Most fish on our plates are of two types: salmon and tuna. While they are certainly tasty, and very popular with consumers, they are far from perfect in a world that needs more sustainable food.
How many pounds of fish go into making a pound of salmon?
Salmon: The Fish Cannibals
Let's first take a moment to see the world's most widely produced and consumed fish, salmon. Whether it's smoked, baked, in cream cheese or fried, salmon is a delicious fish that contains many valuable nutrients. They used to be widespread across the Americas, in many colorful and interesting varieties, but the blockage of the rivers that are their paths to mating grounds has limited them mostly to lesser settled areas in the North, and of course, fish farms.
So just how much fish was put into that fish that you just put into your mouth?
The answer may surprise you. The ratio of pounds of feed pellets to the pounds of farmed fish, for salmon, is technically 2:1. But, this statistic is largely inaccurate, because fish pellets are made up of fish, chicken and pork meal. What makes this even more complex is that many of the chickens and pigs ground up into pellets ate the same small fry put into the pellets as well. This makes it possible that a chicken ate a fish, and was then fed to another fish, what a food chain, am I right?
By taking values of the percentage of small fish that goes into each pellet and that is fed to each chicken or pig, I deduced that the fish per pound of salmon is somewhere between 5 and 10, making the Salmon the King of All Cannibals. All jokes aside, the nutritional value lost and the sheer amount of resources put into farm-raised salmon is nothing to scoff at.
Tuna: Wild, Free and Slowly Going Extinct
So here we have a tuna, a beast of a fish, wild caught, free to swim in all the waters of the ocean, and not to mention all natural, no cannibalism here. It's really too bad the human race is hunting them to extinction.
The next-most-consumed fish, after salmon, in the United States, the tuna has international appeal for its high-quality meat and delicious fatty flesh. The tuna shares the same sort of fatty fish template as the salmon, with protein, fatty acids and many vitamins to boot. In fact, in an average can of tuna, you are likely to get about 7-28 milligrams of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and 140-850 milligrams of DHA, great nutrients to help regulate inflammation and help prevent heart disease.
So it's no wonder why, whether it's at a sushi bar in Kyoto, Tokyo or San Francisco, in a tuna salad sandwich you get at your local Subway, or in a can at your local grocer, there is no denying tuna's widespread appeal and transcendence of culture. Being such a global fish, it also makes our globally inherent inability to control the population of fish used as our food.
For forty years, since the introduction of newer, more efficient technologies like seine nets made to catch big fish, the tuna population of the world has declined. In fact, the whole bluefin group of true tunas has become near or currently endangered. And unfortunately, like many other animals in the world, the wild population of bluefins is the only population we'll ever have.
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In stark contrast to the now largely farm-raised salmon, tuna are possibly the worst fish, bar sharks, to raise on farms. They are able to swim at speeds of 40 miles an hour, are warm blooded and extremely energetic, making them far from the "growable protein" of the salmon and other farm fish.
Tuna has even come under fire for having excess amounts of mercury, due to them eating so many other fish, which can lead to birth defects and acute diseases in your body. Which is not to say that other fish don't have mercury either; in fact sharks and halibut have just as much if not more mercury in their bodies.
Tilapia: Riding the Wave of the Future
Having examined the faults of the salmon and tuna, hopefully I've shown that there is a need for a new source of fish protein. And well there is, and there has been for around 30 years: that fish is tilapia.
With the world's income disparity so large, with so many people lacking a reliable source of good nutrients, the cheap, efficient and nutritious tilapia is the way to go. In a sense, tilapia is like the poor man's salmon.
Unlike salmon or tuna, tilapia is a docile, smaller fish with a diet consisting primarily of plants and other vegetation, which is good, since it reduces the animal and financial cost of raising these fish. With these advantages, the tilapia instantly overcomes two challenges faced by the salmon and tuna.
Tilapia has just as much protein per gram as tuna, and much more than salmon, yet can be raised safely, efficiently and cost-effectively in farms. That Tilapia are vegetarian means that they are cost-effective and very efficient in terms of fish-to-dish; that they only eat algae and plants means that the mercury content of tilapia is also very low. The tilapia is also a smaller fish that only takes about 9 months to reach maturity, compared to 2 and 4 years for salmon and tuna respectively.
The tilapia is so cost-effective, that it has the same protein and many of the same nutrients as the bigger fish for 2% of the price per pound. In 3rd world countries in regions such as Africa, Asia and South America, that kind of value in nutrition and price is vital for many families.
And although many earlier methods of farming tilapia resulted in them having little or no omega 3 or 6 fatty acids, with new farm raising techniques involving adding flaxseed oil to the water, the Omega-3 production of a tilapia is just as good as any other.
All of the benefits, none of the drawbacks; tilapia is the wave of the future.
Hopefully I have convinced you to consider tilapia next time you think about seafood for dinner. I'm not asking you to drop tuna, salmon, or any other fish—just to keep in mind the possibilities for a sustainable, bright, and fishy future.
If you live in the U.S, you can learn more about sustainable seafood choices by visiting Seafood Watch. Their website allows you to select your state to learn which fish are the best choices, which are good alternatives, and which you should avoid.