Wild or farmed fish: will changing consumer attitudes be good news for aquaculture?

By Natalie Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

A fish farm. Photo: iStock / Defun
A fish farm. Photo: iStock / Defun

Related tags: Aquaculture

The question ‘farmed fish or wild fish?’ has leaned heavily towards the most natural option, but new studies suggest changing consumer sentiment could be good news for aquaculture.

The general consensus among consumers​ -- and even some nutrition experts​ -- seems to have been that wild is best.

Shoppers have been willing to hand over more money for wild-caught seafood in the belief it has better taste and nutritional qualities.

Concerns overanimal welfare​ of farmed seafood and its potential to damage​ surrounding ecosystems through large volumes of waste in ‘unnatural’ breeding grounds have also been raised.

But with dwindling wild populations no longer sustainable as a food source, and new and improved breeding and feeding tactics in farming, are consumers warming to the idea of cultivated fish?

New findings suggest the tables are turning.

Changing perceptions

The issue of unsustainable wild fishing is a big potential reason for shoppers to think farmed.

fish counter, market,  Copyright julibbb
© iStock / Julibbb

“Just over a third of UK consumers who buy fish or shellfish seek out products which are labelled as sustainable such as MSC-certified, pole and line caught tuna,”​ Laura Jones, global food science analyst at Mintel told us.

The fact the number has not risen above a third is likely due to the fact people have come to expect sustainability, she added, noting 76% of UK consumers expect their fish is resourced responsibly.

In terms of taste and nutrition, some scientists suggest the difference is imagined.

Two recent studies into perceptions over wild vs farmed (an Italian Ministry of Agriculture report​ and Claret et al. 2016​) found participants could not distinguish between wild and farmed fish.

Claret's team of researchers even found consumers preferred the taste of the farmed fish in a blind taste test.

The team believes the future is bright for the aquaculture sector since improvement of the characteristics of cultured fish is seemingly unnecessary.

All that is needed is the right information for shoppers, they said.

“Providing consumers with reliable information that helps them to value the two types of fish based on scientific evidence,”​ is the best way forward, they added.

Some research even suggests reared fish have better nutritional qualities. One such study, a 2014 paper​ by Nichols et al., found Australian farmed

fish fisherman
© iStock

salmon and barramundi has higher omega-3 content than wild equivalents. This is despite previous concerns raised that farmed fish had lower omega-3.

With or without consumer acceptance, the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that two thirds​ of all fish eaten will come from farms by 2030.

Local selling point

In any case, Jones said there is scope to push locally fished resources, as they do in the land farming sector.

“Fish being caught off the UK coast is a consideration for only a quarter of UK buyers of fish or shellfish,” ​she said.

“However, (companies with) fish caught off the coast of UK could be shouting about it more, look at rise of products linking to 'British Family Farms'.”

 

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