Seems like hot dogs are healthier!

    I fish in Lake Ontario once a year. I couldn’t agree more–the taste is incomparable! Fresh wild-caught salmon is unbeatable.

    I’ll discontinue buying farm raised from now on.

  10. Tom

    Good research on salmon. Have you done any research on fresh water species raised in an aquaponic environment? The same toxins may be present in the feed, but the water quality is reportedly much better because it is cleaned several times a day through the biofilter and plants the system supports.

  11. Charles Riley

    Hi Chris, hope you are still doing good with your health. I enjoyed your article on farm raised Salmon. I lost my mom to Ovarian cancer a few years back. Thanks again Chris, you are in my prayers. Chuck

Comments are closed.