As a dedicated (my wife would say “fanatic”) flyfisherman, I love to fish and I also enjoy eating fish. To me there is nothing better than fresh or saltwater fish poached, pan-fried, or even “sashimi style” (a taste acquired many years ago living on the Pacific Coast of California). And fish is definitely on the top of the list for healthy foods, high in essential oils (omega-3 as an example), low in saturated fat, high in protein and low in calories – the perfect healthy diet food. And it tastes great.
And my favourite fish is salmon. I have caught hundreds of wild salmon in my life and not enjoy respect and admire them for their migration abilities and perseverance during spawning season, but also for their fighting ability when caught on a flyrod. And fresh salmon tastes great.
I must mention here that I practice “catch and release” fishing as a sport, not for food, and so most of my fish is purchased from the supermarket or the farmers’ markets in our area. When I lived closer to the ocean we would go down to the wharf and by fresh fish and other seafood straight off the fishing boats.
But most days my fish comes from the supermarket. And herein lies my problem!
The majority of salmon sold in supermarkets, and shipped around the world frozen or in smoked form, comes from salmon farms in the estuaries and bays of cold water places like Scotland, Norway, Chile, Canada and the US coast. Today, salmon consumption worldwide is around 2 million tonnes, and less than 10% of consumed salmon are wild, the other 90% farmed):
Here’s the “logic” that started the explosion of salmon farming.
If more people eat farmed salmon, the reasoning went, then that would help protect wild salmon populations.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t exactly panned out. Let me share with you what most people don’t know (I think you will look at salmon in the supermarket very differently after this insight).
First some facts (real facts are hard to find since the salmon farming lobby is so well-funded by the big corporations that most of the articles on the internet are highly skewed towards the positive attributes and not the collateral damages).
- The growth of salmon farms over the past 30 years has been explosive. Nearly 2 million tons of salmon are consumed globally, approx. 90% of which are now farm raised. Demand for fish is expected to double by 2040.
- It takes 2.5 to 4 pounds of fish (usually ground up sardines, anchovies, mackerel or herring) made into pellets to produce one pound of salmon. This means, environmentalists argue, that salmon farming contributes to rather than helps the overfishing problem. People in the salmon industry counter it takes less feed to produce a pound of salmon than a pound of pork, beef or chicken.
- Fish farm pellets are high in dioxins that sometimes enter the food chain. The pellets and fecal waste from salmon farms have been blamed for causing algae blooms which suck oxygen from the water, creating “dead zones” that harm local marine ecosystems and the shellfish industry. Chemicals used to battle the sea lice have killed other small creatures that wild fish rely on for food. Diseases are sometimes passed from farmed salmon to wild fish. Health issues for both people and marine ecosystems have been raised about the artificial dyes and pigments used to make the salmon meat pink.
- In addition to the toxic chemicals and food additives used by salmon farms, the food itself causes environmental pollution. In 1995, the world’s largest international poultry and fish feed manufacturer, Nutreco, reported a link between farmed salmon wastes, high in nitrogen and phosphorus because of their artificial nature, and the loss of oxygen in adjacent waters (eutrophication). Other studies have found that chemicals and pollutants inherent in salmon feed contaminate both the salmon themselves and the ocean floor beneath their pens.
- The costs of fishmeal and fish oil, together with mounting environmental problems, are leading some industrial salmon farms to use less wild caught fish for food and seek more plentiful, cheaper alternatives. Under study or in current use are various types of vegetable proteins and animal byproducts, including chicken feathers and slaughter waste. Norwegian scientists are even experimenting with genetically modified (GM) soy products for salmon feed, and experts say it is only a matter of time before GM soy and GM-corn are part of a farmed salmon’s diet.
- Salmon farms foul the sea around the pens and spread disease and lice to wild salmon. The lice thrive among the tightly packed fish in the pens. Wild salmon pick up the lice when they pass by the pens or come into contact with escaped farm salmon. The lice can kill by feeding on the salmon’s flesh. In places where fish farming is done, the number of wild salmon have declined at alarming rates and may of those that survive are covered by lice.
- Stock salmon that escape from fish pens are threatening wild salmon by taking over the rivers where they spawn and interbreeding with wild stocks, producing offspring less equipped for survival in the open oceans. On average between 200,000 and 650,000 farmed salmon escape every year from Norwegian farms. The figure is around 300,000 from Scottish farms. A storm in Norway in 1990 released about 4 million fish.
- Ten to 35 percent of the salmon in Norwegian spawning grounds are farmed salmon. In some rivers the stock salmon outnumber wild salmon four to one. In Chile and Canada, escaped salmon are outcompeting local Pacific salmon and other wild fish for food and spreading diseases and lice to wild fish, them, causing declines in their numbers. In Alaska, salmon farming is banned to protect local wild populations of Pacific salmon.
- Environmentalists would like to see farmed salmon raised in walled tanks so the don’t escape, or better yet, in land tanks.
- Legal and regulatory efforts to improve fish farming practices in the United States has lead producers to go elsewhere where the industry is not regulated (what a great solution !!).
- Some companies are experimenting with genetically-engineered salmon with a modified gene that allows them to grow at a faster pace, up to 30 times greater than non-genetically-engineered salmon. They have added genes from eels and other animals to create this modified species. Scientists are not sure what would happen if genetically-engineered salmon escaped into the wild. And no one knows about the long-term health aspects to human consumption. (Here comes “frankenfish!”)
- What is also not known is that most of the salmon farms are not local business, but owned and controlled by five or six mega-global corporations with more of a focus on short-term profit than sustainability or environmental issues.
I love salmon, but unless these unsustainable practices are shifted to a process that balances profit with concern for the environment, I predict that farmed salmon will flood the waters, wild salmon populations will decline, and the whole unsustainable mess will collapse. In Chile in the mid-2000’s, a viral infection and parasite infection almost decimated the Chilean salmon farming industry, which at that time was number two in world production. The future can be seen in the past.
So, I am giving up on eating farmed salmon, partly in protest, and partly for health reasons. You might want to think long and hard about the food we find in our markets. I am also hoping that this blog, and others like it, will reach enough people to cause an even larger movement to improve the industry so we can all enjoy fresh fish, both for dinner and for sport. If we can’t alter the growing demand for salmon, then we can at least build a better business model that works for everyone.
Tight Lines . . .
(ps: I am certain I have left out some facts about salmon farming, so I would like to hear from others on this topic)
John R Childress