Swai fish, also known as Pangasius fish, Panga, Vietnamese Catfish, Basa Fish or Iridescent Shark, is a very popular freshwater fish. Regardless of its name, there are some very good reasons to avoid this exotic species. Not least among them: Swai is often heavily contaminated with toxins.
Swai fish fillets have become standard fare in many restaurants and supermarkets. But what exactly is swai fish? And why should it be avoided?
What is Swai Fish?
Swai (or pangasius) is a white-fleshed fish with a mild taste and flaky texture. It has a low-fat content and is often sold at a comparatively low price – which makes it very popular in the US.
The freshwater fish is raised almost exclusively in large factory fish farms in its native habitat of southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Frozen or chilled, it ends up on fish counters around the world in enormous quantities.
Despite the ongoing controversy, the total export of so-called catfish from Vietnam reached 518 million USD in 2018. Exploding demand and extremely low prices have also led to cases of seafood mislabelling – that is, intentional fish fraud. Vietnamese catfish has been known to suddenly appear as pricey wild-caught fish such as red snapper, grouper, or cod on local menus around the United States. If that’s not reason enough, here are five more reasons to not eat swai fish (pangasius).
Reason #1: Pangasius can Contain Toxins from Factory Farming
Swai fish are raised in huge basins in large factory fish farms along the Mekong Delta. These sites of cultivation are often overcrowded and dirty; conditions under which pathogens spread with relative ease. According to this study, there’s evidence of high chemical use, which includes the use of antibiotics. Some of these substances, which are harmful to humans, can accumulate in the bodies of the fish. They can travel up the food chain and into our bodies.
Additionally, pangasius fillets are often treated with citric acid and phosphates during processing, allowing them to absorb more water before being frozen. This increases the fish’s weight by up to 20 percent and means more money for the manufacturer (and higher prices for the consumer).
When the water seeps away after you thaw the fish, the phosphates remain. While phosphates are an essential part of healthy nutrition, overconsumption of phosphates may increase your risk of heart disease.
Reason #2: There Are Healthier Alternatives to Swai Fish
USDA dietary guidelines recommend eating two servings of fish per week. Fish is an important source of protein, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids. Swai fish, however, does not contain much of these. According to the USDA, one 4-ounce fillet of swai fish provides roughly:
- Energy: 70 kcal
- Protein: 15 g
- Fat: 2 g
- Fatty acids (saturated): 1 g
- Sodium: 290 mg (may vary)
- Cholesterol: 45 mg
The figures may vary, depending on how you prepare the fish. Fattier cold-water fish, such as salmon and mackerel, tend to be much better sources of omega-3s than the low-fat pangasius, which live in tropical waters.
But you don’t need to eat fish at all to get a healthy amount of omega 3: nuts, flaxseed, and many cooking oils are also excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids — and they’re all vegan.
Reason #3: Swai Fish Farms are Harmful to Humans and Animals
In the Mekong Delta, factory fish farms are often established with little or no oversight. Untreated wastewater from the fish ponds flows directly into the river. The medicine, chemicals, feces, and other pathogens it contains harm the river’s natural ecosystem, affecting the wildlife in the river. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been found in some parts of the Mekong Delta as a result of the release of pond sludge into local waterways.
For many people in South Vietnam, the heavily-polluted Mekong is also the main source of drinking water. The tainted water can cause lasting damage to people and their environment. During floods, the fields of the Mekong Delta have also become contaminated with the pollutants carried in the river.
Some supermarkets have now reacted to the criticism: French supermarket chain Carrefour discontinued selling swai fish in January 2017. More retailers are following suit while all previous attempts to establish a certified, controlled swai supply chain have failed and the effects of swai-farming on the environment is not effectively controlled.
Reason #4: Overfishing and Ocean Pollution
Today, about half of the fish we eat come from fish farms, which you might think protect the world’s oceans and the fish within. However, fish in the farms must be fed fishmeal. Fishmeal is made from — fish. To produce this fishmeal, countless tons of fish are caught in the open sea every year. Factories then process these fish into fishmeal through a very energy-intensive process.
Even protected species often wind up as fishmeal because there is no easy way to release them once they are caught in the nets among thousands of other fish.
When it comes to swai fish, aquaculture — or fish farming — has become common practice for this species. In many regions, catching fish is outlawed. Still, the practice is often continued illegally in order to supply local fish farms with large amounts of fry, because it is believed that wild-caught fry are of better quality than those raised in aquaculture. Illegally caught fish are often sold as imports. According to a study published in the journal Marine Policy, one in three wild-caught fish imported into the US may be caught illegally.
Reason #5: Swai Fish Suffer a Cruel Death
Because of the antibiotics, commercially-raised swai fish are mature for harvest after about half a year, almost twice as fast as fish in natural conditions. Pangasius fish can also withstand a greater stocking density than other types of fish — that is, up to 70 fish per square meter. Considering the farmers operate on thin margins due to the low price of the fish, the fish must be killed as cheaply as possible. In some farms, the fish are shoveled into baskets and then taken alive to be sold.
Is there Better Fish I Can Buy?
Product eco-labels and seals help you identify which fish are farmed under sustainable conditions. Two common independent watchdog groups are the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).
MSC seeks to
“contribute to the health of the world’s oceans by recognizing and rewarding sustainable fishing practices, influencing the choices people make when buying seafood and working with our partners to transform the seafood market to a sustainable basis.”
ASC was founded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and focuses specifically on aquaculture. In addition to ecological standards, the seal also monitors social standards based on the work regulations of the International Labour Organization (ILO).
Nevertheless, both seals have faced some severe criticism for, among other things, certifying fish from heavily overfished stocks.
Unfortunately, if you want to be 100 percent certain you’re not eating fish from environmentally destructive fish farms or from overfished stocks, you’ll not only have to avoid swai fish, but cut fish out of your diet altogether.
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