Farmed salmon is only 3% of global aquaculture production — so why is it all we ever hear about?

Sometimes we need to step back and look at the big picture, put things in context and re-evaluate what we think we know.

When we look at the global picture of aquaculture production, it’s quite interesting. If it wasn’t for aquaculture, we would have wiped out wild fisheries decades ago. But as it stands today, (or at least as of 2012, the most recent year for which complete data is available), aquaculture produces nearly 67 million metric tonnes of seafood.

That is enough to feed every single person on this planet two meals of seafood every week for one year.

Aquaculture CAN feed the world.

But in North America, “aquaculture” sometimes gets used as a dirty word, and people have been primed to think bad thoughts when they hear “fish farming.”

And the worst associations are with salmon farms.

Salmon farms are not perfect, true. They do have environmental effects, just like any human food-producing or harvesting activity. Let’s not pretend that harvesting up to 80% of a wild salmon run before it can spawn doesn’t have environmental effects.

I’m not trying to blame-shift or suggest we shouldn’t be critical.

What I’m trying to say is that the negative effects of salmon farming you’ve heard about have been grossly exaggerated.

Graphs!

Let’s look at global aquaculture production:

World Aquaculture Production 2012

Most of the world’s aquaculture production is freshwater fish. Nearly 40% of that is carp, mainly in China. In North America, aquaculture is dominated by US catfish farms which produce around 136,000 tonnes annually.

Diadromous fishes, which are fish with a freshwater and saltwater phase, make up only a small part of global production at 7%.

And farmed Atlantic salmon, the most talked-about and scrutinized form of aquaculture in the world, make up only 3% of the world’s global aquaculture production.

Diadromous Fish Production 2012

Why does farmed Atlantic salmon get all the attention?

Don’t people have concerns about the 37 million tonnes of freshwater fish being farmed each year consuming our precious freshwater resources, or leaching waste and antibiotics into our watersheds?

Not that I think this is a problem — most freshwater aquaculture farmers are responsible and careful, just like most saltwater salmon farmers. But why aren’t we talking about the elephant in the room? Why aren’t the biggest forms of aquaculture with the biggest potential to impact our environment getting at least the same amount of scrutiny as salmon farming?

One possibility — salmon farming really IS evil

One possible explanation is that farmed salmon deserves all the hate, and that it is the dirtiest, riskiest and most polluting form of farming imaginable. That’s what our commenting visitors will likely say, and it’s the refrain we’ve heard from Alexandra Morton and other activists who have dedicated their lives to opposing farmed salmon (but not, oddly enough, to presenting any useful or constructive feedback to help make salmon farming better).

I’ve looked long and hard for evidence to support this extreme position. I’ve never found it. I’ve found evidence that shows salmon farms do have impacts and do pose potential risks to wild fish, but I have not found evidence that shows these impacts and potential risks are any worse than the impacts already caused by myriad human activities in the ocean.

In fact, I believe that if we were to farm more and fish less, that wild salmon would thrive like they did before the post-WWII boom in technology allowed us to catch more fish than ever before.

I am always open to changing my mind if new evidence comes to light. But I haven’t seen anything convincing, just failed predictions, speculation, and flawed mathematical models.

 Another possibility — the negative sell

What makes the most sense to me is that salmon farming has been the victim of a long-standing demarketing campaign.

Demarketing is the negative sell, promoting your product by criticizing your competition. It’s the core of the long-standing Coke versus Pepsi ads, and the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads.

People are often willing to pay twice the price for wild salmon because they think it's somehow better.
People are often willing to pay twice the price for wild salmon because they think it’s somehow better.

This sales technique is as old as the barter system. “No, you don’t want Hannu’s cows. They have parasites. Mine are clean and healthy!” It’s easy and effective.

The problem is, the salmon farming industry had no idea how to fight back. Instead of mounting their own ad campaigns, like Pepsi and Microsoft, they spent very little on self-promotion during the past decade, allowing negative public sentiment to fester and grow.

Environmental groups were more than happy to take donations to continue nurturing this negative sentiment.

Today, it’s commonly accepted that wild salmon is somehow better than farmed salmon.

This means different things for different people. Some think it’s more nutritious, some think it tastes better, some think it’s more environmentally friendly. Ask them why, though, and they rarely have a solid answer.

That’s because there isn’t really any evidence for those beliefs, other than personal preference and feelings.

Follow the money

Who has benefited the most from negative views of farmed salmon?

That’s easy enough to figure out. Starting in the mid to late 1990s, when farmed salmon production increased from a small amount to more than half of all global salmon production, salmon prices sank to a historic low because there was so much fish on the market.

2014-04-22 12_29_01-www.globefish.org_upl_Papers_Knapp.pdf

 

2014-04-22 12_12_37-www.globefish.org_upl_Papers_Knapp.pdf

 

Ex-vessel prices for wild salmon in Alaska and BC dropped to all-time lows. Many fishermen got out of the business.

They realized that in order to compete with farmed salmon — a quality, consistent and cheap product, which is exactly what customers wanted — they would have change. 

Those fishermen who remained adapted and changed, and began marketing their salmon like never before. They marketed it as a special, niche product associated with wildness and emotion and nature and before long prices had greatly improved.

In the last 20 years, the ex-vessel value of Alaskan salmon has increased from $127 million to $691 million. 

The salmon fishery now employs 45,100 people and creates $2.5 billion in economic value. 

And some of those people are more than happy to lob a few stink grenades at farmed salmon every now and then to make themselves look good.

Salmon farmers suck at promoting themselves

Salmon farmers have been painted as Goofus (right) while salmon fishers have painted themselves as Gallant (left).
Salmon farmers have been painted as Goofus (right) while salmon fishers have painted themselves as Gallant (left).

But while wild fishermen successfully adapted to new market conditions, salmon farmers didn’t defend their reputation because they didn’t have to — demand for farmed salmon has continued to grow, regardless of criticism, so salmon farmers kept quietly growing their fish.

There’s a new challenge on the horizon, however. The same groups who were paid to condemn farmed salmon in favour of wild salmon are now being paid to condemn farmed salmon in favour of promoting land-based experiments. Salmon farms are once again being used as the strawman in promotions for products that haven’t even been proven to work.

That’s right. None of these land-based salmon farms have been proven to work on a scale that is economically and environmentally sustainable. Sure, you’ll hear a lot about projects in the works, or how they’re going to change the world. But look deeper for their actual harvest numbers. How much fish are these “successful” systems actually producing?

My friend over at The Truth About Alaska Salmon recently did a great blog series about land-based, closed-containment salmon farms, which showed that the reality of these projects is a whole lot different than the hype.

But facts are boring, it’s emotion and exciting stories and controversy that gets our attention.

That’s why people remember Pepsi versus Coke and Mac versus PC, because there’s a Gallant and a Goofus.

Salmon farmers need to stop letting their critics paint them as Goofus and start getting out there and promoting themselves.

 Full circle — let’s start looking at the big picture

Bringing it back to my original point, the debate over salmon farming is only a tiny part of the whole. Aquaculture — including salmon farming — is here to stay, regardless of what a few critics say.

If we are really concerned about making sure that aquaculture has minimal environmental impacts, let’s stop focusing purely on the salmon farming scapegoat and look at things in context. There’s room for improvement in all aquaculture, and salmon farmers have led the way in positive change.

This needs to be acknowledged, and if we really want to help our planet, we need to change the discussion to a debate about farmed versus wild, to a discussion about how we can do both in a way that ensures a sustainable seafood supply for future generations of people, and for the ocean ecosystem.

Don’t believe what we say about salmon feed? Maybe you’ll believe these certified Omega-3 supplements?

We have had many conversations with people about fish feed and sustainability over the years. Most of them have been led to believe that it takes more fish to grow salmon than what you get out of it.

From there, they have been led to conclude that salmon farms are emptying the ocean of small wild fish and threatening the entire food chain.

That’s a big leap, and it’s wrong.

Net producer

The first belief is partially true. Decades ago, when salmon farming first got started, it did take a greater weight of small fish to grow salmon than what was produced.

Decades ago.

It’s amazing to us that in today’s world, where people are so used to things changing rapidly (this year’s iPhone is LIGHTYEARS ahead of last year’s model!) that they can’t think the same way about salmon farming.

It’s changed. A lot.

Salmon feed today contains only half the marine ingredients (wild fish) that it did 10 years ago. Farmed salmon is now a net protein producer: to grow one kilogram of farmed salmon, it takes less than one kilogram of wild fish.

Sustainable anchovy fishery

The second belief is not true.

Salmon feed in BC uses meal and oil from the Peruvian anchovy fishery, which is one of the most sustainably-managed fishery in the world.

The fishery is probably the most important in the world, because the anchovies are the food source for most of the south Pacific Ocean.

The meal and oil produced from the fishery is used to make aquaculture feed, chicken feed, hog feed, pet food, and health supplements.

Sustainable supplements

Fish oil from the Peruvian anchovy fishery is now being used more and more to make Omega-3 supplements. This week, seafood certifier “Friend of the Sea” announced that Bio-Life SPRL had earned FOS’ sustainability certification. From the press release:

Bio-Life distributes Omega 3 gelatine capsules by using fish oil obtained from small pelagics fished in the Southeast Pacific Ocean. The anchovies’ stock in the fishing area is not overexploited according to the national marine institute. The fishery is managed sustainably, following a strict precautionary approach, and highly selective gears are used.

So if you won’t believe what salmon farmers say because we “just want to make money,” maybe you’ll believe supplement makers because they… just want to… make you healthier? And donate all their profits to the Save the Kittens foundation?

Either way, we do congratulate Bio-Life on this certification. Salmon farmers have led the way in responsibly using marine ingredients, and it’s good to see some supplement makers doing the same.

We believe it’s healthier to make oily fish (like farmed salmon) a regular part of your diet than to pop pills, but it’s up to individuals to decide which diet is best for them.

Calling shenanigans — again — on Morton’s junk graph

Alexandra Morton has decided to make 2014 the year of the Salmon Food Scare, and she’s trying as hard as she can to stir up the masses using half-truths and emotion.

She’s no doubt trying to recreate the panic from 2004, when one highly-publicized study was used to suggest farmed salmon was dangerous to human health. Ah the good old days, eh Alex? When the gullible masses would believe anything you said without checking your claims? Must be tough these days, judging by the “DONATE NOW” button on every one of your websites. 

For a good overview of how that 2004 panic all shook out, including an enlightening look at the millions of dollars invested in slagging farmed salmon, we recommend you read this opinion piece by Vivian Krause.  

Oh, and by the way, there’s no reason to be concerned about dioxins or PCBs in any food sold in North America. None.

Eat a balanced diet, get some exercise and be excellent to each other and you’re shiny.

But that’s not stopping Morton, who knows how to play on people’s fears like a cheap fiddle.

A while ago we blogged about a ridiculous graph she is using to try and claim that farmed salmon contains dangerous levels of dioxins.

Apparently, ashamed to have been caught in the act of deliberately misrepresenting the facts, she has revised this graph with an explanation in the fine print on her new website. She says:

Please note the source data for salmon is provided in pg/g wet weight, while the other values were provided in pg/g fat. NIFES reports farmed salmon is 15.6% fat and so the conversion to pg/g fat = 41.6

Yeah, no. This is just stupid, Alex.

Wet weight is a common distinction made in weighing fish, because so much fish sold is smoked, cured, salted or dried. Wet weight is merely a measurement of fish with the water content in, i.e. before being processed. The non-fish products on this list are always weighed with their water content included: their default measurement is wet weight.

What you’re doing here is like assuming that if your car can go 160 km/h before the governor kicks in, and the speed limit is 80 km/h, it should only take you half an hour to get where you’re going.

But since you aren’t inclined to provide people with facts, we’ll do it for you.

Here’s a comparison of the limits on dioxins in food set by the EU, versus the amounts that are actually in said food.

dioxin_limits_vs_actual

Facts hurt, don’t they Alex. There’s no reason to avoid any of these foods because of dioxins.

Want to check our math? Feel free. Here’s the data table we used to make this graph, complete with comprehensive citations.. Which is more than activists like Morton will give you.

Oh, and by the way, if the anonymity on our blog bothers you? Feel free to check all the links in the document above and retrace our steps. Thinking for yourself: does a body good.

Antibiotics in aquaculture: getting the facts straight

Over Christmas, a strange science article was published by the New England Journal of Medicine.

The lead author, an economics professor from the University of Calgary, proposes a user fee for antibiotics in agriculture and aquaculture.

An economically rational solution is to impose a user fee on the nonhuman use of antibiotics. Every use of antibiotics increases selective pressure, thus undermining the value for other users. In effect, each antibiotic can have only a limited amount of use, so it is appropriate to charge a fee, just as logging companies pay “stumpage” fees and oil companies pay royalties.

It’s an interesting idea which got a lot of attention from the media in the post-Christmas doldrums, when media will traditionally desperately publish anything even remotely controversial to keep eyeballs on pages and screens (for the ads, of course!) until after New Year’s Day. However, the facts the author uses to back his premise are skewed.

A veterinarian working in salmon farming in BC took a look at the article and had numerous criticisms. Here’s what they pointed out.

No mention of pets

The article says that 80% of all antibiotics used in the USA are consumed by agriculture and aquaculture. But the graph in the article shows the bigger picture:

2014-02-27 09_40_41-Preserving Antibiotics, Rationally — NEJMIn the entire USA, aquaculture uses only 150,000 kg of antibiotics: the same amount as pets. But oddly, there is no mention of pets at all in the article. Why not? The author’s greatest concern is that “this profligate distribution of antibiotics around the world is contributing to the development and spread of resistant organisms” which may evolve and threaten human health. But he makes no mention of pets, which live with us, sleep with us, eat with us and share our space, every day.

The usage of antibiotics in pets should be of far greater concern than aquaculture. How many people come in contact with fish farms compared to pets? Yet this is not mentioned at all.

Aquaculture in context

The article specifically targets salmon farms (“Antibiotics are…added to food pellets and dropped to salmon in cages in the seas”), but farmed salmon production in the USA is a fraction of the whole, at about only 18,000 metric tonnes annually.

Catfish farmers in the USA produce nearly 272,000 metric tonnes of fish per year in freshwater ponds.

Aquaculture in the USA is dominated by catfish. On average, US catfish farmers produce 272,000 tonnes of fish per year. Farmed rainbow trout is the second largest aquaculture industry in the USA. Farmed salmon in the USA The total annual American aquaculture production is about 500,000 tonnes.

Aquaculture in the USA is using only about 300 grams of antibiotics per tonne of seafood produced.

Salmon farms in both the USA and Canada use even less than that average, ranging from 50 grams per tonne to as little as 5 grams per tonne of fish produced. 

That’s less than what people use. Going by this article’s numbers, the USA uses 11 grams of antibiotics per person, per year.

Other farmed animals use much more. The USA produces roughly 152,755,000 metric tonnes of livestock, poultry, dairy products and eggs each year. They all use antibiotics; however, this article only refers to livestock, which account for 33,000,000 tonnes per year.

Going by the article’s numbers, then, US livestock are using 410 grams of antibiotics per tonne produced.

Big assumptions miss the mark

The author shows a remarkable ignorance of agriculture and aquaculture in his list of reasons why he thinks a user fee for antibiotics would be a great idea.

He suggests that monitoring the actual usage of antibiotics would be challenging for farmers. Well guess what: BC salmon farmers already do this.

He also suggests that “veterinary oversight” would be a problem for “remote farms.” BC salmon farmers do this too. Regularly. Every treatment must be approved by a vet, who writes a prescription for medication.

According to the author, antibiotics are overused because they are cheap, $25 per kg by his reckoning. Not so. Antibiotics for aquaculture are more like $350 per kg. We like to use them as little as possible.

And finally, he suggests that a user fee on antibiotics would encourage farmers to look for antibiotic substitutes. Waaaay ahead of you there, pal. We’ve been using vaccines for years, along with good farming practices, good genetic stocks and top-quality feeds.

The goal is to keep our fish healthy throughout their lives. Unlike chickens, which only take about two months to grow to harvest, salmon take three years to reach harvest. While some chicken farmers may pump their animals full of medicine throughout their short lives as a precaution, this would never work on salmon farms. Using antibiotics constantly over three years would be expensive, would lead to resistance and would eventually become ineffective.

As much as possible, we use drug-free methods to keep our animals healthy. It’s economically viable, and the responsible way to farm salmon.

For more information about antibiotics used in aquaculture. the BC Salmon Facts website has some good facts and a video. 

 

Intensively-farmed fjord shows little evidence of impact from salmon farms

The Hardangerfjord in Norway is one of the most intensively farmed fjords in the world.

In one year, farms in this fjord alone produce 70,000 metric tonnes of salmon, as much as all the salmon farms in BC produce in a year.

Salmon farm sites in Hardangerfjord
Salmon farm sites in Hardangerfjord

Its natural beauty also makes it one of Norway’s premiere tourism destinations.

Professional protester Don Staniford targeted farms in the fjord two years ago, with the help of the “Green Warriors” activist group. They claimed the farms are harming the fjord’s environment.

But are the farms really having negative impacts?

A study recently published in Marine Biology Research says no.

“The good ecological conditions of the parameters studied in the fjord show little evidence of a regional impact from the fish farming industry despite the intensive production level,” the authors conclude.

The full study is available online through open access.

We have also hosted a copy here..

Custom keyboards for anti-salmon aquaculture activists, coming soon!

We are going to be setting up an Etsy shop soon to sell these custom, hand-made keyboards that will make life a little bit easier for all those anti-aquaculture keyboard warriors out there.

Here’s a preview:

Anti-Aquaculture_keyboard

As you can see, all the most common arguments against salmon farming are programmed directly into the keyboard, in easy-to-press buttons! Mix up the arguments in different combinations to make them sound new and meaningful! Make sure to hit the “Norwegian” button at random for good measure, because every scary story needs a bogeyman! Look how well it worked in Wag the Dog. Swap Albania for Norway, farmed salmon for suitcase bomb and voila!

Keep checking the blog, we’ll post when these unique, hand-crafted custom keyboards will be available.

 

 

Activist math, contaminants and the art of fear

We’ve been sitting on this one for a while because we wanted to see how far it would go. Apparently, our favourite scaremongerer is pretty serious about it so we figured it was time to expose this.

In a poor attempt to scare people about food contamination, Alexandra Morton has created a graph that people might assume shows that farmed salmon is contaminated with PCBs.

Mortoncantdomathgraph

Oooh, scary, right? Two things though.

1) These numbers, as shown in the EU regulation cited by Morton as the source of information for this graph, DO NOT represent ACTUAL amounts of dioxins and PCBs in ANYTHING. They are limits set by the EU on what is a safe amount in those foods. Morton neglects to point this out, giving a false impression.

2) This “41.6″ number on Morton’s graph comes out of thin air. The actual limit for salmon and all other fish, as set in the EU document source for the other numbers on the graph, is 6.5.

Check it for yourself, it’s on page 4.

Because 6.5 doesn’t have the sort of shock value Morton was hoping for, she did some of her own math and came up with a greater number, conveniently forgetting to show where in the world this number comes from, and also neglecting to explain that these numbers represent the limits set by the EU, not actual test results.

But that’s all boring, right? Who cares, Morton raises a valid point, a scary story about how farmed salmon are more contaminated, right? Who cares that she just made up a number and misrepresented what her source actually says, she’s just getting the truth out there right? We’re sure someone will comment here saying something like that.

That’s the art of fear in action, and Morton is damn good at it. She starts with a scary story, and then manipulates data to make it look like science is on her side. By the time people like us come along and pull back the curtain, it doesn’t matter because people really want to believe in Oz.

People believe in stories, not facts.

But we’ll keep bringing our readers the facts, in the hopes that they will learn how to pull apart these anti-salmon farming stories and see that they are something much more vulgar: manipulative lies.

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