ArtiFISHal: Five Reasons Why We Steer Clear of Farmed Fish

In Alaska there is a well-known saying, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Farmed Fish”. This is more than a clever marketing phrase cooked up in support of Alaska’s wild fisheries, although it serves that purpose as well. The simple fact is, wild-caught salmon is superior to farm-raised salmon in just about every conceivable way. It’s also a lot more expensive. Here are a few of the reasons, in no particular order, why we choose to pay a premium for wild salmon rather than settle for the farmed substitute.

Fisherman Laughs With Troll Caught Salmon: Photo Courtesy of Alaska Seafood

Fisherman Laughs With Troll Caught Salmon: Photo Courtesy of Alaska Seafood

  1. We Prefer Real Over ArtiFISHal: Salmon aren’t meant to be farmed. Their natural life cycle begins in rivers and streams and takes them on an ocean journey for several years (depending on the species) and ends with a return to the stream of their birth to spawn and then die. In the course of their life cycle, salmon feed on other fish, small crabs, shrimp, krill, squid, octopus, and other natural prey that grow adult salmon into nutrient dense specimens high in Omega-3 fatty acids and ranging in color from pink to deep red. These iconic hallmarks of wild salmon can not be naturally reproduced in the farm environment.

    In order to successfully farm salmon into something that approximately resembles the real thing, you have to do a lot of unnatural things to them. Farmed fish live in dense populations which create a breeding ground for disease. To combat this, most farm-raised fish are pumped up with antibiotics. This begins the process of degrading the nutritional value of the fish.

    Farm-raised salmon are also fed slop that their wild cousins don’t eat in their natural habitat. This changes their body chemistry and leaves them with a grey-colored flesh that no one would recognize as salmon flesh and which wouldn’t look appealing sitting in the fish case at the grocery store. To solve this problem, salmon farmers have to artificially ad color to the fish’s flesh by adding dyes to the fish feed. This serves to further dilute the value and quality of the fish.

    Finally, farm-raised Atlantic salmon don’t grow fast enough or large enough to suite the needs of the fish farming industry. As a result, industrious fish farmers are now beginning to genetically modify their Atlantic Salmon by splicing in genes from Pacific King Salmon and Ocean Pout (not a salmon) to make them grow larger and faster. At this point, it is legitimate to inquire whether the end product is still really a salmon at all. What ever it is, it is more artiFISHal than real and that alone seems a good enough reason to keep it off our menu.

  2. Wild Salmon Are More Nutritious: As a natural product, wild salmon are inherently more nutritious than their farmed counterparts. Wild salmon are not pumped up with antibiotics causing potential problems with an increase in antibiotic resistance in human consumers. Wild salmon also have a more appropriate balance between Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats, are more loaded with healthy minerals, and lack the contaminants such as PCBs found in farm-raised salmon. While some have raised concerns about mercury levels in wild salmon, those concerns have been credibly debunked and will be the subject of a future post here on the Savory Alaska blog. In a head-to-head comparison, it is clear that the nutritional benefits tip heavily in the direction of wild salmon.

  3. Fish Farms Have Massive Ecological & Environmental Problems: This is a big and complex issue which we will only scratch the surface of here as we discuss three of the main ecological problems with salmon farming.

    Disease: Open-ocean net pens are a large and growing method of farming Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters. The net pens are in areas that are also populated by wild salmon which are susceptible to catching diseases in passing as they swim near the pens. This degrades the population of wild species, harms conservation efforts aimed at helping rebuild wild populations in threatened areas, and diminishes the sustainability of wild fisheries.

    Invasive Species: Atlantic Salmon are a unique species quite different from any of the five Pacific Salmon species that inhabit North American coastal waters from California to the far reaches of Western Alaska. When Atlantic Salmon escape from their enclosures, as they most certainly do, they become free-ranging non-native invasive species which place pressure on native species and may deplete the gene pool of Pacific species of salmon through interbreeding.

    Environmental Degradation: A byproduct of having many thousands of salmon confined to net pens in the ocean is that their waste, rather than being spread out throughout the ocean is concentrated in a small area. Waste settles on the ocean floor beneath the pens and creates the negative unintended consequence of disrupting the natural ecological balance of the area in the vicinity of the net pens.

  4. The Seafood Industry Is Rife With Fraud: Wild-caught salmon are highly prized, only available seasonally unless flash frozen at the source, and generally more expensive than farm-raised salmon. There is substantial evidence many retailers mislabel farm-raised salmon and fraudulently market it as wild-caught, enabling them to command a higher price while swindling their unknowing customers into paying up for an inferior product. This is why we make a point of using nautical charts to show our customers where our fish come from and, whenever we can, include on the label the name of the boat that harvested the fish.

  5. We Prefer To Support Independent Small Businesses: Most wild salmon is harvested by independent fishermen operating small businesses. Often these are family businesses operated by husband and wife teams and passed down through the generations. Competition from inferior but more affordable farm-raised salmon makes it difficult for people to maintain these traditional ways of life and many of them exit the industry to the benefit of the large, multinational fish farming corporations.

    To be clear, we are not making a moral judgment here about unwanted competition from large corporations. We believe in free markets and we understand that industries evolve and economies change. It is tough for any traditional small business to keep up with a rapidly changing global economy. It’s up to those businesses to do their best to adapt to the changing economic environment rather than to seek government intervention to shut down unwanted competition. (Although, to the extent that fish farming may cause environmental and ecological damage, there is a valid argument for appropriate government regulation of that industry.)

    We are, however, making a value judgement about sustainably harvested wild salmon which we consider superior in quality and better for the environment. We prefer to spend our dollars on natural products harvested by small, independent, traditional businesses operated by hard-working people who happen to deliver the highest quality seafood available on the market anywhere in the world. To us, and to our customers, enjoying the luxury of world-class wild seafood that is sustainably harvested is well-worth the extra cost!

Wild Salmon Harvest In Action: Photo Courtesy Of Alaska Seafood

Wild Salmon Harvest In Action: Photo Courtesy Of Alaska Seafood

With that being said, we acknowledge that there is a legitimate place for farm-raised fish. The simple fact is, global demand for salmon and other fish species far outpaces what wild fisheries can sustainably provide. The total absence of farm-raised fish would either add pressure on wild fisheries to increase production beyond sustainable levels, or eliminate fish as a dietary option for millions of people who have become accustomed to eating it on a regular basis and for whom it has become a dietary staple.

But not all farm-raised fish is equal. Discerning consumers who choose to purchase farm-raised salmon for budgetary or other reasons should consider where and how the fish are raised, what they are fed, and whether they are genetically modified. If enough consumers reject raising Atlantic salmon in open-ocean pens in the Pacific, demand higher feed standards, and refuse to buy genetically modified “salmon”, perhaps the industry can be persuaded to change course and offer a higher quality, healthier, and more environmentally friendly product.

As for us - we choose to steer clear of farm-raised salmon entirely. We’d rather have the real thing or skip it altogether.

Nathanael Ferguson