Found in clear and cold streams further north than any other fish in the world, the slender and beautiful arctic char is becoming a favorite alternative to farmed salmon and is providing a model for successful aquaculture. With brilliant scales that closely resemble those of its cousins, the salmon and trout, arctic char meat is milder and slightly sweeter, but still rich with omega-3s, vitamins, and minerals. This healthy and delicious fish is being recognized for its ability to thrive in clean, environmentally-friendly fish farms, and there is no question that the future of sustainable aquaculture will take important lessons from its success.
Aquaculture: a perfect idea with a flawed reality
With the world’s population surpassing 7 billion people, the availability of food to meet the global demand is an increasing concern. Billions of people rely on seafood as their primary source of protein, putting a tremendous pressure on the last wild animals caught commercially. Aquaculture is the perfect solution to releasing this pressure from wild stocks, but has met many challenges on the road to producing sustainable and healthy seafood. When we have a species that does succeed in the aquaculture industry without harming the environment, there is much cause to champion it.
Most of the major concerns surround farmed finfish are the following:
- Destruction of natural habitat to make room for sea ranches or farms
- Discharge of waste into the surrounding environment, smothering wild fish and shellfish
- A high density of fish in a relatively small area creates the ideal environment for viruses, prompting fish farm operators to use antibiotics and other chemicals
- Farmed fish can escape from tanks, potentially becoming invasive or breeding with wild fish; some farmed fish are genetically modified and there is concern that they can alter the gene stock of wild populations
- Transfer of disease and parasites (such as lice) from farmed fish to wild populations
- Larger farmed fish tend to consume a relatively high proportion of protein – in the form of fishmeal or fish oil – that is usually sourced from wild populations of foraged fish
- Complex life cycles are not conducive to being raised in confined tanks
Arctic char: the (almost) faultless farmed fish
Numerous countries have experimented with arctic char aquaculture for over 30 years. Canada, Iceland and Norway recognized that this fish grew quickly and could handle overcrowding better than other species. They are raised in pools or tanks that are separated from natural water sources. These tanks are self-contained with recirculating water systems that treat wastewater. This system creates minimal impact to the surrounding environment – no wastewater or pollution is discharged where it can harm the environment and there is a very small chance that the fish can escape to the wild. Arctic char are much more amenable to living in crowded conditions than salmon or trout; in the wild, they are known to huddle together in lakes and streams.
The challenge with farming salmon is that they are anadromous. They lay their eggs in freshwater and spend their juvenile lives in streams, rivers and estuaries. The adult life stage is spent in the ocean, then they return to their home streams to spawn. Their complex life cycle and diet make them a difficult species to farm and there have been many concerns concerning overcrowding, pollution, and escaped fish from salmon farms. Farmed salmon do not often have the same texture and full flavor of the wild caught varieties.
With fewer fears about pollution, contamination, escapees, and added antibiotics, the arctic char is becoming a favorite alternative to farmed salmon. Some subspecies of arctic char are also anadromous, but others live landlocked in streams, rivers, and lakes for the duration of their lives. They are healthy for the body and there is little if any difference in taste between farmed and wild caught fish. They were recently added to Seafood Watch as a “Best Choice” and were named as a pregnancy-safe fish with low levels of mercury.
No industry is actually perfect of course; arctic char need to consume almost as much protein as farmed salmon in the form of fishmeal. Fishmeal is made from wild forage fish such as anchovies and sardines. Arctic char consume 1.8 pounds of fishmeal for every pound of farmed fish produced. Much like salmon and tuna farming, this puts pressure on wild populations of forage fish. However, efforts are being made to develop more efficient char diets that combine fishmeal with grain.
Meeting the global demand
If we are to feed the growing world population, better solutions will be needed so that we do not deplete our ocean resources. Aquaculture has the potential to provide a rich protein source for much of the global demand, but we need to learn from examples such as the arctic char. Businesses and consumers have the power to to turn the tide towards conserving our ocean’s bounty. By choosing distributors such as Pucci Foods, you are supporting environmentally friendly farming and fishing practices.