There’s no such thing as organic fish –- yet

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November 18, 2008

Up until now, no seafood has been considered organic on the theory that although fish are wild and free, there's also no way to know what they're eating or how clean the water they're swimming in is -- both things that are important when deciding if something's organic.

It's pretty clear that fresh water pen-raised fish, such as tilapia and catfish, are easiest to make organic because they're raised in closed tanks on land and they're vegetarians, so it's easy to feed them organic grain-based feed.

The big questions are ocean-grown species such as the farmed salmon that has become so cheap and popular in recent years.

A host of consumer and environmental groups are lining up against the idea because they say that while the fish might be "organic" there's no way that pen-raised salmon are environmentally sustainable, which they say makes them de-facto non organic.

That's because of the threat pen-raised salmon can pose to wild salmon...

Farmed salmon are grown in big ocean pens in bays and inlets, often in areas through which wild salmon migrate on their way to home streams to spawn. To make salmon farming profitable, those pens have to be pretty full. Having that many salmon together in a small space means diseases and a nasty little marine parasite called the sea louse can flourish. Growers use drugs and chemicals to protect the penned salmon, but there's been research showing that salmon nearby can also be infected, further harming already fragile populations of wild salmon.

Lower stocking densities and some new techniques could go a long way to dealing with this problem, so it's on the "potentially fixable" list.

Another problem is that salmon are carnivores: They like to eat other little fishies. It takes between two to 10 pounds of wild-caught fish to turn into feed to make one pound of farmed salmon. But the board wants to allow up to one pound of wild-caught fish to be fed to farmed salmon for each pound of salmon harvested.

And the board would only allow fish food made from scraps of sustainably harvested fish to be fed to farmed fish. But activists say that the food wouldn't be organic. Up until now any animal labeled as organic has to be fed 100% organic feed. Opponents say these wild fish can't be organic because they have the potential to carry mercury and PCBs, both of which are routinely found in some fish species.

Photo by Rogelio V. Solis, APFarm-raised catfish gasp for air as they're harvested in Moorhead, Miss.

--By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

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