Should you eat farmed fish? It's complicated

For environmentalists, some food production and consumption choices are simple. Eating less red meat is better than eating more. Beef and cheese have bigger climate impacts than turkey and eggs. Fruits and vegetables in season likely have a smaller footprint than strawberries in the wintertime.

The issue of farmed fish, however, is complicated -- because it includes many species of fish that are farmed using different methods in different places. Done right, aquaculture is an environmentally-friendly, sustainable way to produce healthy protein. But done wrong fish farming generates pollution, relies on antibiotics and threatens ocean ecosystems.

So what’s a conscious consumer to do? And, for that matter, how are responsible retailers supposed to navigate the world of aquaculture?

Help is on the way, say experts at the recent Cooking for Solutions event, a great two-day gathering about food and sustainability organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium is a great place to visit, of course, but it’s also a force for sustainable food, with a focus on seafood and oceans.

Roughly half the world’s fish supply is farmed – and some environmentalists are excited by the potential of aquaculture to heal marine ecosystems that have been battered by overfishing. “Aquaculture’s big,” said Jose Villalon, a fisheries biologist who leads the aquaculture program at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “It’s the fastest growing food industry in the world. It’s not a trend. It’s here to stay.” Villalon notes that aquaculture has been growing at about nine percent a year for at least a decade, and that fish farming can become one of the most sustainable sources of healthy food.

Tom Pickerell, a research scientist at the aquarium, agrees. “We will not be able to feed the world in the future without aquaculture,” he said. “There has to be a blue revolution of sustainable aquaculture.”

Next page: Figuring out aquaculture metrics