How Safe Is the Salmon on Your Plate?
In “Salmon Wars: The Dark Side of Our Favorite Fish,” you’ll examine Atlantic salmon farming and the risks associated with eating fish produced by the industry. The two of you have had different careers in journalism, government and private investigations. You now live in a small coastal town in Nova Scotia. what did you eat this noon?
Douglas Frantz, co-author, “Salmon Wars”: Fresh veggies, cheese and crackers from our garden, homemade kombucha and wild blueberries from our front yard. We also have access to fresh Atlantic salmon at land-based facilities in Nova Scotia, which we believe is the future of farmed Atlantic salmon: they are on land, chemical-free, and environmentally friendly.
AL: Why is this book published now?
Catherine Collins, co-author of Salmon Wars: We heard from a neighbor in Nova Scotia a few years ago that Cermaq, one of the world’s largest fish farming The province expands 20 fish farms. It sparked a series of public meetings called “Hello Nova Scotia” where they tried to get feedback from the community and support for investment in the province from the government.
DF: Those meetings turned out to be “Goodbye, Nova Scotia.” In the areas where they planned these farms, the public stood up almost unanimously because they were concerned about the impact on the environment, the lobster industry and tourism because the farms were kind of ugly and loud. Here comes a wave of public opposition. We use it as a tool to study larger global issues from open mesh salmon farms around the world.
AL: The development of the salmon industry is rapid. Can you describe that arc of growth?
DF: Demand for farmed salmon has tripled over the past decade. When commercial salmon farming began in Norway in the 1970s, a series of small farms grew at a reasonable rate. Small farms do not produce pathogens and parasites like large farms. But you know, over time, like many businesses, the industry has evolved. The seminal moment for salmon farming came in 2006, when Norway’s richest man, John Fredriksen, who became a billionaire by monopolizing Middle Eastern oil tankers, applied the idea to salmon farming and began acquiring small farms. Meanwhile, in eastern Canada, a New Brunswick agency called Cook Aquaculture is doing the same. There are now only 10 large salmon farmers in the world; the largest four are Norwegians and a few others are in Chile. It has become a $20 billion global industry.
Ninety percent of farmed Atlantic salmon eaten in the United States is imported. More than half of them are from Chile – where they use a lot of chemicals, a lot of pesticides and a lot of antibiotics because of the water conditions there.
AL: You cover many issues of salmon farming in this book: waste, fish escape, parasites, pathogens, chemical use, etc. Which of these do you care most about and why?
DF: First and foremost are the health risks of consuming farmed Atlantic salmon—especially for pregnant women, infants, children, and anyone with a family history of cancer due to the pathways of these toxins, especially PCBs (PCBs). ), remained in the salmon meat, and thus transferred to ours. This is our primary focus.
The second is the impact on the environment. This breaks down two aspects: first, the impact on the few remaining wild salmon. These farms are petri dishes for pathogens, viruses and parasites that inevitably spread through nets to wild salmon. Many of these farms are located on salmon migration routes. Salmon runs down freshwater rivers, and as they mature in the open ocean, they must pass through these open-enclosed salmon farms, which are bubbling up with pathogens and parasites. This is especially dangerous in the early stages of migration, when your young salmon are no more than four or five inches long. They are attacked by sea lice, which clamp their jaws on the fish and kill them.
CC: And the impact on marine life. We found a photo of a salmon farm on Nova Scotia’s south coast showing a ruler buried in the seabed, 32 inches deep of silt – silt from excess feed, manure, and on salmon All kinds of chemicals and stuff left behind. These are the ground used by other fish, lobsters, and many bottom-dwelling fish. This is not a good thing.
AL: You also show how the operations themselves create some kind of natural feedback loops that do affect the production of fisheries. Can you describe this phenomenon of naturally fighting back the industry?
CC: Globally, the mortality rate for farmed Atlantic salmon is 15 percent, maybe 20 percent. That’s a lot of fish. Compared with chicken and cattle, the annual loss is about 3-5%. But it doesn’t stop there. In Newfoundland, not far from here, a company lost 2.6 million salmon in a matter of weeks in the summer of 2019. Amazing amount of fish. Photos show salvage boats pulling the dead creatures out of these huge enclosures and shooting rotting salmon flesh out of huge pipes. It covers thousands of meters of coastline and the impact is terrifying. Newfoundland lost more fish than it harvested that year. In the years since then, it has lost 40-50% of its fish annually. This is the definition of an unsustainable business.
AL: So in addition to being bad for the environment, losing so much product is also a problem for the bottom line of the company. My understanding is that seafood giants such as Mowi have partnered with environmental groups to try to address some of these issues. Are you seeing any promising signs of change and progress in the industry?
DF: I think the changes in the industry are mostly verbal. For example, some companies have reduced the amount of forage fish in salmon feed. Forage fish are collected by large trawlers off the coast of West Africa. Local fisheries are collapsing due to demand for forage fish, which are then ground into fishmeal and fish oil for use in aquaculture feed and pet food. The salmon industry has reduced the amount of fishmeal in its feed, but not to protect the forage fish they call trash, but because demand drives up the price of those forage fish. So they are reacting to the economic situation and trying to put that gloss on it. They used words like “sustainable”, “naturally grown”, “organic” and applied them to a product that was by no means sustainable or grown naturally. It’s not natural for the iconic salmon to swim around in its own feces for more than two years.
AL: So when you see a seal of approval from a marine organization at Whole Foods stating that the fish you’re buying is sustainably farmed, is that a thing? Can we trust labels like “sustainably farmed salmon”?
DF: I don’t think you can. Our research shows that farmed salmon is inherently unsustainable because salmon are carnivores and you have to feed them other fish to get protein.
We were just at Costco yesterday. As we often do, we looked at the labels on their salmon and they said, “Fresh farmed Atlantic salmon.” Now, that’s more information than you usually get in the supermarket because you often just go in and look “Fresh Atlantic Salmon”. If you ask the person behind the seafood counter, what does that mean? Where did this come from? They may not know.
AL: You explored ways to control the industry with appropriate regulations. Can you show me some of them?
DF: Some people are more radical than others. In August 2017, an entire salmon farm collapsed in Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state, releasing more than 250,000 exotic Atlantic salmon into Pacific salmon waters. Since then, Washington state has passed a law banning all net-fenced Atlantic salmon farms from entering its waters because they are non-native fish.If you also want to have locally farmed Atlantic salmon [in Washington]you will have to do it on land.
Norway has also done something interesting: they have made water rentals for salmon farms more expensive. You pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease public land on the water to open up reticulated salmon farms, encouraging them to move to land that the government licenses for free.
Unfortunately, the profit margins for open-pen salmon farmers are so high that they don’t take advantage of this. They are free. They use public resources for their business. They pay very little; they don’t have to dispose of their waste, they just let it flow into the ocean. Their overhead is very small because each of these sites has only a few workers. As a result, they can afford a 15-20% annual mortality loss, sometimes even 50% a year, because the profit margins are so high. The family that controls Norway’s top four salmon producers posted a net profit of $2.2 billion in the first quarter of 2022. Currently, this is a highly profitable industry.
AL: So please walk me through the growth of terrestrial salmon production. I’m guessing it’s expensive, so it’s been slow to replace open mesh pen farming. How does it work?
CC: Superior Fresh, in inland Wisconsin, has a really interesting facility where they raise salmon in freshwater. Recirculating aquaculture systems pump water through special filters to prevent disease and pollution, and then treat the water with UV light. So the fish don’t swim in excess feed, they don’t swim in their own feces, and the system circulates about 99% of the water. But this is very capital intensive. It requires financing, planning, permitting and construction. It is not a plug and play system.
DF: The world’s largest onshore facility, Atlantic Sapphire, is located in Homestead, Florida, just outside of Miami, and they use the Florida Aquifer for both sea and fresh water. Then they recycle it to that aquifer, where it’s cleaned and shipped back to the ocean. They hope to produce as much as 20 percent of the salmon eaten in the United States. You can get their salmon in a lot of places in the US right now and it’s pretty good. We hope that eventually, with the help of consumers and governments, land-based farms will replace open salmon pens in the ocean and force these companies to take their operations out of the water. It’s a better choice for the environment, climate, fish health and consumer health.
AL: What do you think is the best-case scenario for fish farming in 30 years in terms of scale, practice and production?
DF: We want to see an increase in aquaculture, especially vegetarian aquaculture. There are many fish that eat only plants and grains, and tilapia is one of them. So in 30 years we expect to see open mesh salmon farms, in water and on land, or in closed systems if we can. We don’t want people to stop getting this wonderful source of protein. But it must be raised in a sustainable manner that does not damage the environment and protects our health.
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