On farmed salmon

Posted: Friday, April 15, 2011

In 1988, then-state-Senator Arliss Sturgulewski courageously suggested that Alaska ought to at least consider fish farming. Not surprisingly, commercial-fishing interests soon stifled that notion, and the Legislature never seriously considered fish mariculture.

At the time, I agreed with Sturgulewski, and said so in this column. After all, salmon were being farmed in other places, and the sky hadn't fallen. I figured farmed salmon might take some fishing pressure off Alaska's wild stocks. Given Alaska's 6,000-plus miles of coastline, surely there were places where salmon could be farmed without damaging either the environment or the environmentalists' sensibilities. Time has proven me wrong.

Demand for salmon, a food that not only tastes good, but is good for you, is high and continues to grow at about 10 percent yearly. Consumers like the relatively low price and year-round availability of farmed salmon. Restaurant chefs like the steady supply and uniform size. What's not to like?

Large corporations have become involved on an industrial scale. Ninety-two percent of the salmon farms in British Columbia are owned by two Norwegian companies.

But all is not well on the salmon-farm scene. The net pens of salmon farms, usually in protected, relatively shallow bays and inlets, resemble underwater chicken farms. Tens of thousands of fish mill around in each pen, each with about as much space as a bathtub. The crowding makes the fish susceptible to disease and parasites that can spread to wild salmon.

A large amount of what's fed to farmed salmon is fish oil and fish meal -- ground-up fish. The feed also includes vegetable protein, including soy. It takes about 3 pounds of feed to produce 1 pound of salmon. Much of the fish meal and fish oil is made from forage fish that wild fish need.

A farm containing 200,000 salmon produces as much daily sewage as a city of 65,000 people, and some farms are much larger. Feces and uneaten food fall to the bottom, where they cut off oxygen, smother bottom-dwelling organisms and produce blooms of algae.

Net pens damaged by storms and large predators allow farmed salmon to escape. In 1997, in a single incident at a farm in Puget Sound, 350,000 Atlantic salmon escaped. Salmon that escape can spread disease and parasites among wild salmon.

In January 2010, Target announced that farmed salmon had been removed from its stores nationwide. According to Target, concerns for the environment and sustainability prompted the change.

Yet, the industry claims that salmon farming is just what the world needs. Arne Hjeltnes, spokesman for the largest fish-farming company in the world, Oslo, Norway-based Marine Harvest, told the "National Geographic News" (Oct. 28, 2010): "We believe that the farming of salmon is an environmentally friendly answer to the increasing need for seafood in the world."

I'm skeptical of this industry that pollutes the ocean for profit. I don't think salmon farms can harmlessly operate in the open sea. There may be a future for inland salmon farming in tanks. "Closed system" farms eliminate some of the problems inherent in ocean farming by recirculating the water. In the "Seafood Watch" guide published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, salmon raised in closed systems are the only farmed salmon listed as "Best Choice."

As for salmon not raised in pens, "Alaska wild" are the only ones that "Seafood Watch" lists as a "Best Choice." Let's keep it that way.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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