Blog Number 12, October 2022
Well, it has happened.
In early September (2022)
an Atlantic salmon
appeared here at Rocky Brook.
While it is possible that an Atlantic salmon might one day escape from a fish-farm pen, swim up the Dosewallips and try to spawn in Rocky Brook, it is quite unlikely.
Still, to my surprise, one did make it up here. Here’s how.
Atlantic salmon have been on my radar. I have been reading “Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish” by Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins (2022) which has opened my eyes to the realities of salmon farming, both near me and globally. It got me thinking about that “other salmon” that lives on the opposite side of the continent.
Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon are completely different species (Atlantic salmon are a single species, Salmon salar while all Pacific salmon are Onchoryhchus species). They both share the same fishy ancestor some 20 million years ago, when things were warmer and the two oceans were one. Cooling resulted in the freezing of waters to the north, creating the Arctic Ocean, as well as the Atlantic and Pacific. Salmon isolated on one side became the single species of Atlantic salmon, Salmon salar. Those on the western side evolved into the five (if you add steelhead, six) species found today, all Onchorhynchus sp..
Living on the Pacific side of North America, one can bask in the good fortune of enjoying our wild salmon abundance relative to those living on the Atlantic side. If you live in Alaska you can feel exceptionally blessed with all that wild salmon still in numbers which mimic times past and with a State fisheries management system which puts wild Pacific salmon first (no fish farms in Alaska).
Here are my nine “take aways” about Atlantic and Pacific salmon from this book which I think are worth knowing. Those interested in a fairly up-to-date and comprehensive understanding of the salmon farming industry are encouraged to read the book (quite likely available at your public library … that’s where I got my copy).
- Atlantic Salmon are far more endangered than their Pacific counterparts … while at the same time their farmed version is taking over the world.
Wild populations of Atlantic salmon in eastern North American rivers generally number in the tens and maybe hundreds. Wild Pacific salmon stocks, while endangered in some rivers, still have considerable healthy populations in both North American and Asia, counted in the thousands and even millions.
On the other hand, Atlantic salmon grown on “ fish farms” represent more than 75% (and growing) of salmon consumed in the world today.
A typical fish farm currently consists of 10 to 12 floating (but anchored to the seafloor) net pens or cages, each with 100,000 fish. Fish are raised in hatcheries first, then transported to the farm pens where they take 2 years to grow to market size.
2. Not all farmed Salmon is necessarily bad for for the environment or for your health.
While the book documents pervasive questionable practices within the salmon farming industry, one dominated by a few powerful individuals with profit at all costs as their primary modus operandi, it does also document instances where a few individuals are trying to change the industry in ways which make it more sustainable and healthful.
Still, the vast majority of the farmed salmon you encounter in the marketplace is raised in heavily polluting nearshore netpens where fish need antibiotics and heavy chemical treatments to survive, and dyes to be marketable.
3. Salmon farming has a huge impact on traditional fishermen in tropical countries.
This was an eye-opener for me. Unlike the other farmed meats we consume in great quantities (beef, pork, chicken) where they can be fed plant materials, salmon on carnivores requiring a diet rich in protein. To feed them, vast numbers of small fish are industrially harvested, mostly from tropical waters where traditional subsistence fisheries operate, especially off the coast of West Africa. Salmon farms are yet another example of how the rich “developed” countries continue to steal from and overpower those poorer ones with little regard for the impacts they are having on the local humans and environments.
There is considerable effort being made to develop alternative feeds (insect larvae and plant materials) but to date, fish farms depend on the protein rich small fishes which live in tropical and sub-tropical waters.
4. The salmon farming world is controlled by just a few huge corporations.
The Norwegians developed and perfected the net-pen techniques for raising Atlantic salmon. Today, most fish encountered in supermarkets comes from just five producers. And, the industry continues to become smaller as these large companies buy out smaller ones in their relentless effort to increase profits and market share.
Of the twenty largest producers, 11 have their home offices in Norway, 6 in Chile, and one each in Canada, the Faroe Islands and United Kingdom.
5. Only two places have banned open net pen salmon farming.
In August of 2017, one of Cooke Aquaculture’s net pens in Secret Harbor on Cypress Island (Skagit County) collapsed, releasing thousands of Atlantic salmon into the waters of Puget Sound and beginning a process of investigations and political discussions which resulted in Governor Jay Inslee signing a bill phasing out Atlantic salmon farms in the state, with a complete ban taking effect in 2025.
In July of 2021, Argentina became the first country to declare an outright ban on fish farms in its waters.
6. Farmed Atlantic salmon cannot interbreed with wild Pacific salmon.
Since they are in a different genus (with different gene make-up), Atlantic salmon escaping from net pens will not result in an Atlantic-Pacific hybrid emerging. However, escapees can and do have an adverse impact on wild fish, including exposure to disease and competition for food.
Escaped farmed Atlantic salmon can interbreed with their wild Atlantic brothers and create hybrids which may adversely impact these small, struggling wild populations though.
7. Salmon farming is moving (slowly) onto the land.
The huge negative environmental impacts of the existing floating net pens associated with salmon farms has resulted in considerable research and experimentation towards moving the whole process onto the land. The big corporations are not leading this effort; it is too profitable to avoid the real costs of raising fish by siting pens in marine waters where there is little monitoring or oversight.
The book outlines the considerable challenges to raising salmon on land, but seems to think that it is inevitable; humans will figure out how to solve and scale up these processes and techniques. Will it be fast enough? And, what will the inevitable adverse impacts on the land be?
8. GMO Atlantic salmon may be in a supermarket (or restaurant) near you.
In 2015 the FDA approved the marketing of a genetically modified salmon to US consumers. It is an Atlantic salmon with added Chinook and ocean pout genes, resulting in growth rates twice that of the non-GMO fish. It is currently marketed under the name “AquaAdvantage”, produced by Aqua Bounty Technologies. Technically it needs to be labeled as GMO here in the United States, however, when sold in restaurants and cafeterias or other food service venues, the labeling most likely will not appear.
Recently, Norwegian researchers used CRISPR (gene splicing) methods to develop a sterile Atlantic salmon which appears as no different from the non-sterile variety (in terms of growth rates, omega 3 content, etc.) but which cannot interbreed with its wild Atlantic neighbors. This was done to reduce the negative impacts of escaped fish on wild populations.
Playing around with salmon genes seems to be inevitable, with impacts yet to be seen or understood.
9. There is a seafood rating system which consumers can refer to.
The nonprofit Monterrey Bay Aquarium has developed its Seafood Watch system (seafoodwatch.org) for rating the safety and environmental impacts of the foods we eat which come from the ocean. It uses a simple color code; Green meaning “Best Choice” yellow is “Good Alternative”, and red means “Avoid”.
I recently referred to this guide regarding farmed Atlantic salmon. Their rating system allows users to be somewhat specific in their searches. For example:
Species (I chose Atlantic salmon)
Harvest Method (I chose net-pen)
Country or Region (I chose Canada)
Body of Water (I chose eastern Pacific)
They recommended that such fish be avoided. The one farmed Atlantic salmon they do recommend was “Best Choice” brand from New Zealand (though they said that only a small amount makes it to US markets).
While this system has been criticized (mostly by the seafood industry) as being “simplistic”, it is helpful and gets one thinking about the environmental impacts and safety of what we consume.
You might try it regarding other seafood products you commonly consume, such as tuna, shrimp and scallops.
Now, after all that, back to that Atlantic salmon encountered in Rocky Brook.
It was not actually found in the creek, rather in the cooler of some visiting friends.They wanted to contribute lox to our morning New York style bagels (which I had made). They picked up two packages at the store, and like most of us in a hurry, did not give much thought to reading the labels.
I, however, do pay attention to salmon product labeling. One was wild Alaska sockeye, but the other was farmed Atlantic salmon from Newfoundland.
We only opened the wild package. The other one returned home with my guests.
There is a popular bumper sticker in Alaska (where there are lots of fishermen and fisherwomen who depend on wild salmon for their livelihoods).
Seems like good advice to me.
Dennis Lloyd Kuklok