Not long ago, Atlantic salmon was an abundant wild species. Born in the rivers of the northeastern United States and Canada, after a few years in freshwater, they began an epic migration, moving 2,000 miles across the Atlantic to feed and mature in western Greenland. Millions of salmon traveled 60 miles a day, deterring predators and feeding on zooplankton and small fish. When the time came, instinct and the Earth’s magnetic fields drove these magnificent fish back to the exact rivers of their birth.
Today, wild salmon is an endangered species, which remains in the U.S. Most of the rivers are gone. There are many culprits, from polluted waterways and habitat destruction to overfishing and climate change. In the past 20 years, however, a new threat has emerged: floating feedlots on the ocean known as open-net salmon farms. The farmed salmon industry of $20 billion annually is the world’s fastest growing food producer, and has made Atlantic salmon the most popular fish on the dining table in North America. But at what cost?
This new fish is an industrialized fraud that puts our health at risk and harms our planet. Farmed salmon are bred to grow rapidly in cages so that they are full of parasites and disease. Fish eat pellets from fish meal, vegetables and animal byproducts; They are regularly washed with insecticides and antibiotics.
We spent more than two years for our book, Salmon Wars, examining the global salmon farming business and the multinational companies that control it. We interviewed scientists, physicians, fishermen, activists and people engaged in the business of aquaculture. We read academic studies, court papers and previously unknown investigative files. We identified and tried to answer three important questions revolving around farmed salmon.
Table of Contents
First and foremost, is it healthy to eat farmed salmon?
Doctors recommend salmon for its protein, nutrients, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends consuming fish at least twice a week. But they rarely tell what kind of salmon you should eat or warn of the dangers.
Several experts and scientific studies have cast doubt on the blanket claim that salmon should be part of a healthy diet when the fish comes from open-net farms. Some farmed salmon may be safer than other types, but consumers rarely have enough information to make that choice. The label is unlikely to reveal whether the salmon was farmed, let alone identifying the chemicals used to grow it. The US Department of Agriculture does not even have a definition for organic salmon.
“It’s confusing, and I suspect there’s intentional confusion there,” Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University, told us. “We know that every fish has a trade-off between the omega-3 content and the toxic content like PCBs. From the point of view of salmon in general, the balance favors the consumption of that fish. Now the challenge here is that I don’t overstate that.” Can tell which salmon is cultivated in the right way or the wrong way.”
In early 2004, scientists found levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, a potential carcinogen known as PCBs, were seven times higher in farmed Atlantic salmon than in wild salmon. Recent studies found higher levels of other chemicals and antibiotics in farmed salmon.
Researchers at Arizona State University discovered an increase in drug-resistant antibiotics in farmed seafood over the past 30 years, raising concerns about an increased risk of antibiotic resistance in humans. Toxins often dissolve in the flesh of salmon and accumulate in people who eat the fish.
Some studies have warned that one meal of farmed Atlantic salmon per month could expose consumers to contaminant levels exceeding World Health Organization standards. The risk is greatest for infants, children and pregnant women because of the potential damage to the developing brain from contaminants.
Seafood Watch, an independent guide to fish consumption affiliated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, recommends avoiding most farmed Atlantic salmon due to excessive chemical use and disease. Nutritionists generally recommend eating wild salmon over farmed salmon.
Second, is farmed salmon sustainable?
Salmon farmers often advertise their fish as sustainable and naturally raised. These claims are misleading.
Salmon are carnivorous. Fish meal and fish oil from anchovies, sardines, mackerel, herring and other small bait fish make up 25 to 30 percent of most salmon feeds. A quarter of the fish harvested from the world’s oceans goes into aquaculture and feed for pets. To meet the growing global demand for salmon, giant trawlers plunder fisheries off the coast of West Africa and Peru, rob subsistence fishermen’s livelihoods and exacerbate food insecurity.
“You take food from the plates of people in West Africa to feed people in Europe and the United States and other countries,” Dr. Ibrahima Sisse of Greenpeace told us.
Salmon farmers argue that as the global population grows, so does their protein requirement. Ending fisheries to provide a sustainable fishery for rich countries in low-income countries sets a dangerous precedent.
Efforts are underway to develop alternative protein sources in university laboratories and start-ups. Till now, there is no end to the exploitation of small fishes by the industry.
Recent court cases have challenged the industry’s claims of sustainability. Norway’s Movi ASA, the world’s largest salmon farmer, settled a misleading advertising case a year ago in federal court in New York City. The company paid $1.3 million and agreed that its US subsidiaries would stop using the phrases “sustainably sourced” and “naturally raised” to describe its smoked salmon.
Finally, is farmed salmon grown naturally in a way that doesn’t harm the environment?
you be the judge.
The fish spends two to three years in open-net farms containing a million salmon in 10 or 12 cages that are 30 feet below the surface and attached to the ocean floor. Crowded cages are petri dishes for tiny parasites called sea lice and several viruses that kill farmed fish and endanger wild salmon when currents carry them outside of farms.
Heavy doses of insecticides, including banned neurotoxins, and antibiotics are deployed against parasites and pathogens. Some of the remains get carried away in the salmon, and some fall to the bottom of the cages on the ocean floor. Untreated waste, decomposing fish, excrement and chemical residue from excess feed creates a toxic stew that kills or takes away marine life for hundreds of yards. One photo we found shows a yardstick sticking out of the 32-inch mark in the mud at the bottom of a salmon farm.
In open farms, salmon die from parasites, disease and hot water at staggering rates. It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of farmed salmon die each year before harvest; That means tens of millions of fish. By comparison, the mortality rate for factory chickens is 5 percent and for feedlot cattle is 3.3 percent. Young wild salmon beginning their migration are especially vulnerable to sea lice from farms. Leftover salmon compete with wild ones for food and weaken the gene pool through interbreeding.
Up to 85 percent of the salmon we eat is imported from farms off the coasts of Norway, Chile, Scotland and Canada. Yet the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for food safety, pays little attention to farmed salmon at a time when foodborne pathogens are on the rise. For example, an investigation by the General Accounting Office, a branch of Congress, found that the FDA inspected 86 samples out of 379 thousand tons of salmon in 2017.
Fortunately, there are options. The new technology, called recirculation aquaculture systems, grows the fish in closed-control facilities on land. The fish swim in tanks filled with filtered, recirculated water and the salmon never touch the ocean, leading to no chemical use and environmental damage.
Several recent surveys suggest that consumers will pay a premium for products that are sustainable and do not harm the environment. Land-grown salmon could eventually affect the global market. For now, transparency, better regulation and accurate labels on farmed salmon are essential to ensure good choices for our health and the health of our planet. Until that happens, Atlantic salmon farming with an open-net pen is off our menus and should close it for you.