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Wild Caught Vs Farmed Salmon: What’s The Difference?

What are the benefits of wild caught salmon over farmed salmon? And how do you know what you’re getting is actually wild salmon? Here, I explain the key differences so you can be a savvy salmon shopper and reap the nutritional rewards.

Girl holding sockeye salmon filet in a kitchen.

When you’re at the grocery store or fishmonger looking to pick up a nice salmon filet, you’ve probably seen both wild-caught and farm-raised options. And sometimes the only noticeable visual difference is the price tag—with wild-caught salmon varieties almost always clocking in higher.

That alone might be enough to sway your decision, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Farm-raised salmon is a totally different beast than wild-caught. And if you’re looking for health benefits and flavor, wild-caught is the way to go.

Wild-Caught Salmon

I typically purchase wild-caught Sockeye, Coho or King salmon. Wild-caught salmon simply refers to any salmon caught in their natural environment. This can include oceans, lakes, and rivers, depending on the particular salmon species. Not only does this type of salmon generally have a more vibrant red-orange color and distinctive savory/complex flavor, but it’s far healthier.

One of the reasons wild-caught salmon is preferable to farmed salmon is because it has a higher (and thus healthier) ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acidsWhile both of these fatty acids are essential for optimal health, humans tend to ingest far too many Omega-6 fats. Mainly due to processed foods. And unfortunately, most folks aren’t getting enough Omega-3s.

The higher amount of Omega-6 fats found in farmed salmon means it doesn’t pack quite the anti-inflammatory nutritional punch of wild-caught.

The healthier fatty acid profile of wild-caught salmon is directly related to their diet. Wild-caught salmon are able to feed off of organisms found in their environment such as insects, invertebrates, plankton, other fish, and shrimp, while farmed salmon are often fed pellet feed containing a blend of grains, plants and fish meal.

Due to a surge in salmon popularity over the past 10 years, there have been some concerns over the sustainability of wild-caught salmon. As you might be aware, overfishing can be a very real problem. The good news: Sockeye, Coho, and King salmon from Alaska are all certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Farm-Raised Salmon

While some farmed salmon is of an acceptable quality, the fish farming industry on a whole is riddled with problems. That means it’s really hard to know what you’re getting because there aren’t rigorous standards regulating salmon farms—so I always avoid it.

The problem with farmed salmon is two-fold: It’s generally not so great for you or the environment.

Most farmed salmon has been raised in high-density aquaculture tanks and fed the unnatural feed diet mentioned above. This leads to a variety of problems, in addition to the inferior fatty acid profile mentioned above.

Because these fish are in such close proximity to one another, there’s a greater risk of disease and infection, so they’re often dosed with antibiotics and pesticides. Unfortunately, this can then get passed on to you. In fact, research shows that farmed salmon contains higher levels of PCBs and dioxins (types of industrial pollutants) and chlorinated pesticides. Plus, farmed salmon is often farmed in areas of the world where salmon are not native, and when they escape (which happens), that can lead to the development of invasive populations that threaten other fish.

As far as taste goes, farmed salmon is generally mild in flavor and has a pink-orange hue; unlike wild-caught salmon, which tends to be more vibrant and flavorful.

Girl in kitchen holding sockeye salmon and king salmon on a platter.

4 Tips to Easily Find Wild-Caught Salmon Every Time

So, how do you know if salmon is wild-caught or farm-raised? It’s a pretty safe bet that if salmon is wild caught, your grocery store, fishmonger or the brand will prominently call that out. If it’s hard for you to tell, then it’s most likely farm-raised—and this goes for all fish and shellfish.

A couple other tricks to help you better determine if that salmon filet is farmed or wild:

  • Pretty much all Atlantic Salmon is farmed; so if you’re looking for wild-caught salmon, always avoid Atlantic Salmon.  
  • Fish farming is banned in Alaska, so all appropriately labeled Alaskan Salmon (including Sockeye, Coho, and King) is wild-caught salmon.
  • Sockeye Salmon, one of my favorite salmon species, is always wild-caught. This species has a unique diet and lifestyle that isn’t easily replicated by humans, so attempts at farming them have been unsuccessful.
  • Coho Salmon and King Salmon, two of my other favorites, can either be farm-raised or wild-caught. So when buying these, be sure to look for a wild-caught or Alaskan label.

What should you make with your beautiful filet of wild salmon? Just choose one of my many healthy salmon recipes and get cooking. They’re all delicious!