Next time you go to your local fish market, ask them for a hybrid fillet. My guess is they will stare at you with a confused look on their face or direct you to the local Toyota dealership. Most consumers and seafood retailers typically think of seafood as either farmed or wild. But if a new proposal on seafood labeling gains traction, you may soon see the term “hybrid” American lobster alongside wild Pacific Halibut and farmed Atlantic salmon.
Fishing is different than farming. Fishermen ply the seas and interact with the fish only once, when they capture it. Fish farmers, by contrast, tend their crop, generally from egg to juvenile fish to harvest as adults. Fishing is thus analogous to hunting, while aquaculture is more akin to farming. Fishermen also tend to think of themselves as fundamentally different from fish farmers and there can be animosity among the two groups because their products compete in the marketplace. But deep down, most seafood experts have long known that this simple distinction isn’t really based on reality.
Now a new science paper from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis published in the journal Marine Policy maps out a suite of species that are not clearly either wild or farmed – they are a hybrid of both. Hybrids are wild fisheries that use aquaculture techniques or farmed fish that use certain fisheries techniques. For example, the iconic wild salmon from Alaska actually relies heavily on hatcheries (a form of aquaculture) to increase the wild fish’ natural reproduction. The Gulf of Maine has essentially become a large lobster farm, where baited traps feed juvenile lobster until they are large enough to be caught by lobstermen. Bluefin tuna, a species in precipitous decline in the wild, is now “ranched” in the Mediterranean by stocking aquaculture cages with juvenile fish and fattening them until they are ready for market. Likewise, eel (the popular unagi at your local sushi restaurant) is produced from a hybrid system, capturing juveniles from the wild and then farming them to the perfect size for sushi rolls.
While this distinction may seem academic, it makes a difference. If we are to better manage fishing and farming and develop policies to promote ways to reduce environmental impacts, we need a more accurate way of tracking and categorizing seafood. Those forms of aquaculture that rely on wild fish for feed inputs or wild juveniles to stock the farm, actually put additional pressure on the ocean. If large quantities of bait are used in wild fisheries or ecosystems are altered by fishing activities, we may overestimate how many fish the oceans can actually produce.
Rethinking how we categorize seafood would help scientists, fishery managers and seafood businesses better understand the impacts of seafood production. Doing could also be an important part of ensuring fish for the future.