All posts by salmonfarmscience

It seems that only poor, agenda-driven science attacking salmon farms gets mass media attention. We will show there is a lot more to the story, and the science.

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.