Darned delicious or just a dangerous disaster? – The skinny on farm-raised Atlantic Salmon

I would be willing to bet that every time you visit a seafood case at your local grocery or fish market, the first thing your eyes are drawn to is the thick, marbled, fleshy bright orange fish fillet that is at the center of every seafood display in this country. This is aqua-farmed Atlantic Salmon. Annually, more than four billion pounds are produced, over three times the harvest of wild salmon and that volume is growing exponentially. And there are several reasons for this.

First of all, it is so darn tasty!  Atlantic salmon has 15% body fat as opposed to Pacific wild salmon that possesses only around 6%. Thus the fat marbling you will be sure to notice at first glance. This fat content is not due to the farming process but exists naturally within the species because of its evolutional adaption over its 50 million years of swimming the cold ocean waters and rivers of our earth. 


All salmon are anadramous which means that they hatch in fresh water, mature and then head down the river to the salt water ocean where they spend most of their adult lives. Then, when it is time to reproduce, they return and head back up the freshwater river to spawn where they originated. For reasons still unknown, salmon do not eat while returning and spawning. Pacific wild salmon die after this spawning process, depleted and frankly just plum worn out (parenting is hard!) but Atlantic salmon do not die and continue this reproductive cycle several more times during their lives. Much stored body energy is necessary for this cyclical journey, thus this phylogenetic advantage of high body fat which allow Atlantic salmon to successfully return again and again to the ocean. Atlantic salmon have also existed in much colder waters and would never have survived as a species unless they had adapted this physical advantage to withstand the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.


But here’s the almost unbelievable irony. Atlantic salmon basically no longer exist in the wild. Except for some restricted areas in Maine protected by the Endangered Species Act and a small area in the North Atlantic, Atlantic salmon are naturally… extinct. That shows ya just where the evolutional advantage of high body fat will get ya! 


And I’ll bet you can guess just how this extinction happened.


Yup. Enter the humans. 


As Paul Greenberg (fish historian/salmon guru and the author of “Four Fish”) puts its, the death knell for wild Atlantic Salmon probably reached its watershed extinction moment in 1798, at Turner Falls, Massachusetts which is located at the half-way point up the Connecticut River, a 400-mile waterway once remarkable for its abundant, burgeoning salmon population. It is estimated that in the mid-18th century, Atlantic Salmon returned to East Coast rivers to spawn and probably as many as 100 million salmon eggs hatched in those waters. 

Turner Falls Dam, Turner Falls, MA. Photo from CardCow vintage postcards


But what makes Turner Falls notable is that since 1798, the eponymous falls no longer exist. Thus the salmon are gone too. Pre-colonial settlers and American colonists had long before started constructing grain mills and dams across the rivers throughout New England and Atlantic Canada to seize and control the power generated by those waters for profit and human consumption. But once these dams were put in place, the Atlantic Salmon could no longer return upriver to their freshwater spawning locations to reproduce. This is exactly what happened when Turner Falls constructed its dam across the Connecticut River in 1798, dispensing of its falls and consequently, its most delicious and awe-inspiring natural resource. We basically traded fish for bread at the very beginning of our country’s inception


However, in the early 1970s, as the last treasure trove of wild Atlantic salmon was being fished to total extinction off the coasts of Greenland, two brothers in Norway, Ove and Sivert Grøntved, put 20,000 salmon smolts into what is considered to be the first salmon farm in the world. They saw the profitable potential of keeping this species alive.


This was the very beginning of aqua-farmed Atlantic Salmon.


And why was Atlantic Salmon so easily adapted to the farming process? Because this species had big, oily, nutrient-rich eggs. Most fish larvae are microscopic and cannot be collected by humans to control the reproductive process. (Stay tuned for my Branzini post for more on this!)  Atlantic Salmon eggs can be easily gathered, transported and incubated for maximum survival of the young. 

Atlantic Salmon eggs and hatchlings
Atlantic Salmon eggs and hatchling. Photo from krisweb.com


But there were many problems with farmed salmon from the beginning and those problems, although many do not still exist at this time, have given farmed salmon a bad, bad name. I’ll lay these problems out for you one by one….


One: In the beginning of the farming process, it basically took six lbs. of feeder fish or “reduction fisheries” (such as Peruvian anchovetas) to create a single lb of salmon. This was an environmentally disastrous concept which made no sense in regards to the sustainability of our ocean life.


Two: The fish defecation in the small pens in which the salmon were initially kept, created algae blooms within the local ocean environments. This created ecological “dead zones” around the pens of the farmed salmon.


Three: Often, salmon farms were located near indigenous wild salmon populations. The farmed salmon would often escape, and mate with the indigenous populations. This created a genetic weakness for the wild populations and compromised their chance of biological success.


Four: Because farmed Salmon was being fed discarded remains (tails and heads) from wild harvested salmon, they contained more PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) known to be toxic to human beings (Monsanto knows about this!). Because farmed salmon were eating higher up on the food chain, they contained more of this as opposed to wild salmon that primarily ate on more microscopic crustaceans and krill. In 2002, a report from The Pew Charitable Trust documenting the PCBs in farmed Atlantic Salmon almost delivered a truly final death knell to the species once again.


Five: Because of the illness and disease that usually accompanies all “farmed” animals, antibiotics were often delivered to these fish to eradicate their compromised health conditions. 


Six: Fish “lice” were prevalent within farmed Atlantic Salmon populations and would often spread to the nearby wild populations.


But things have dramatically changed in almost 50 years. As I like to say, this ain’t your grand-daddy’s fish farm anymore! 

Blue Circle Farm, Norway
Blue Circle Farms, Norway. Photo by bluecirclefoods.com


In full transparency, in the following comments, I will mostly be referring to Blue Circle Farms which is a very creative and environmentally conscious Atlantic Salmon fish farm located in Norway and Iceland. This is also the farm from which Whole Foods Market obtains the Atlantic salmon we sell in our case. I did not choose to profile this farm because of my employment at WFM but because I believe it is the most efficient and environmentally sound farming process in the world. I have taken the time to study many farms and believe this one to be at the forefront of the proper aqua-farming methods that the industry in general is starting to replicate. Blue Circle has not only addressed the initial problems with fish farming but has greatly improved upon or even often, eradicated those problems.


At this point, the feed ratio has gone down from 6 lbs of feed to just 3 lbs. This has been done by developing efficiencies in the production of the salmon feed pellets to utilize and provide more protein including the ability to clean PCBs out of the food. And at this time, they are adding kelp and algae to the feed further reducing the dependency upon feeder fish and it is estimated that eventually the feed will be composed of only plant nutrients. Kelp and algae are a natural resource of Omega 3s and salmon could possibly gain all of their nutrients from this source in the very near future. This would reduce the environmental impact enormously. Especially when you consider that land-raised beef already has 6 times the carbon footprint of farmed fish. Even at the present levels, farmed fish consumption is much more environmentally sound than eating farmed meat. This disparity will only increase as progress continues. 


Blue Circle also farms their fish far away from indigenous wild salmon populations and the ability of farmed salmon to escape their pens has been greatly diminished. The density of the fish in these pens has also been greatly reduced thus their waste products are also cut down remarkably. And because of the strong water currents in the Norway and Iceland waters, the waste from fish defecation is carried away quickly and dispersed throughout the ocean. Blue Circle also daily tests the environment around the pens to make sure that the waste and bacteria are not threatening to the local environment and will not create algae blooms.


These farmed fish are never given antibiotics or any other chemicals. The cleaner, more healthy ocean atmosphere of these farms and reduced density of the pens renders the use by of antibiotics unnecessary. 


Now… here’s the best new advance!! Here is a short, 6-minute interview with the partner of Blue Circle Farms by Paul Greenberg from a PBS/Frontline special entitles, “The Fish On My Plate”. Ya gotta watch this because their innovative and natural approach to the removal of sea lice in salmon is genius… GENIUS… and downright adorable!! Take a look!!

Lumpsuckers! Who knew?! How darn cute.

Well, that is all for now. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed this blog episode and and that it helps you in considering whether or not to eat farmed salmon. I will return next week with my thoughts on the state of wild salmon and whether or not it is ethical to keep catching and consuming these wild fish. And I will post a couple of tasty recipes for farmed and wild! Please give me a shout if you have comments or questions or a great recipe. Ya know I love hearing from you!

5 thoughts on “Darned delicious or just a dangerous disaster? – The skinny on farm-raised Atlantic Salmon”

  1. Okay. great article. why am i screaming? All caps? anyway, my wife and daughter just got back from our old haunt Seattle where we used to love to get freshly caught pacific salmon. the price is very high so she didn’t, but went with the purpose of buying. when we lived there a hatchery on the island where we lived had a rupture in it’s container and the farm fish mixed with the local wild population. this was when i became a non-fan of farmed fish. your article puts me at ease. we love salmon. could never get it out of our system but have been afraid of what we are consuming. no whole foods here unfortunately. wegmans. and, now i know what people are referring to when they call me a lumpsucker.

    • Thanks so much, Winslow for your comment. You are exactly the type of reader I was hoping to reach… one who had a previous bad experience with the farm-raised or who had been convinced by the knowledge of past irresponsible farming methods to forego it. Stay tuned for my next blog about wild salmon. I will be looking forward to any comments you would like to provide… specially since you lived in Seattle. Thanks again!

  2. THANK YOU, LORI, FOR PROVIDING THIS INFORMATION. I CONFESS, I HAVE BEEN BUYING ONLY WILD SALMON – WORRIED ABOUT A LOT OF THOSE CONCERNS YOU LISTED. I FEEL CONFIDENT NOW THAT I CAN PURCHASE FARMED SALMON FROM COMPANIES SUCH AS BLUE CIRCLE FARMS.

  3. Hey Xenia… Thanks so much for reading and commenting! It makes me so happy that people find this info useful. Next blog post will be about the state of Pacific wild salmon… And I find the subject so very interesting… so stayed tuned!

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