Where should I Buy my Tilapia? – Foreign vs. Domestic and Farm-raised vs Wild-caught

Posted on Posted in GRG Blog

With several fish-buying options available to consumers in the U.S., it can be daunting for buyers to determine the better place to buy from.  In this blog entry, I will discuss each of these outlets, and their means of preparing fish to be sold to the public.  Unfortunately, there has been inaccurate information passed through the public about each of them, making it even harder for buyers to determine from where they should buy their tilapia.  This post will put those inaccuracies to bed once and for all, and make fish-purchasing a much easier process for consumers nationwide.

There are two main outlets from witch consumers can choose to purchase fish; the grocery store, or directly from a fish-farm.  Now, fish from the grocery store weren’t born and raised there obviously – they came there from somewhere, and if you are going to the grocery store to purchase tilapia – or most any fish for that matter – you should be concerned with where that somewhere is, and aware of what conditions they raise their fish in – conditions surrounding the processing of fish on the supermarket shelf should concern you, the buyer, as well. 

The reality of grocery store fish is that they will either come directly from the wild (typically from foreign waterways), or an overseas farm.  In my experience, one would be hard-pressed to find domestic fish of any kind available at the supermarket in their hometown.  Even then, depending on what you have read, you may have reservations of purchasing domestic fish as well.  What it boils down to, is knowing the journey your fish took on its way to your plate.  Unfortunately, that isn’t always easy, but hopefully the information in this article will make that part of the process a little more buyer-friendly as well.

The truth is: Not only is purchasing domestic tilapia the best of a bad situation, as I often hear people refer to it as, but it can be highly demanded by consumers when buyers are educated about what to look for when purchasing.  In other words, the best tilapia is, without a doubt, available in the U.S., however, there are bad practices being performed by U.S. farms as well; corners being cut to save on cost – despite what it may cost the consumer in regards to their personal health, low-paid employees who choose to skimp on their job duties – again, despite the consumer, misinterpreted regulations, etc.  It’s your job as the buyer to scrutinize the place where you choose to purchase fish, and recognize when questionable practices are taking place.

Some more specific examples of the kind of unethical practices I am speaking of are unbelievable in nature: there is strong evidence available that many of these commercial tilapia farms overseas actually rear the fish in waste-water treatment facilities.  The fish raised in such conditions are done so very cheaply as their feed is often times at least supplemented with residual human-waste, if the fish aren’t left to grow, at whatever pace they will, entirely from the consumption of human-waste residuals.

Now we would like to think that these kind of things are considered by the supermarket when they decide who to do business with, but as we are also all aware of, often in business the cheapest is the most desirable.  I don’t know about you, but when we are talking about eating fish that was raised in a waste-water treatment facility, I don’t feel as comfortable as I want to feel when deciding weather or not these multi-million-dollar corporate food distributors have my best interests at heart.

Another option is getting your fish from the wild, and many will argue that this is the best option – specifically better than farm-raised fish.  Is it really though?  The problem with wild fish is that we have zero idea what they are eating, or where they have been.  What we do know about wild fish is that they will undoubtedly contain higher mercury levels.  As for other contaminants such as PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), neither wild-caught or farm-raised fish contain anywhere near the amount needed to cause us harm.

Wild-caught advocates will often make claims that farmed fish often contain hormones or steroid residuals, suggesting that such substances were used to promote growth in the fish.  This information can be completely misleading: first of all, I ask those making the claim what constitutes “often” for them, what were their sources for this information, where are those sources now, can I see them?  A lot of times with bad information, or noise as I like to call it, one person hears the noise that someone makes, and then repeats the noise, and so on, and so on.  It isn’t long before that noise has taken on some kind of false validity.  That is the case here, with the rumor that farmed fish are often grown using hormones and steroids.  Sure, like I mentioned earlier in this article, there will always be those who choose to forgo the rules in exchange for higher margins despite their customers health, but those people can be easily avoided by buyers who know the right questions to ask.  The truth of the matter is, hormones and steroids are banned for use in U.S. fish farming, and anyone using these types of things will endure swift and stiff punishment.  Once more, punishment will not deter everybody, but as a buyer of fish, I certainly find comfort in knowing that the practice of using hormones and steroids is prohibited in the U.S.

When speaking of nutritional value, you will traditionally find a lack of vitamin A and selenium in wild fish, and farm-raised fish will often lack in calcium and iron.  However, on the subject of nutritional value, both wild and farmed fish are fairly equal.

I believe so far I have illustrated, at least, that domestic is the way to go when buying fish: The United States at least provide some comfort to consumers with their clearly stated rules and regulations when farming fish, and domestic waterways, and those who fish them, are also monitored in a manner that simply does not exist in many foreign places.

Now the question becomes: Wild-caught or farmed?  I’ve already mentioned how both fair in terms of contaminants and nutrition, what other factors should a potential fish buyer consider when choosing to purchase fish that have been farmed as opposed to fish that have been captured in the wild?



Many farms will either outsource their processing needs, or just sell fish live on ice directly to the consumer who will then take care of the processing themselves or by their own means.  This will be reflected in what you pay for the product.  Fish will undoubtedly be cheaper live on ice, then processed and packaged.  Of course you have to pay for processing in some shape and form, but at least you have options then.  Even if it costs you a little more in the end, I think many would find an increase in cost worth the reassurance that what they are selling to humans for consumption is safe.

Fish that are captured in the wild are typically processed and packaged because the supermarkets they are selling to demand it.  Once again, do we trust that the supermarket is paying attention to where and/or how this is being done?  My guess is they don’t, at least not the way we would like them too.

When it comes to processing, I would rather clean the fish myself or find my own means of processing.  With farm-raised fish I know where and how my fish were grown, and I can be in charge of where and how they are processed.  It seems like a no-brainer to me so far.  Let’s keep exploring and see if things change.


Genetic Modification

Another rumor that team wild-caught would have you consider is that farm-raised fish are often genetically modified.  Other than for your aesthetic tropical fish aquarium, there are no genetically modified fish available for sale in the United States.

Farm-raised – 2, Wild-caught – 0.


Environmental Impact and Sustainability of Farmed Fish

By now I realize I am beginning to sound like a broken-record, but when it comes to effects on the environment it is once more dependent largely on who is doing the farming or fishing.

Both farm-raised and wild-caught fish pose their own threats to the environment, but the U.S. again, has regulations in place to reduce this significantly, and much more than foreign countries with less enforced regulations.

In farm-raised fish, the U.S. requires the water that leaves these facilities to be cleaner than it was when it entered.  In the case of the more sustainable operations, such as aquaponics systems, the water is often part of a nearly closed-loop system, thus a very limited amount of water ever leaves the facility by ways that do not include evaporation or plant uptake.

Although regulations are in place when it comes to the environmental impact of fishing in the U.S. as well – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulates wild-catch fishing, setting, and enforcing standards that protect the marine environment and fish populations. – See more at: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/health-fitness/healthy-eating/farm-raised-vs-wild-caught-fish?page=all#sthash.TdHjj9gE.dpuf –  It seems to me that this would be much more difficult to enforce out on some random fishing vessel in the middle of a vast waterway.

Should You Buy Farmed-Raised or Wild-Caught Fish?

After weighing the many factors involved I think there is a pretty strong case, at least as far as tilapia go, made for the former.  The key factor being that one can stay better informed concerning farmed-fish: what its being fed, the conditions its grown in, etc.  I also like that as part of the farm-raised community you have the option to buy from an aquaponics facility, which amongst the greatly reduced impact on the environment that I already mentioned, it also gives one the reassurance that the fish within the system are being raised in a near all-natural manner on account of the plants within the system that must be accounted for when adding inputs.  Nothing can be given to the fish that could harm the plants, or visa-versa.

The factors above will likely change from one species of fish to another, but generally speaking, and in the case of tilapia for sure, I believe strongly that farm-raised fish is the way to go.

As always, this opinion will be up for debate, but you have my feelings for the record now, you have my scuttlebutt.

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