American Aquaculture’s Image Makeover is Good for Growth

In the USA the public perception of aquaculture has suffered from an image problem over the years. While the industry has taken huge steps to address this, consumers’ understanding the provenance of farmed fish is still lagging behind, says Aaron Orlowski, writing for The Fish Site.

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When large-scale commercial aquaculture started expanding in the United States several decades ago, it had problems. Overcrowded fish enclosures. Large amounts of excrement fouling waters. Excessive use of antibiotics.

Those environmentally harmful practices resulted in fish farmers suffering from an image problem. And even though practices have improved dramatically since then, the negative perception lingers.

“In the early days, a lot of mistakes were made,” says Dr Michael Rubino, the director of the Office of Aquaculture at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service. But even as practices have changed, “the public hasn’t caught up with the 20 years of learning that has gone on in aquaculture. We have a lot of experience of what to do and what not to do.”

These days, for instance, fish have more room to swim. Many fish farmers fallow the seafloor between crops of fish, allowing it to recover. And vaccines allow fish farmers to greatly reduce antibiotic use and, in some cases, eliminate it entirely.

Those changes are causing Americans’ image of aquaculture to improve. “I think public perception about aquaculture is changing, and quite rapidly,” Rubino says.

On the East Coast, demand for oysters is surging and fish farmers from Maine to the Carolinas are launching oyster farms. At grocery stores, Rubino said, farmed fish is flying off the shelves and farm-raised salmon is largely responsible for increases in per-capita fish consumption.

But the aquaculture industry still has a long way to go in improving its image, according to Ryan Bigelow, the Seafood Watch programme engagement manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“People prefer American-caught wild seafood. That’s the gold standard. And there’s a price premium,” Bigelow says.

In reality, that preference doesn’t match what Americans eat: the US imports 90 percent of its seafood, and more than half of seafood consumed is farm-raised. 

Farmed fish are “a significant part of our diet already,” Bigelow says. “So while there’s an image problem, it’s not impacting the bottom line.”

“We’re eating it. We think we’d prefer something else, but we continue to buy it,” he adds.

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