Everywhere you look these days, you see another story about dwindling fish populations and destructive fishing techniques and ten more reasons why avoiding certain fish is the eco-politically correct thing to do. But what's the real story behind the fisheries that harvest salmon from the wild and the booming, worldwide salmon farming industry? You might be surprised to learn that it's more ecologically sound to eat certain stocks of wild salmon than it is to eat the ubiquitous farmed variety. Salmon farming is doing more to threaten our native salmon populations than well-regulated harvests from the wild.
Farming is Big Business
Salmon farming as practiced today usually involves thousands of fish crowded into net-sided pens positioned near shore in cold salt water. Just like cattle that are raised in stockyards, these fish are pumped with growth hormones, antibiotics, and medications to allow them to grow quickly in spite of the stressfully crowded conditions. Many of these salmon farms are situated right along the migratory paths of wild salmon, so the few young wild fish that make it safely to sea must run through a gauntlet of polluted waters loaded with salmon-specific diseases and parasites.
Farmed salmon regularly escape and mix with wild populations. In some cases, these are genetically altered fish that out-compete the native fish and reduce the natives' genetic diversity. This mixing of farm fish with native populations could have disastrous results in the long run, just as the introduction of sportfish into western lakes and streams wiped out so many local fish populations in years past.
A host of other problems has also beset the salmon farming industry, but the industry's focus has always been on the bottom line. No matter what the consequences, the mandate is to increase production and maximize profit. When environmental restrictions threaten the bottom line, salmon farms routinely just move to a new place where regulations are lax.
The Wild Alternative
The alternative to farm-raised salmon is wild salmon harvested from a well-regulated fishery. The best choice today is wild Alaskan salmon. The state of Alaska took over management of its fishing industry after declining harvests signaled that commercial overfishing threatened to eliminate the salmon populations in certain rivers. Thanks to initiatives like monitoring the number of fish breeding successfully each year and limiting the commercial catch to a level that allows the wild population to sustain itself, wild Alaskan salmon populations are healthy.
The wild salmon industry, however, is struggling to compete with the fish farm agribusiness. Farmed salmon may be cheaper now, but the costs of supporting this industry may be monumental in the long run. If salmon farms continue to damage wild runs, we may face a future in which all of our salmon are a single genetically altered race; a single disease or other environmental change could wipe out the entire world population.
Be an Educated Consumer
As a consumer, you can make a difference by choosing the right product, but how can you tell the difference? With salmon, color is the key. Wild salmon flesh is a deep red color, while farmed fish flesh is orange. (Actually, farmed fish have gray flesh, but they are fed a product that adds color to their meat in the months just before they are harvested.) The other distinguishing characteristic is price. Fresh farmed Atlantic salmon can sell for as little as one-quarter the price for wild Alaskan salmon. In truth, you are getting more for your money with the more expensive product. Ounce for ounce, wild salmon has much more flavor than the farmed variety, which is raised on pelleted fish chow, and wild salmon is much higher in the types of fatty acids that make fish a healthy diet choice.
Should you eat wild salmon? You bet! Want to learn which other fish are "correct" to eat? See No Fish, Go Fish: A Guide to Responsible Eating.