Farm-Raised vs. Wild-Caught Salmon: What’s the Difference?

September 20, 2016

Salmon is one of the most popular varieties of seafood, and for good reason: it’s hearty, mild in flavor, versatile, and pretty simple to cook.

And let’s not forget the health benefits: plenty of amino acids and omega-3s, tons of vitamins and minerals, and a good serving of high-quality protein. If you eat fish, the question of whether you should have salmon from time to time should be a simple one to answer.

But we live in complex times, and not all salmon is created equal. Some fish are caught wild in the oceans, while others are farmed in contained pens. Amid lots of opinions about both fishing methods, the truth can be hard to decipher. Here’s a quick guide to the differences between farm-raised and wild-caught salmon, so you can decide which variety to choose for yourself.

How do we define farm-raised and wild-caught?

Wild-caught salmon are caught in their natural environment by fishermen, while farm-raised salmon are grown in pens submerged in saltwater.

Why do people raise salmon in pens?

In many places, wild salmon stocks are decreasing as a result of overfishing and climate change. Aquaculture takes pressure off these stocks, allowing salmon to be produced more sustainably—and often much closer to the cities where it will be consumed. Currently, farmed salmon accounts for 70 percent of all salmon sold—2.4 million metric tons—according to the World Wildlife Federation.

Is farmed salmon sustainable and safe to eat?

Just know that controversy exists around farmed salmon. Some people say it’s not as sustainable as it claims to be. They say fish that escape from their pens bring disease and contamination into wild salmon stocks and they’re much more likely to have been genetically modified.  Like any food we eat, in terms of safety and sustainability, it comes down to knowing your farmer. Even skeptics agree: the industry as a whole is much safer and more sustainable than it used to be. If you have questions about whether a cut of farmed salmon is safe and sustainable, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s handy seafood guide.

Do farmed salmon look or taste different from wild-caught salmon?

Yes, but it comes down to your personal preferences. Wild-caught salmon will be a deeper shade of red, with more muscle and fat—built up by chasing its food everywhere in the ocean. Farm-raised salmon will be slightly leaner, a lighter shade of red, and much less fatty. Think of it this way: many people prefer a lean steak to a marbled one. What we look for in a salmon steak is no different. Whether you choose farm-raised or wild-caught, just make sure the color of the fish still looks vibrant—a pale hue can be an indicator that it’s no longer fresh.

Is fresh always better than frozen?

Not necessarily. Wild-caught salmon is sometimes flash-frozen on the boat immediately after being caught, making it a great option for fish lovers—especially when it’s not salmon season. Again, it comes down to trusting the source.

What’s your favorite salmon recipe? We know ours—share yours in the comments!

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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