Wild-Caught vs. Farm-Raised Tuna: Overview And Differences

By Matt Taylor  |  Species & Breeds

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Tuna is one of the most popular types of fish, both for human consumption and even in some pet foods. Its products come in cans, pouches, and several other forms. More importantly, the fish is sourced from the oceans that are wild-caught or raised in tuna farms. But does its source make a difference?

Wild-caught tuna is caught in the ocean, while farm-raised tuna is raised in captivity. As a result, a wild tuna fish spends its life swimming freely, consuming whatever prey is available in the area. Meanwhile, caged tuna's movements are restricted, and they only consume the feed they're given. These differences make wild tuna leaner, though it costs more than farmed tuna.

As you read this guide, you'll understand the difference between wild-caught and farmed tuna. Then, you'll discover the problems associated with farmed tuna and how to tell the difference between both types.

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What Does Wild-Caught Tuna Mean?

Firstly, let's start by understanding what wild-caught tuna is all about.

The term 'wild-caught' tells you most of what you need to know about these fishes: they consist of tuna fish that spend their lives swimming freely in the ocean.

At some point, those tuna fishes are caught and brought to land for people to consume. Then, you can buy them fresh at the local market or use them in other forms.

For example, food producers will take that wild-caught tuna and process them into canned, frozen, and other food products. Eventually, you can find tuna food products on supermarket shelves, restaurants, and elsewhere.

Is Farmed Tuna A Thing?

Yes, you read that right: farmed tuna is a thing. However, instead of catching tuna in the wild, some fish farmers choose to raise them in captivity instead. Depending on how it's done, the process is often known as tuna' ranching'.

The process of farming tuna is somewhat new, as most of the world's tuna is still caught in the wild. So, tuna farms aren't as common as people might assume.

Generally, there are two ways to farm tuna:

  • In a hatchery: This form of tuna farming is done by cultivating and hatching tuna eggs before raising them to the correct size.
  • Through Ranching: WIth this approach, small tuna is caught in the wild and transferred to tuna farms. The fish are then fed plenty to fatten them until they're large enough to be processed into food products.

4 Main Difference Between Farmed Tuna And Wild-Caught Tuna

There's a long list of differences between farmed and wild-caught tuna. However, the most notable ones you should know about are differences in their living conditions, feeding patterns, availability, and contamination.

Let's take a closer look at each of those differences:

1. Living Conditions

The first and most evident difference between farmed and wild-caught tuna is the living conditions

As a result, the movements of wild-caught tuna are unrestricted. They follow natural migration patterns and live freely until they are caught using nets.

On the other hand, farmed tuna live short lives in floating cages. Typically, they'll spend a year or less living in coastal waters where the tuna farms are located.

These fish don't live alongside other fish, and they can't swim beyond the limited space available in those cages.

2. Feeding Patterns

Another significant difference between farmed and wild-caught tuna is their feeding patterns. That is a crucial difference to understand because it affects the quality of the end product and its nutritional values.

Wild-caught tuna eat in an irregular pattern. They live out in the ocean and only eat when food is available. Besides that, they also consume whatever prey is available at their current location as they follow natural migration patterns.

However, tuna farmers will deliberately feed their fish for the sole purpose of fattening them up. They'll do so using both natural and enhanced feed to increase the weight of the caged tuna as much as possible.

3. Availability

Wild-caught tuna is available in oceans worldwide. However, farmed tuna only comes from a small number of locations. As a result, the world relies primarily on wild tuna, while tuna farming remains a relatively minor source of these fish.

Tuna farms are typically located in coastal areas of the Mediterranean sea (e.g., Spain and Malta), the South Western Pacific ocean (e.g., Japan), and the Central Eastern Pacific ocean (e.g., Mexico).

4. Contamination

There are no contamination concerns with wild-caught tuna. Fishing ships go out to sea to catch these fish before bringing them back to land for processing and consumption.

Unfortunately, that's not the case with farmed tuna fish.

Those on farms contaminate local waters quite a lot.

Firstly, remember that all those farmed fish live in cages placed in coastal areas. So, all of their natural waste concentrates in that area instead of dissolving in the open seas. Over an extended period, that concentrated waste will leach into local water sources, potentially causing health problems for the locals.

Besides that, tuna farms also rely on chemicals to prevent algae growth in their cages and prevent and treat diseases.

What Percentage Of Tuna Is Farmed?

Globally, farmed tuna represents only 1% of the tuna that people consume. Tuna farming remains a relatively small practice only done in certain parts of the world. 99% of the world's tuna is still wild-caught from the ocean.

What Is The Problem With Tuna Ranching?

Tuna ranching presents problems for the fish themselves and the farm's local waters. Farmed fish do not get to swim freely and enjoy natural movement like other ocean wildlife. Worse yet, keeping them in cages concentrates all their waste and chemicals in one area, leading to health and environmental issues.

How Long Does It Take To Farm Tuna?

Farmed tuna fish will typically spend a year or less in captivity. Once they reach maturity, they'll be fished and produced for consumers.

How Do I Know If My Tuna Is Farmed Or Wild?

As a consumer, you can tell your tuna is farmed by its taste, texture and color of meat. The farmed tuna is slightly lighter in color than wild tuna. Plus, farmed tuna has a higher fat and protein content, making it taste 'fishier' than wild tuna, that's much leaner.

Wild tuna costs at least two or more times what you'll pay for farmed tuna. 

Bottom Line: Which Is Better Farm-Raised Or Wild-Caught?

Overall, wild-caught tuna is better than farm-raised tuna. The fishes' unrestricted movement and varied diet make them more nutritionally balanced for you. Those traits also make them taste better when you eat meat.

Beyond that, spending your money on wild-caught tuna is also better for the environment. Tuna caught in the wild doesn't hurt the environment like a coastal tuna farm.

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