Fish Farming Vs. Wild Caught Seafood in Restaurants | Food Newsfeed
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Robert's Maine Grill

The Fundamentals of Fish to Fork

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Aquaculture enthusiasts debate farming vs. wild harvesting.
By Judith A. Stock January 2014 Sustainability

Robert’s Maine Grill, in Kittery, Maine, used to toss all its oyster shells into the trash can behind the restaurant to be carted off to the local landfill. Not anymore.

“We were approached by the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) of New Hampshire and the University of New Hampshire in Durham to join in an oyster-shell recycling program,” says Jeremiah Fitzgerald, marketing manager for the restaurant.

Fitzgerald says they thought it was a “home-run idea,” especially since the program would be a great way to contribute to the community and the environment.

As part of the program, Grill employees collect oyster shells in 5-gallon buckets, and each week the CCA retrieves the shells and takes them to the university’s Kingman Farm in Madbury.

At the farm, the shells are seasoned for three months to kill pathogens, and then they are deposited back into New Hampshire’s Great Bay, where they make positive contributions to the environment.

The program has been running successfully for the last four years, and Robert’s Maine Grill now describes the oyster-recycling program on its menu to let patrons know how much the restaurant is invested in being sustainable.

“Our oyster shell contributions help restore historic oyster reefs, and oyster farms in Great Bay are starting to produce oysters, so the program seems to be working,” Fitzgerald says.

In recent years, recycling oyster shells has become a trend with seafood restaurants across the country. More than 50 restaurants in North Carolina alone currently reseed their oyster shells.

Farmed Fish

Another growing trend is aquaculture, which is the farming of aquatic organisms including fish, mollusks, crustaceans, and bivalves along with aquatic plants. In the world of seafood, there are two categories, wild-caught and farmed seafood, or aquaculture.

Farming implies some form of intervention in the rearing process to enhance production, such as regular stocking, feeding, and protection from predators, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

There are aquaculture operations in all 50 states, while shellfish are farmed along the coastline. High-value saltwater fish are being raised far from the oceans in places as unlikely as the desert and abandoned warehouses. Production venues range from simple ponds to high-tech recirculating systems, while pond production, for species like catfish, occurs primarily in the Southern states.

During the last two decades, the value of U.S. aquaculture production rose to nearly $1 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the global aquaculture market was estimated at $119 billion in 2010.

Aquaculture facilities raise fish in tanks or pens, either on land or in water bodies, for all or part of a fish’s life cycle. Interest in aquaculture production is on the rise due to the restrictions on wild harvest of many seafood species that will limit supply.

“Restaurants need to find a way to keep seafood on their menus in the future,” explains Linda O’Dierno, outreach specialist at The National Aquaculture Association in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. “There will be significant increases in seafood demand not only as a result of population growth, but also because health-related organizations—including the USDA—are recommending two seafood meals per week.”

Americans would need to more than double their consumption of seafood if the overall population managed to achieve that goal of eating seafood twice weekly.

Fishing for Supply

“Ninety percent of all the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported product, and those imports are often from countries that don’t have a good record for food safety and environmental sustainability,” explains O’Dierno.

Additionally, she notes, “Over 50 percent of the seafood consumed worldwide is farmed, and in countries like the U.S. where wild-harvest fisheries are well-managed to help ensure sustainability, we need to grow our ability to farm seafood.”

Because of the stringent regulatory and record-keeping requirements in this country, U.S. seafood products may be more expensive than imports. However, buyers need to understand they are paying for food safety and environmental sustainability.

For instance, in the U.S. it is illegal to use antibiotics and added hormones to promote growth in farmed seafood. The overall strategy is to maintain good water quality, provide a nutritious and easily digestible food supply, and maintain appropriate stocking densities.

These considerations contribute to the health of the stock, reduce stress, and promote animal welfare, which in turn reduces the need for any drug use.

Farm-raised seafood has several other advantages—for instance, supply, price, and quality are consistent. This makes it easier for chefs and restaurant owners to plan menus and calculate food costs. Conversely, wild-harvest fisheries are subject to variations in supply and can be subject to drastic price swings that directly affect planning and cost analysis.

According to Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Virginia, shrimp, salmon, tilapia, pangasius, catfish, and clams are the most popular products that are produced via aquaculture.

“Aquaculture provides restaurants with a safe, steady, year-round supply of popular, versatile seafood, and it helps familiarize customers with menu items beyond beef and chicken,” explains Gibbons. “Health and variety are two things restaurateurs are often looking for, and aquaculture fits the bill for both.”

From dock to distributor to dinner plate, traceability and certification are also gaining importance. Juan Aguirre, project manager, sustainable seafood, with SCS Global Services, says SCS works with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and Marine Stewardship Council to certify sustainably grown and sourced seafood.

“We run an ambitious program to promote environmental and social aquaculture performance,” says Aguirre.

The purpose of chain of custody, he explains, is to track the fish and to segregate it from uncertified fish. That way, if a restaurant purchases certified fish, they get what the sticker states.

Because many shellfish are grown in open water and are often consumed raw, traceability is an important component of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference’s program. Clams, oysters, and mussels must have a shellfish tag that identifies the area in which they were harvested, the date of harvest, and the harvester.