Wild Over Salmon
Farmed fish stir worry.
Thursday, May 20, 2004
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when American kids were admonished to finish their pork chops because Chinese kids were starving, agriculture went through what was dubbed the Green Revolution. High-yield seeds, irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers were spread across the globe in a campaign to end hunger and poverty. So great was the notion that its inventor, an American scientist named Norman Borlaug, born on an Iowa farm, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, the same year Alexander Solzhenitsyn won for literature.
Today, a so-called Blue Revolution is underway, one in which fish farming (or aquaculture) is seen as a way to protect fisheries made fragile by industrial sea harvesting, as well as ensure that a salmon fillet is as readily available at the supermarket as a piece of chicken.
Of course, it’s not a simple solution.
Some fish farming—of oysters and tilapia, for instance—is lauded for providing low-impact harvests. But much of the industry, such as salmon farming, has come under severe criticism from commercial fishermen, scientists and environmentalists.
Zeke Grader represents regional commercial fishing interests as the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. He concedes that cultivation of such species as catfish seems to work. When it comes to corralling and growing salmon, Grader swings hard.
“Everybody talks about the Blue Revolution and how we’re going to feed the world with it, but it’s pure unmitigated crap,” he says.
Clearly, Grader has a problem with farmed fish because it sits in the grocery store fish rack next to product caught by his fishermen. Farmed salmon is probably a bit cheaper, too.
It’s also generally well known by now that buying and eating certain fish, like swordfish, is a no-no, because they’re in danger of extinction from over-fishing. So a fish from a farm, where it’s treated as a sustainable crop, might even seem like the correct choice.
“It [farmed salmon] looked like a good idea at first,” Grader says, “to take the pressure off the Atlantic salmon and even the Pacific salmon, which had seen a lot of its habitat degraded. But the problems became apparent immediately.”
Those problems are the same reasons farmed salmon made it onto the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list as a meal to “avoid,” along with such troubled fish as orange roughy, king crab, Atlantic cod, sturgeon and shark.
Robert Mazurek, a fisheries researcher for the Monterey Bay Aquarium who works on the Seafood Watch, says there are several reasons that farmed salmon has been on the list since it was first released four years ago.
For one, salmon farms consist of massive floating pens containing tens of thousands of fish each. The waste from captive salmon can become concentrated where the pen is located, potentially causing toxic “red tides,” Mazurek says. (Salmon farms are not allowed in California or Oregon.)
Another problem results from the fact that unlike catfish, salmon are carnivorous. Wild species eat anchovies, sardines, and juvenile fish. Farm-raised salmon are raised on fish feed.
“As a conservation principle it doesn’t seem like a good use of energy to spend a lot of time catching fish to grind into fish meal,” Mazurek says.
The third concern stems from escaped farmed fish mixing with wild salmon, leaving scientists to worry about human-bred fish procreating with wild stocks and causing a harmful mixing of genes.
“There’s not a ton of science behind that, but we do know farm salmon do not do well in the wild,” he says.
As it is now, Seafood Watch does not have criteria for the healthfulness of consuming certain fish over others. However, a scientific report released in January and published in the journalSciencefound that farmed salmon contain concentrations of harmful toxins such as PCBs and dioxin higher than those found in wild salmon.
According to Mazurek, Seafood Watch may start including such health facts, too.
“It’s been obvious to us that people want the information,” he says.
There’s another human-inflicted issue with salmon that’s political in nature. In 2002, Bush administration official Gale Norton, the Secretary of the Interior, approved opening the head gates on Oregon’s Klamath River to provide water for irrigators. The decision resulted in massive fish kills that year, and Grader says it may mean that the 2005 and 2006 salmon fishing season are put on hold. If that happens, farmed salmon are sure to fill the void for the high-demand dish.
“Overall, I think it’s much cheaper to produce wild salmon. The problem is we’ve destroyed a lot of salmon habitat in our zeal to produce cheap water, timber and cotton,” Grader says. “If we do a good job of protecting wild salmon you really don’t need farm fish.”
The salmon farming industry rebuts all criticism but concedes there are issues. Alex Trent, executive director of Salmon of the Americas, says his group, which represents fish-farm companies, has been in talks with environmental groups and Seafood Watch.
“Are there concerns? Absolutely,” Trent says. “Are the problems causing irreversible harm to the environment? No.”
Looming large is the sustainability of using other fish to feed farm salmon, which Trent says is being addressed with feed mixes of vegetable and fish oils. As for the dangers from PCBs and dioxin, he says, “There’s no reason people should be worried about eating farm salmon.”
Info about farmed fish will be available at a Sustainable Seafood Information Fair during the Cooking for Solutions Fest on Saturday, May 22. Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey. For admission call 644-7561.