Fishing for Organics

As the organic marketplace continues to grow, government and environmental agencies, farmers, and conscious consumers continue to look for ways to classify products of all kinds as pesticide- and chemical-free. Fish are no exception. Possibly one of the most difficult to classify and, arguably, one of the most heavily contaminated foods available, seafood in general has recently become the subject of much debate in the world of organic.

What’s the Problem?
Unlike vegetables and land-based animals, controlling a wild fish environment is nearly impossible. Whereas farmers and ranchers can make sure that chickens, pork, and beef are fed antibiotic-free grain, and fruits and vegetables remain pesticide-free, there is no way of ensuring the diet of wild fish. Additionally, farmed fish often claim organic because the fish are fed organic meal and are kept in an antibiotic-free environment; however, they run the risk of contamination from feces and feed and the occasional “escapee” fish that risks harming natural populations.

Buyer Beware

After the recent studies showing high contamination levels in a variety of different seafood, buyers rushed to purchase wild fish over farm-raised—where it was believed many of the contamination issues were rooted. However, with wild fish out of season for extended periods of time, the organic label gave the perception of a healthier option over conventional, farm-raised fish. Fish markets and health food stores nation wide began selling “organic” fish—everything from salmon to snapper—even though it was never USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) approved to do so. Sometimes the organic or natural label signifies more responsible fish farming practices, such as frequently flushed tanks and the use of entirely organic plant feed. However, oftentimes, it is simply another country or third party claiming that the fish is organic-approved.1 Beyond that, what fish eat plays an important part in whether or not they can be considered for any sort of organic qualification. For instance, catfish eat only plant-based foods while carnivorous salmon feast on other fish; therefore, in order to guarantee an organic product, the actual fish food itself must also be organic.

Going With the Flow
Trying to keep up with the growing demand for organic products, the fish industry hopes the USDA will begin to reconsider the possibility of a fish-friendly USDA organic label. Early attempts to do so never came to fruition. Currently, fish products labeled organic (with no official regulation) sell for roughly $1.00 to $2.00 more per pound and are often purchased before farm-raised-labeled fish when wild fish is not in season. 2 However, given the broad spectrum of seafood growing environments and types, it is not likely that the USDA will develop a system any time soon.

What Can I Do?

In light of the current state of overfished oceans and contaminated seas, it is increasingly important to know exactly where your fish is coming from. Using the commonly scrutinized salmon as an example, “the largest survey yet of pollutants in salmon has found that farmed fish have higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls and other organocholorine compounds than do wild-caught salmon.” 3 Traditionally, certain areas of the Pacific are thought to be cleaner than the Atlantic; hence, the high demand for wild Alaskan salmon. There are environmentally conscious farms springing up throughout the world. Many farmers are using ocean-based pens, which incorporate the forceful, natural ocean currents to flush away waste and that contain fewer fish as opposed to tightly crammed, man-made ponds that breed disease.4 Ultimately, being a conscious consumer and supporting responsible fish-farming practices when possible will be the best thing you can do to ensure you’re getting the healthiest fish on the market.