Salmon Farming – Is it as good as we think?
By Alexandra Moreton
The argument for farming the oceans goes like this: the human population is growing, we need to maximize food production, humanity has moved from hunting to farming on land and it is time to do the same in the oceans. Prominent marine explorer and educator Jacque Cousteau is often quoted and salmon “farming” sounds like a good idea in this context. But let’s look at the reality, is salmon farming a good way to feed people, is it sustainable and is it good for us? My firm opinion after 30 years of trying to bring reason to the invasion of Atlantic salmon farms in the North Pacific is “no” on all counts, but you decide.
Salmon farms typically contain 600,000 salmon held stationary in net pens anchored to the seafloor along the coastlines of many countries.
Atlantic salmon exist high on the food chain. They don’t eat marine plants, or even the tiny zooplankton at the ground floor of the marine pyramid of life. To “farm” Atlantic salmon enormous quantities of wild fish have to be caught, ground up, shipped, extruded into pellets with grain and other additives, thrown back into the water and after 18-24 months less fish are taken out of the ocean, and shipped to people in cities far beyond the ecosystems they used. While wild salmon feed over 100 species as they grown and migrate, salmon “farming” pours ocean derived protein through penned salmon once and then releases it as raw sewage into marine currents where it settles to the bottom creating seafloors devoid of oxygen due the massive rotting process. Salmon farmers are among the few who never shovel their manure. They deplete one ecosystem to pollute another. There is no net gain of food and the evidence suggests habitats that make food are damaged.
As the salmon farming industry runs out of cheap wild fish to make into pellets, they are trying to get their salmon to eat grain products. While the percentage of wild fish in farmed salmon pellets is apparently declining, the number of farmed salmon is rising and so the industry continues to exert relentless fishing pressure on wild fish stocks. Omega 3 oils, so important to human health, make salmon an attractive food purchase, but with the declining marine component in the feed, this highly desirable nutrient plummets. My sense is that the industry will only stop fishing when it is finally impossible to make a profit. Whether the wild fisheries can recover at that point remains to be seen.
From Washington State, through British Columbia, Canada and into Alaska, there are wild salmon, herring and other fish stocks that are capable of huge production. If salmon farming is damaging these wild fish populations, the farmed salmon contribution to feeding the world is further reduced. It becomes more of a myth.
Salmon farms are feedlots, attempting to grow as many fish as possible, in as small a space as possible, as fast as possible on an unnatural diet. Like all feedlots they break the natural laws that control disease. In the wild salmon weakened by disease are picked off rapidly by predators such as other fish, birds, and whales. But when a parasite, bacteria or virus gets into a salmon feedlot, it enjoys an abundance of fish, closely packed together, bathed each other’s bodily wastes and so disease spreads easily. Predators are held off by the nets allowing the number of sick fish to escalate, and die slowly, their pathogens spilling into the wild environment at levels wild fish may be unable to cope with in addition to climate change. A Canadian government scientist testified that 65 billion infectious virus particles can pour out of a salmon farm per hour1. Because salmon farms are sited on wild salmon migration routes, feedlot viruses are now passing over the gills of wild salmon throughout Norway, Scotland, Ireland, eastern Canada, British Columbia and Washington State. A 2008, scientific paper reports wild salmonids have gone into exceptional decline wherever there are salmon farms worldwide2 Salmon farms may be the gate-keepers on survival of wild salmon and herring as they come and go along essential migration routes.
We know exchange of viruses between feedlot chickens and wild birds is dangerous, indeed an influenza-type salmon virus (ISAv), first identified in Norway, is spreading worldwide wherever Atlantic salmon are farmed. Infectious salmon anemia virus spread to Chile causing $2 billion in damages 3. Chile, however, does not have the precious wild salmon runs now at risk in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. An ISA virus outbreak in the North Pacific could have irrevocable impact. I am tracking European salmon viruses in BC farmed salmon4, facing a complete failure by government in Canada to contain their spread. The political/international trade pressures were revealed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency testimony. If ISA virus is confirmed in British Columbia, borders will close to the product5.
Salmon farming is largely a Norwegian industry. It is 98% Norwegian – owned in British Columbia, Canada, by just three companies, Marine Harvest, Cermaq (Mainstream) and Grieg. The industry enjoys lobby support from the Norwegian government and many communities around the world are struggling to protect their coastal fisheries from this aggressive industry. The industry has a way of convincing governments to ignore their citizens.
Is farmed salmon healthy? We know the flesh is coloured pink to resemble wild salmon, but there is more. On June 10, 2013, one of Norway’s leading newspapers VG ran a story titled: Doctors and professors: – Do not eat farmed salmon. Dr. Anne-Lise Bjørke Monsen, a pediatrician studying micronutrient transfer from mothers to babies, and her colleagues blew the whistle on toxins in Norwegian farmed salmon.
“Norwegian doctors, professors and international health experts believe women, children and young people should stay away from farmed salmon…”6
Dr. Monsen warns that the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) found in farmed salmon are too high to be safely consumed because these toxins negatively affect brain development and autism in babies. A 2010 Norwegian study reported that after twelve months of nursing their babies, mother’s milk contained 15-94% less POP toxins7. As these babies were consuming POPs in their mother’s milk their brains were growing. Human brains are 60% fat8 and continue to grow outside the womb. These toxins bind to fat.
A 2012 paper reports POP levels in farm salmon, exceed other fatty-type foods such as whole milk, eggs, bacon and hamburger9. Twenty-three out of the twenty-five known POPs are in farmed salmon.
In 2011, Norway’s National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research reported in the scientific journal Chemosphere that farmed salmon absorb toxins 10 times more efficiently than any terrestrial livestock10. So if a cow and a farm salmon are made to consume the same percent of toxins in their feed, the salmon could be ten times as contaminated as the cow. Therefore, toxins levels in farmed salmon feed should be mandated exceptionally low. However, running low on wild fish to grind into feed, Norwegian salmon farmers began sourcing low-cost grains from South America11. While Europe banned the insecticide POP, Endosulfan, in April 2011 under the Stockholm Convention it is still used in parts of South America11.
On June 11, 2013 one of Norway’s largest newspapers, Aftenposten, reported that after years of lobbying Norway successfully convinced the European Union to up the allowable limit of Endosulfan in food ten times.
“The limit value for the concentration of Endosulfan in feed for salmonids is of great economic importance for the aquaculture industry in the short and longer term“12.
Dr. Jerome Ruzzin, Institute of Biology, University of Bergen, feels the toxin risk in farmed salmon is too high and demands action, “the risk is so high compared to what it is in other foods, we must respond”13.
The European Union also recently granted the industry a rare exemption to use 19 GMO ingredients, as well as, pig and chicken offal in farmed salmon feed14.
On June 5, 2013, the USFDA halted all shipments of Marine Harvest farmed salmon in the United States because in a random sampling of one container of frozen farmed salmon grown by Marine Harvest in Chile tested positive for crystal violet15 a known carcinogen banned in both Chile and the US.
In conclusion, the evidence suggests farming salmon is not sustainable, that it’s potential to damage to wild fisheries is very high and it is a product of questionable food value. A better approach is for the industry to clean itself up by getting out of the oceans, put their fish in tanks, recycle the waste as crop fertilizer and stop farming so high up the food chain. Farming fish that eat plants, recycling their waste and water mimics the ecosystem model that life on earth is based on. It is time for humanity to recognize that nature is going to shake us off this planet if we don’t learn very quickly how to operate within the natural laws that sustain life on earth.
Everyone on earth needs to use our power to stop salmon farming and rebuild a system that actually makes food. Then we can use the power of the natural systems to restore wild salmon using everything we know. http://www.DeptWildSalmon.org
1 Dr. Kyle Garver (DFO) testimony, Cohen Commission cohencommission.ca 2011
2 Ford and Myers. 2008 http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.0060033
3 Vike et al. 2009 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19034606
4 Kibenge et al 2013 http://www.virologyj.com/content/10/1/230
5 Dr. Kim Klotins (CFIA) testimony Cohen Commission cohencommission.ca 2011