"Wild vs. farmed" debate hurts seafood sales, GAA panel agrees

With both aquaculture standards and fisheries management practices improving steadily, panelists at a roundtable discussion hosted by the Global Aquaculture Alliance said it is time for the seafood industry to call a cease-fire in the “wild versus farmed” debate and launch a joint effort to increase U.S. seafood consumption across the board.

The debate, titled “Come Together: Uniting the Wild and Farmed Seafood Sectors,” focused on how the U.S. seafood industry help land more seafood onto American dinner plates.

Global Aquaculture Alliance President George Chamberlain, who assisted in founding the GAA as a science-based nonprofit promoting responsible aquaculture practices in 1997, led off the discussion by reviewing the origins of the “wild versus farmed” debate.

“My experience with this goes back to the 1970s. At that time, aquaculture was more of an experiment and fisheries were by far the mainstream – in some circles, aquaculture was almost a joke,” Chamberlin said. “As you fast-forward through time, fisheries landings began to plateau and aquaculture started to take off exponentially. It’s really been a remarkable transition.”

Despite the rise of aquaculture globally and in the U.S., a constant competition between wild-caught and farmed-raised fish has a consistent hold over seafood discussion – and experts are saying it’s detrimental to the seafood industry as a whole. 

“It’s an absolute fact that without aquaculture we’re not going to have enough food to feed the world as it continues to grow. We’re not going to be able to provide the seafood that the world needs,” said Brian Perkins, the Marine Stewardship Council’s regional director of the Americas region. “I think part of the problem is the consumer. They’re not educated. They’re confused. And when they get negative messages [comparing farmed and wild seafood], it’s ‘Well, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to eat this fish or if I’m supposed to eat this fish,’ and so they just end up eating no fish.”

Confusion over which production method to back, on top of picking a species and cooking method, could be what’s holding Americans back from eating more seafood. While the battle between these sectors might be prominent in seafood marketing and on social media, a new survey the Aquaculture Stewardship Council found that more than half of seafood consumers in key markets don’t have a preference between wild and farmed fish, preferring any products that take a responsible approach to protecting both planet and people.

Melanie Siggs, director of strategic engagements at Global Seafood Assurances, spoke on consumer preferences during the roundtable, suggesting the need for a shift to promote seafood in general instead of focusing on production methods.

“We get very focused on consumers who have education and care to understand difference between farmed and wild, and that’s fine. We’re not trying to say that they’re absolutely the same thing, but I think that, fundamentally, by the time you reach product-on-shelf or on a menu, it’s seafood,” she said.

Siggs said the division is harming overall sales.

“Why do we want to separate and how can we better collaborate to make sure we are creating enough to meet the forecast demands for good, nutritious food in the future?” she asked.

Instead of pushing language like “wild-caught” or “farm-raised” in marketing materials, Linda Cornish, founder and president of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, said she believes an industry shift toward focusing on health benefits could be key to reaching today’s consumer. The World Health Organization recommends eating eight ounces of seafood per week, or 26 pounds per person annually.

“Hopefully, everybody in the industry, whether a wild producer or farmer, understands that the market share has a much larger potential if we aim at meeting the public imperative to help everybody eat more seafood,” Cornish said. “There are a lot of positive health messages that we all should be using in our work, because you can answer the question for consumers, “What’s in it for me?’ It’s not the certification label, it’s ‘What am I going to have for dinner that’s going to help my kid have higher IQ points, do better in school, have a higher attention span.”

While many seafood marketing campaigns do make the call-to-action for consumers to eat more seafood, specific suggestions could be more valuable in changing consumer habits and making seafood a part of their weekly grocery shopping. Cornish encouraged all seafood advocates to push the health benefits of seafood whenever the opportunities arise, especially in cases where the issue of farmed versus wild fish is being debated.

Speakers also touched on the confusion that certifications and labels can play in consumer choices. While consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of food production and are more concerned with sustainability, the number of different labels they see in stores can be overwhelming, and therefore counterproductive to the goal of getting people to eat more seafood.

Siggs pitched the idea of a universal seafood label that would simply read “responsibly, sustainably harvested seafood,” without mentioning production method, or at least not as a primary selling point. While she admitted there were plenty of challenges to united assurance groups, viewing seafood consumption through an environmental lens could be more helpful to consumers than drawing attention to industry infighting.

While there were plenty of thoughts on how the industry should move forward, there was agreement among speakers that a shift in marketing efforts and unity throughout the seafood industry is necessary to complete with other protein products on the market.

Photo courtesy of British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association 


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