Sunday, September 30, 2018

Salmon Farm Force Power Flight Jacket


Don’t overthink the title of this post. I had to get your attention. I’m sure nobody would read another word past the title “Salmon Farming – Pros and Cons.” But stop, don’t leave! I promise this will be interesting. Maximum strike open flight force! Stay with me! I’ll even include some gratuitous eye candy along the way. You’ll be glad you read this, trust me. I’m going to entertain you, improve your life, and empower you. Join me on my journey from aquaculture skeptic to true believer. Hyper strike epic!


During a recent trip to Norway, my family was lured to the Havforsknings Instituttet. We thought this place would be devoted to the study of people who have foreskins, but it turns out to be a marine research center and aquarium. It was a great place, but despite all the cool otters, penguins, and exotic fish there, eventually we all got museum knees and had to sit down. So we headed over to the auditorium for a show about orcas, looking forward to some violent footage of their eating habits. At least, that’s what we thought was on the docket.

What we actually got was this long documentary about aquaculture—specifically, salmon farming. It could have been pretty interesting except it was pitched at the grade-school level. The best part was when an interviewer cornered an aquaculture scientist and asked, “Yes or no: is farmed salmon safe?” The scientist replied, “As far as we can tell, yes.” So tepid! So honest! In America the response would have been, “You bet your ass it is. There isn’t a safer food on the planet. Mega jacket open flash strike!”

I’d already been vaguely aware that Norwegian salmon was farmed. To be honest, this bothered me a bit every time we enjoyed it at a restaurant. When my wife declared that some salmon she ate in Oslo was the best she’d ever had, I had this cognitive dissonance—like, could it really be that the best salmon isn’t even wild? I decided her salmon was very good, but not as good as the local salmon I’d had in Scotland. This upheld my sense of myself as a sophisticated foodie until I considered that the Scottish salmon was possibly also farmed. After our trip, when I wrote my Food of Norway post, I tried to chase this Scottish thing down. But the more I looked into it, the more it looked as though I was in fact an uncultured rube, incapable of separating “real” food from rubbish.

Instinctive aversion

Upon reflection, I have to concede that my historical preference for wild salmon has been largely a knee-jerk thing. I recall Anthony Bourdain saying that, as a chef, he loved farmed salmon because it was relatively cheap, yet he could charge as much for it as for a nice lamb chop. (I’ve tried to find this quote, but Googling “Anthony Bourdain” is lately too depressing.) Meanwhile, I read years ago in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma that farmed salmon isn’t necessarily healthier than grass-fed beef. I’ve come to realize that at some point I unconsciously lumped farmed salmon into the broad category of “food that has been tampered with,” which I instinctively avoid (except that I don’t, not really, but let’s not think about that right now).

Above all, I must confess I have enjoyed being the kind of gainfully employed person who can afford the good, wild stuff. Maybe my kids don’t get to wipe their butts with raw silk, but damn it, they get top grade wild Sockeye salmon!

Visiting Norway had me challenging all of this. Boring though it may have been, that museum documentary did showcase an industry that is clearly careful and responsible. Can you imagine a zoo in Kansas showing a documentary about feedlots? Hell no—they wouldn’t dare. Nobody would want to watch it, and moreover, the beef industry would crucify everyone involved.

A brief pause for eye candy

Okay, I did promise some eye candy. Here you go.

What’s really wrong with farmed salmon?

Virtually all of the salmon from Norway—over a million metric tons a year, worth $8 billion, according to the New York Timesis farmed. Granted, Norway seems to do a nice job with it, locating the farms in the fjords; they’re just netted-off areas of ocean where fish are generously fed. Not so different from a cruise ship, really.

Still, some environmental advocates strongly deride farmed salmon, even the Norwegian stuff. Kurt Oddekalv, leader of the Green Warriors of Norway, described farmed salmon to the Times as “the most toxic food in the world.” And I read in the Guardian how Don Staniford, of the Global Alliance Against Industrial Aquaculture, “a Liverpudlian who has lived in Scotland for many years, argued that cramming carnivorous, migratory fish into crowded tanks and releasing toxins, diseases and parasites into the surrounding waters was inherently unsustainable.” I took this with a grain of salt, noting how the word “tank” was used to describe a facility contiguous with open ocean. (This guy kind of puts the “pud” back in “Liverpudlian.”)

I’ll admit that it has always creeped me out a bit that farmed salmon wouldn’t be pink without a little help. According to the website, “The pink color of Norwegian Salmon comes from a natural oxycarotenoid called astaxanthin. In nature, salmon receive astaxanthin by eating crustaceans. Norwegian Salmon receive these same beneficial nutrients as supplements in their feed.” It must be said that salmon farmers don’t use very much. As Time magazine reports, “The pigmenting compound doesn’t come cheap. It is the most expensive element of salmon feed, according to a 2011 study, taking up nearly 20% of total fish feed costs. Controlling and optimizing the concentration of astaxanthin in fish food is time and labor intensive.” Reading this is, psychologically speaking, a mixed bag. It’s like, “Don’t worry, it’s all very precise—a tightly-run factory!”

But then, so is the production of just about everything we eat, honestly. I don’t kid myself:  the practice of agriculture is closer to a factory than to a farm. It’s easy to be skeptical about farmed salmon when we peek behind the curtain, but we ignore other industries that hide behind a fence or a wall.

I watched some candid Internet footage of salmon being fed. Their feed consists of little dusty brown balls, like dog food, which is kind of depressing—but then, I feed my beloved cat cat food, which is also little brown balls. I should just get over it.

The problem is, just when I’ve figured out a way to discard another misgiving about farmed salmon (I am a cheap bastard, after all), another issue pops up, like ideological Whack-a-Mole. Wikipedia questions the sustainability of aquaculture: “Salmon require large nutritional intakes of protein, and farmed salmon consume more fish than they generate as a final product. On a dry weight basis, 2–4 kg of wild-caught fish are needed to produce one kg of salmon.”

Should we trust Wikipedia? Maybe not, but NPR essentially agrees: “It takes about three pounds of feeder fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon … but feeding more salmon depletes the ocean’s smaller fish.”

There are other issues. When farmed salmon escape their enclosure, they can breed with wild fish and create nonviable offspring. There’s also an issue around the spread of sea lice to the wild population. According to the Times, these parasites “feast on the mucus and skin of the fish before moving on to the muscle and fat, making the fish vulnerable to infections and sometimes killing them.” Yuck! Makes me want to opt for the burger—unless I allow myself to remember the poor overweight cows standing around in their own waste in tiny pens, jacked up on antibiotics because their blood pH has been screwed up by a diet of corn that they didn’t evolve to eat.

Of course, eating only wild salmon isn’t an obviously practical solution. The Times reports that the wild salmon population in Norway has fallen by more than half since the 1980s. There just isn’t enough wild salmon there to produce the 14 million meals of Norwegian salmon that says are consumed every day worldwide.

Meanwhile, even if you insist on wild, you’re probably being duped at least some of the time. According to this article in Time, researchers conducting DNA testing found that about a third of salmon they tested that was touted as wild was actually farmed, and “you’re three times more likely to get duped at a restaurant, where 67% of the salmon were mislabeled, than a grocery store.”

Here’s an interesting product: wild keta salmon from a company called Pacific Seafood.

So what is keta salmon? According to Wikipedia it’s a type of Pacific salmon. Hence “Pacific Seafood,” I guess. But look at the label closely: this fish is a “wild product of China.” I’m not a geographer, but I just checked and China is well beyond the range of wild Pacific salmon:

So I’m getting a little confused here. I also note that this product has FD&C Yellow #6 and Red #40. Why?! “(Color enhancer.)” Yeah, but—why? Isn’t this Chinese Pacific salmon naturally pink? After all, it’s wild!

So what is to be done? As is so often the case, there seemed to be no simple answer. I was on the verge of shrugging my shoulders, reconciling myself to a future of very expensive wild Alaskan salmon when I’m feeling flush, and otherwise settling for canned salmon—which is always wild, but not all that tasty, particularly because it’s got all these sections of softened vertebrae in it, which are probably really good for you but are kind of chalky and aren’t so pleasant to crunch. But then, when I mentioned to my wife I was planning a blog post on farmed salmon, she said, “Instead of doing a trifling amount of research, throwing in a largely ignorant dose of pure opinion larded with stupid gags, and releasing another half-baked, largely useless essay on the world, why not interview a real expert for once?”

No, of course she didn’t really say that. What she actually said was, “You could interview my friend R—, who really knows this stuff.” So I did. Her friend, who has a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Aquatic and Fishery Science and works for a scientific research agency, happily obliged. (She asked to be quoted anonymously, though, as she doesn’t need “any more hate mail.” Whether her name even starts with “R,” I refuse to divulge.)

Another brief pause

Still there? Good job! Here’s some more eye candy.

The real skinny on salmon farming

I had a fascinating 45-minute discussion with R— about aquaculture. To begin with, she corrected some of the misconceptions I’d come across. For one thing, regarding efficiency of production, the feed conversion rate is now closer to 1-to-1 (the 3-to-1 statistic being really outdated).  Theoretically, she said, the conversion rate could be 0-to-1 as alternative feeds are developed. She forwarded me a couple of very thorough articles on the subject. Without getting into too much detail, here’s an interesting statistic: as explained here, one study found that for a given amount of feed, farmed salmon produces over three times as much edible product as poultry, and five times as much as pork.

Regarding interbreeding between farmed and wild salmon, R— pointed out that this isn’t a big problem on the west coast of the U.S., because we’re mainly farming Atlantic salmon here, which cannot breed with wild Pacific salmon. She concedes that “there are risks of farmed Atlantic salmon interbreeding with wild Atlantic salmon when they are farmed in areas where Atlantic salmon are native (i.e., the east coast and Europe).”

On the subject of alternative (non-fish-based) feeds, R— explained that this is being pursued very carefully: “There are definitely studies around how you maintain health with fish using alternative feeds; for example, they know that taurine, an amino acid, is essential to a fish’s diet.” I find this a pleasant contrast to the beef industry, which is notorious for using antibiotics to make animals gain weight faster, and the poultry industry, which grows its chicken “so fast that they have trouble walking because their legs won’t support the weight, in addition to other related health problems” (according to the Chicago Tribune here).

R— confirmed that antibiotics are not widely used with aquaculture, and asserted that farmed salmon is very safe and sustainable if it comes from Norway, British Columbia, Scotland or the US. In this country, there are nationwide regulatory standards for aquaculture to make sure its practices are safe. As for Pollan’s suggestion that farmed salmon may have fewer Omega-3s than grass-fed beef, R— clarified that currently, given the fish-based diet farmed salmon eat, wild caught doesn’t have more Omega-3s than farmed. This could change, if the aquaculture industry formulates feed from other sources, but they’re “experimenting with using fish processing waste, marine algae, even kinds of yeasts to feed to fish so they’ll still have lots of Omega-3s.”

(By the way, you know that bit about astaxanthin being added to the feed to produce the pink color? Well, far from the dye that Pacific Seafood adds to their “wild” salmon, astaxanthin is also sold to humans as a health food supplement. Dr. Andrew Weil, whom I consider a pretty staid, reliable source, touts its health benefits here.)

R— had a lot to say about the issue of scale, and the impossibility of meeting an increasing demand for seafood with a declining supply of wild fish. “Every other food we eat is [mainly] farmed except for fish,” she pointed out. “Why should fish be the one holdout? What other endangered or declining species are we running out to eat?”

Aquaculture, she explained, is scalable because there’s so much ocean that we’re not using: “One team calculated that we could replace the entire global wild captured fisheries with aquaculture and use less than 0.01% of the ocean’s surface. It’s totally doable; the question is what scale people will accept.” She’s frustrated because so many people reject aquaculture due to outdated information. “It’s so engrained in people that farmed fish is bad. When it first got going in the ‘70s all these NGOs cried foul because there was no oversight; now, these same NGOs are admitting that globally, [aquaculture] is what we need to do, but we’ve got these entrenched ideas in place that are hard to overturn.”

Hunger games

Having enough money to demand wild salmon is a convenient dodge, for a wealthy subset of the population, but it doesn’t address the wider problem. “What it comes down to,” R— pointed out, “is there are too many people [on the planet], but nobody wants to have that conversation. Everything has its impact. We can have this high-and-mighty attitude [about insisting on wild-caught] but everything we eat, everything we wear has an impact on the environment. I heard a lecture once where the guy said, ‘If everybody became vegan, we’d have to cut down every tree on the planet to bring enough land under agriculture to feed everybody.’ I’m not sure if that’s exactly true, but it’s interesting to ponder.” 

I’ve long felt that vegans, while admirably innocent of the many crimes committed in the name of animal husbandry, aren’t necessarily helping to solve anything. It’s not like they’re inspiring any significant number of people to follow their lead. At least if I insist on grass-fed beef I’m helping to create the market for it, which can help reduce the proportion of cows incarcerated in feedlots. For years I felt like holding out for wild salmon was similarly reasonable, but in fact there just won’t ever be enough wild salmon for everybody, so my position was unrealistic—it carried a strong whiff of “let them eat cake.” I like to think of myself as a responsible and fair person, not some unapologetically snobby epicure, but as the playwright Wallace Shawn has observed, “Sympathy for the poor does not change the life of the poor.”

During our conversation R—pointed out, “Eating seafood shouldn’t be a rich-person privilege. Omega-3 fatty acids have huge health benefits; why shouldn’t everybody get this food?” I totally agree: but without economies of scale, how can farmed salmon compete, price-wise, with a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets and all the other cheap crap so many Americans are lured into eating, at the expense of their own health and that of our environment? Given that aquaculture is one of the most efficient forms of protein production, don’t we ultimately have a responsibility to promote it?

Here’s where choosing farmed salmon gives us a rare opportunity to eat like a king but also save money, while contributing to the growth of a responsible, sustainable industry. For bonus points, put your money toward local, or at least domestic, farmed salmon. Here are a final couple of tidbits R— sent me: the US imports 90% of the seafood we eat, creating a $15 billion seafood trade deficit. Meanwhile, over half the seafood we import is farmed anyway—so why not farm it here, where we do it safely and sustainably, and benefit our own economy?

Let’s return to my question about whether the best-tasting salmon could actually be farmed. Well, why not? Think of the most expensive Wagyu beef: is it hundreds of dollars a pound because it’s from wild-caught cows? No. It’s from cows raised meticulously by humans in a very controlled environment. So what’s wrong with raising our own salmon, too?

Now, if I sound like a scold, just remember this: open fighter force power launch! Maximum strike zone flight scatter! Go! Go!

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