More of the fish you eat were farm-raised, and a sea change is afoot
Joe Lasprograta, purchasing director for Samuels & Sons, a large Philadelphia seafood wholesaler, walks me through his company’s new facility, stopping at a large section stacked 20 feet high with seafood, all of which has been farmed in places as far flung as Australia, Chile and Scotland. Some comes from Canada and the United States. Over the years, Lasprograta has seen farmed seafood take a bigger place at dinner tables across the country. “Twenty years ago, it was only shrimp and salmon. Today, close to 50 percent of our business is farmed,” Lasprograta says.
Even though cattle and chickens have been domesticated for centuries, farmed seafood is a relatively recent phenomenon for most Americans. But it is becoming increasingly important as fish
habitats around the globe are depleted and world population increases. Aquaculture, like agriculture, is farming, but in water instead of on land, in natural environments such as rivers or lakes, or artificial ones such as the inland ponds created to raise catfish and tilapia. Oysters, mussels, clams, shrimp and salmon are raised in salt water. As with most other ocean fish, farmed salmon—primarily the Atlantic species—are bred in floating pens off the shores of North and South America and Northern Europe.
In some cases, as with catfish and tilapia, aquaculture represents a way to create cheaper and greater quantities of seafood than what could be caught in the wild. Farming Atlantic salmon was a response to fish that came close to extinction in the wild. In both instances, fish are raised as they are in the wild, from female eggs fertilized by male sperm, hatched, and then raised to sizes large enough for harvesting. One advantage of fish farming is that from egg to maturity, farmed fish have a much better chance of surviving than those in the wild.
Many Americans have tried popularly priced farmed seafood such as tilapia, primarily from Latin America and Asia, and catfish, the most commonly farmed fish in the United States. But recently, white tablecloth restaurants have been purchasing increasing amounts of higher-end farmed seafood such as sea bream, branzino, yellowtail and bluefin tuna. Even at New York’s Le Bernardin, unquestionably one of the best seafood restaurants in America, chef Eric Ripert uses farmed salmon and shrimp and two kinds of farmed osetra caviar, one from Italy, another from Israel.
Restaurant purchases of farmed seafood have increased so dramatically that at Browne Trading Company in Portland, Maine, which supplies many the country’s top restaurants, farmed fish also represent half of sales. “A lot of chefs used to say ‘I’m only buying wild,’” says Browne Trading owner Rod Mitchell. “Now, with the revolution in sustainable fish farming (i.e. maintaining profitable production with minimal or no harm to the environment), most chefs are totally open to farmed fish.”
While fish farming in North America is less than 200 years old, China has been farming fish for more than four thousand years. The Romans also bred fish. Technically, fish farming is a type of aquaculture, which also encompasses the raising of aquatic plants and ornamental fish.
Asia dominates fish farming today, with China controlling 60 percent of the world’s production and India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand rounding out the top five producers. The United States is the tenth largest producer of farmed seafood, but it is the world’s largest importer.
Farming may seem like the perfect solution to fewer fish in the sea, but it does contain some thorny issues, chief among them is the environment. Some carnivores, like salmon, are fed the same kind of food that they eat in the wild. Smaller fish such as herring, for example. Unfortunately, feeding herring to fish that would not eat herring in the wild because without farming they wouldn’t exist, is akin to using more energy to grow corn for ethanol than the energy in the ethanol itself.
“Herring are the basis [of the diets] of all ocean predatory fish,” Mitchell says. “If you harvest herring in the wild, what are the other wild fish going to eat?” In addition, it takes 3 to 5 pounds of feed to produce one pound of salmon, too high for environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which like to see no more than a one to one ratio. Still, that’s a drop in the ocean compared to bluefin tuna, which need upwards of 20 pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat.
Loch Duart, a company that farms salmon in Scotland, uses only fish from sustainable sources for its feed. In addition, it has worked with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to develop standards for raising salmon, such as reducing the density of fish within enclosures and the handling of fish to minimize stress.
Another solution to the feed problem is vegetarian diets. In fact, says George Chamberlain of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, a non-profit organization that promotes and certifies responsible aquaculture, “Feeds are relying less and less on fish meal and oil and more on vegetable proteins and oils.”
Fish ranching presents another environmental dilemma. Ranching combines fish farming with wild harvesting. Young wild fish—particularly bluefin tuna, but also yellowtail or hamachi and eel—are caught, usually during migration, and fattened up in pens at sea, much like cattle in feedlots. Though some consider sea ranching a positive step toward conservation, Tim Fitzgerald, an EDF marine scientist, doesn’t see it that way.
“You’re still harvesting an endangered fish,” Fitzgerald says. “And you have all the problems of farming, such as pollution, waste, and chemicals.” According to the EDF, some fish farming allows uneaten food, fish waste, drugs and chemicals to pass into surrounding waters, where they can harm ecosystems and contaminate water.
If you’ve seen shrimp on sale in the supermarket or as a come-on at all-you-can-eat restaurants, chances are they are black tiger (or just tiger) shrimp farmed in Asia. However, many Asian shrimp were raised on farms that decimated important coastal habitats when constructing shrimp ponds. In addition, there have been problems from water pollution and salinzation of land and ground water, according to the EDF.
In addition to spending more for quality, many chefs have been willing to pay extra for fish raised in an environmentally sound way. “I’d rather pay an extra $1 a pound than do damage to the environment,” says Phillip Foss, chef at Lockwood restaurant in Chicago. Foss adds that while his customers are “more conscientious about what they are eating, they are more concerned about freshness than sustainability.”
Freshness is one of the hallmarks of farmed fish, which are not subject to the vagaries of oceans and rivers or to natural breeding cycles. Instead of wild striped bass, Bryan Voltaggio, chef at Volt
restaurant in Frederick, Md., serves a striped bass farmed in Colorado. “It tastes really fresh and sweet,” Voltaggio says. “Farmed fish is cleaner.” (Farmed striped bass is actually a hybrid of striped bass, a saltwater fish and a fresh water white bass.)
The flavor and texture of the farmed striped bass and the wild striped bass fillets (both from Samuels & Sons) I tasted were much closer than with other farmed and wild comparisons I’ve made, though the wild fish fillets were thicker. Bigger fillets can hold moisture better, especially if broiled or grilled, and they make a more attractive presentation.
Wild fish are almost always larger because they are older and can eat at will. Farmed fish are smaller because they are given an allotted amount to eat each day and because farmers can’t afford to feed them
long enough to reach the size of wild fish. Two loup de mer (the French name for sea bass; also popularly known as branzino), which I purchased from Browne Trading, offered a more dramatic difference in size than the striped bass. The wild loup de mer from off the coast of Portugal was 7.4 pounds, the farmed 1.9 pounds. However, Chamberlain notes that “aquaculture produces sizes that the market prefers”. Indeed, a two-pound fish is just about right for dinner for two people.
The wild loup de mer was incredibly delicious, rich and meaty in flavor with a moist and silky in texture. The flavor of the farmed loup de mer was a mere echo of the wild, with texture that wasn’t even close to that of the luxurious wild fish.
The differences between farmed and wild fish can sometimes change the way they are cooked in restaurants. The farmed halibut Foss gets from Gigha Island in Scotland are usually smaller than wild halibut. “Though I like it around 20 pounds, wild halibut can go up to 60 pounds. This gives you nice big steaks to roast,” Foss says. “But farmed halibut is around 10 pounds and much more delicate, more like turbot.” That delicacy calls for a lighter touch as in Foss’s thinly sliced halibut served barely warmed with caviar, yellow beets and fennel milk.
Other farmed fish, such as the Loch Duart salmon, are so high in quality that chefs like Foss and John Cuevas, chef at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., both treat Loch Duart the same as wild salmon. “You’re not going to be able to tell the difference after it’s prepared, unless you are a real salmon fan,” Cuneo says.
Because they are raised under tightly controlled conditions, farmed salmon usually has a milder flavor than wild salmon. And with a steadier food supply and less movement than wild salmon, their fat content is slightly higher. However, even among farmed salmon the taste varies widely, as I found out when I wrote a column on the subject a while back. At the bottom was farmed salmon from Chile, which was the least expensive and tasted like it. But the flavors of Clare Island salmon, farmed off the west coast of Ireland, and Black Pearl salmon, farmed in the Shetland Islands off Scotland, were equal to or slightly better than that of Yakutat wild Alaskan salmon I tasted.
While they may look fresh, the vast majority of shrimp are frozen, then thawed. FDA regulations require that previously frozen seafood be so labeled. To my mind, cheaper shrimp aren’t worth the price, even on sale, though their mediocrity can be somewhat masked in soups and stews.
However, as with salmon, not all farmed shrimp are alike. Though not quite the equal of the wild shrimp, the farmed Mexican white shrimp from the Sea of Cortez in northern Mexico (purchased from Groben’s Seafood in Philadelphia) were light years ahead of any supermarket shrimp I’ve ever had. The wild shrimp, harvested from the Gulf of Mexico were juicier and firmer than the farmed shrimp, though the farmed Mexican whites had a pleasantly sweet flavor that good shellfish should have.
Any seafood that is bred for taste and raised in environmentally friendly fashion comes at a price. Dale Sims, a co-founder of Cleanfish, which brings Loch Duart salmon into the United States, says that the methods used by Loch Duart (and which are being adopted by other fish farms) add 30 to 50 percent to the cost of the fish. “Maybe we’ll have to reduce the number of times we eat salmon or reduce the portion sizes slightly,” Sims says. “We can make up for quantity with better quality.”
Most farmed seafood is less expensive than wild, sometimes markedly so. For example, the Portuguese wild loup de mer from Browne Trading, cost $29 per pound. The farmed loup de mer was $8.95 a pound.
While some top-of-the-line farmed salmon can often equal the price of wild salmon, a farmed tuna marketed under the Kindai brand soars past. Raised from eggs in a process that the Japanese took 32 years to develop, Kindai tuna reach $50 a pound and beyond for the choicest cuts. Other cuts cost between $35 and $40, about the same as ranched bluefin, though I preferred the taste of the Kindai. Yet, once the Kindai are put in pens, they’re subject to the same pitfalls of other farmed fish, according to Fitzgerald.
As fish farming improves consumers will reap the benefits. One is more available species, such as red snapper, mahi mahi, grouper and pompano. Quality will also go up. “This is an active area of research
and some aquaculture companies have been very successful at it,” Chamberlain says. “For example, a company in Madagascar succeeded in having its shrimp certified by Label Rouge (a French inter-professional organization that promotes high quality food products) for its superior texture and flavor.”
Future fish farms will have less negative impact on the environment, according to Chamberlain who says that already “many farms are learning to operate with virtually zero discharge (waste products). But Alison Barratt of the EDF is not so optimistic. “There are improvements in some practices. For example, the amount of wild fish used to raise farmed fish is generally reducing,” Barrett says. “But the industry expansion means the overall impact on the oceans is the same.
A possible benefit from industry expansion is that prices may remain stable or even go down. “many of the costs in aquaculture are declining due to improvements in health, management, breeding nutrition, mechanization etc.,” Chamberlain says.
One of the more recent and most dramatic improvements in fish farming has resulted in seafood sold in the United States for the first time last December by Browne Trading. Veta la Palma in Andalucía, Spain is no mere fish farm, but a self-sustaining ecological system of 43 ponds, each covering 173 acres (8,000 acres total). The ponds are not only interconnected but also linked to the Guadalquivir and Guadiamar rivers. A hydraulic system circulates water and nutrients, which, combined with the natural richness of the marshlands in which the ponds are located, create a habitat for small aquatic creatures that serve as food for sea bass, sea bream, shrimp and eel. The hydraulic system also helps remove waste products.
The sea bass from Browne Trading was selling for around $20 a pound. That’s less than the wild fish, though more than double what more conventionally farmed sea bass would cost. Still, it seems like a reasonable price to pay way to ensure that we can eat seafood far into the future.
Asian-Spiced Salmon with Braised Bok Choy
4 tablespoons peanut oil
- Four 6-ounce salmon fillets, pin bones removed
- 2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 1/2 pounds bok choy, 2 medium stalks
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup chicken stock
1)Put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy skillet large enough to hold all the fillets in one layer without crowding. Put the skillet over medium-high heat. Rub the fillets with the five-spice powder. Put the salmon in the skillet, skin side down, cover, and cook for 3 minutes. Turn the fillets over and cook for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the salmon keep warm in the skillet.
2)While the salmon cooks, fill the sink with cold water. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large deep skillet, Dutch oven, or wok over medium-low heat. Peel the garlic. Drop the garlic down the chute of a food processor with the motor running. Scrape the garlic into the skillet and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring once or twice to prevent burning.
3)While the garlic cooks, cut 1 inch from the bottoms of the bok choy and cut off any damaged tops from the leaves. Cut the leafy top half of the bok choy crosswise into 2-inch wide strips at and the thicker bottom half into 1-inch wide strips. Wash briefly, but vigorously, in the sink and add to the skillet, without draining. Season with salt and pepper to taste, add the chicken stock, and stir. Raise the heat to high, cover, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes until the thickest part of the stems are just tender.
4)Put salmon fillet in the center of a large soup plate with the bok choy on both sides. Spoon the cooking broth from the bok choy over the top of the bok choy.
San Diego Fish Tacos
1/2 cup canola oil
- 1 cup beer
- 1 large egg
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Two 8-ounce white fish fillets (such as scrod, pollack, snapper, haddock, halibut, and catfish) pin bones removed and each fillet cut crosswise into 6 pieces (by the fish monger, if possible)
- 1 small to medium sweet onion such as Vidalia, 4 to 8 ounces
- 10 sprigs cilantro
- 1/2 cup light or regular mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup low-fat yogurt
- 1 small head green cabbage, 12 to 16 ounces
- 1 ripe but firm avocado
- 1 lime
- One 12-ounce jar medium-hot salsa
- 12 flour tortillas, about 8 inches in diameter
1)Put the oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Combine the beer, egg, and flour in a medium-size mixing bowl. Stir in the mustard, cayenne, salt, and several grindings of black pepper. Put 6 pieces of fish in the batter, coat well, and add to the skillet. Cook for 3 minutes, turn the pieces over, and cook for 3 more minutes until golden brown. Drain on a paper towel-lined platter. Repeat with the remaining 6 pieces. Reduce the heat if needed to prevent burning.
2)While the fish cooks, peel and quarter the onion and remove the leaves from the cilantro sprigs. Put the onion and cilantro in a food processor and pulse several times, or until coarsely chopped. (Or chop by hand.) Add the mayonnaise and yogurt to the processor and pulse just once or twice to combine. Put the onion-mayonnaise sauce in a small bowl.
3)Halve the cabbage lengthwise and remove the core from each half. Place each half on a cutting surface, flat side down. Cut into thin shreds with a chef’s knife. (Or shred using the large holes of a four-sided grater or the grating attachment of a food processor.) You should have about 4 cups. Put the cabbage in a small bowl.
4)Halve pit and peel the avocados. Cut each half lengthwise into six slices. Lay the slices on a small plate. Cut the lime into 4 wedges and put in a small dish. Put the salsa in a small bowl with a slotted spoon (so you won’t get a lot of liquid in your tacos).
5)Bring all the ingredients for the tacos to the table and allow diners to make tacos one at a time as follows: Put a few tablespoons of cabbage in the middle of each tortilla. Top with 1 piece of fish, 1 tablespoon or so of the onion-mayonnaise sauce, 1 tablespoon of the salsa, 2 avocado slices, and a squeeze of lime. Fold and eat. Makes 12 tacos, 3 per person.
Linguini with Rock Shrimp, Anchovies and Aglio e Olio
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup peeled, thinly sliced garlic
- 1 pint fish stock or bottled clam juice
- Sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 pound rock shrimp or regular medium to large fresh shrimp, peeled
- 4 to 6 anchovies, minced
- 1 pound imported linguini, cooked al dente
- 1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1)Put half of the oil in a large, heavy bottom saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add the fish stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer briskly for 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper taste. Set aside.
2)Meanwhile, if using regular medium shrimp, cut them in half, crosswise; if large in thirds. Put the remaining oil in a large sauté pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and anchovies. Cook just until the shrimp turn pink, about 3 minutes.
3)Add the linguini, parsley and the fish stock. Bring to a brisk simmer while tossing well. Season as needed. Toss again and serve. Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multi-course meal.
(Adapted from a recipe created by Sandy Ingber, chef of the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York)