Do We Need to Invent a tag for 'Hybrid' Fish?

The evolution of aquaculture means it's not so easy to say whether your fish is wild or farmed.

Hybrid fish? Fish isn't easy to label these days. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Aug 9, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Buy a piece of fish, and there’s a label to go with it.

Maybe it’s a certification label that tells you if your filet meets sustainability guidelines. Perhaps it’s a country of origin label to tell you if your succulent seafood item was caught in the USA or in far-away Thailand. Labels plunged into shaved ice beds at the fish counter will let you know if that piece of fish you’re eyeing has been freshly landed or was previously frozen. But for many eaters, the one label they’re searching for (after the price tag), is whether a fish is wild-caught or farm-raised.

A recent study, released by a group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that simple description isn’t enough anymore. They’re recommending a third designation: hybrid. Why? Because the life cycle of many of our favorite seafood items is far more complicated than many eaters realize.

MORE: Farmed Fish: A New Staple for a Billion People

Take wild Alaskan salmon, for instance. A robust hatchery program means that every year, millions of salmon start their lives in a laboratory as an egg, then in a pen, where they grow large enough to eventually be released into the wild. (The percentage of Alaskan hatchery fish vs. wild fluctuates. In 2010, hatchery salmon made up 49 percent of the state’s total salmon catch. In 2011, it dipped to 20 percent.)

Whatever the percentage, the question it increasingly puts forth is this: When humans are selecting and growing the eggs, instead of Mother Nature, are the fish still truly wild?

It’s a dilemma we can ask in reverse as well.

When we harvest species like eel or bluefin from the wild, and then raise them in a farmed environment, the fish are no longer considered wild, but rather, show up in the supermarket wearing a farm-raised tag.

And blurring the lines between what’s wild and what’s farmed can either be good or bad for the ecosystem, depending on the species. Seeding the Chesapeake Bay with millions of hatchery-spawned oysters is a good thing. Oysters are filter feeders, and help clean the bay. They don’t require additional food or antibiotics, and can be an economic boon to a region.

Then there’s the negative practice of ranching, or capture-based aquaculture, which involves harvesting wild, juvenile bluefin and fattening them in ocean pens. Not only does it put pressure on bluefin stocks, but the amount of fish needed to fatten the bluefin is unsustainable, with many critics saying it’s akin to farming tigers.

In both instances, labels like farmed or wild aren't exactly accurate anymore. And, says Dan Klinger, a PhD student at Stanford University and co-author of the paper, both are poor metrics when deciding on whether or not seafood is sustainable. Then again, we’re not convinced a hybrid designation will tell an eater about an environmental footprint either, but it will provide consumers more information than they have now. And you know, we like that being-informed-thing.

“The discussion is interesting because it really speaks to the future of fish,” Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for National Fisheries Institute, tells Take Part. That future, he says, is aquaculture.

Many agree. Our oceans still have fish. Here in the U.S., they’re harvested at their maximum sustainable yield or less. That means we can continue to fish for them at their current rate, but the ocean isn’t going to be able to produce enough on its own to meet the needs of a growing planet, which is when aquaculture fills in.

Gibbons sees a problem with the hybrid designation, however.

“If you’re a fishermen and you’re fishing for salmon, how do you know if it’s originated in the hatchery or the wild?” he asks.

We don’t, though statistical models can estimate the numbers accurately, says Mary Turnipseed, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis, which produced the study.

Another hurdle? Labeling as it exists now, falls under federal COOL regulations. There are precise definitions for farmed or wild-caught. Where the fish is harvested in the end determines the label.

Will this new designation happen any time soon? Probably not.

“From a realistic standpoint, you’d have to have Congress debating this to change the law,” says Gibbons. “When there’s no regulatory or food safety need, there’s no real reason for it.”

What would you like to know about your fish? Tell is in comments