While aquaculture is a good choice for some species of seafood, you should always ask for and buy wild salmon. Here are four reasons why:
Ecology: Farmed salmon are raised in floating netcages, the marine equivalent of factory farms. There are over 85 open netcages currently operating in British Columbia (BC) waters and another 35 farms that are dormant and could be started up at any time. This number does not include the many new farms that the industry and provincial governments hope to see along their coastline over the next few years. At the current level alone, collectively these Canadian fish farms discharge waste into the ocean, which is roughly equivalent, in terms of pollution, to the raw sewage from a city with 500,000 inhabitants. There are additional open netcage fish farms located in countries all along the coast of South America. The intense accumulation of wastes from these operations can spoil the local marine environment and spread disease.
In addition to natural wastes, farmed salmon are given antibiotics (more than any other livestock by weight) as well as other drugs that may compromise human health and harm near-shore ecosystems.
Farmed salmon pose further threat to wild salmon stocks as parasites and disease pass through the netcages and contaminate the ecosystem. Storms and Sea lions can wreak havoc on netcages, causing large releases of farmed salmon into the wild. Over a million farmed salmon have been reported by the industry to have escaped into Pacific waters since 1988. Because many escapes over the years have gone unreported, experts believe the real figure is much higher. Much of the salmon farmed in the Pacific Ocean is, in fact, Atlantic salmon -- an exotic species. Even on the Atlantic seaboard, escapees pose a problem as they may ultimately compete with and displace precarious native stocks.
To fatten up their livestock, some salmon farmers use bright lights even at night to confuse the salmon into thinking it is always feeding time. This attracts other fish to the farm area and may disrupt their feeding and migration patterns.
According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Atlantic salmon have been found in over 81 BC rivers and streams. It is worth noting that only a small portion of BC rivers have been surveyed so far; meaning non-native Atlantic salmon could be inhabiting many more. Atlantic salmon have also been found in rivers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Atlantic salmon compete with wild salmon for habitat and have been known to eat wild salmon fry and eggs. Atlantic salmon have been found spawning, and juveniles surviving in the wild.
There are risks even when farmed Pacific salmon escape into the wild. Escaped farmed Chinook can interbreed with wild Chinook. Since farmed salmon are cultivated from a limited gene pool, this interbreeding leads to "genetic dilution", or a narrowing of the genetic makeup in wild fish. This could lessen their ability to survive in the wild.
In BC fish farms use net guards that deter predators. Some farmers coat the nets in a highly toxic solution to prevent naturally occurring marine organisms from growing on them. This toxic solution contaminates our waters.
Salmon farmers are granted licenses to kill predators such as Sea lions and Seals to stop them from eating their fish. In the spring of 2001 a mass grave containing at least 15 Sea lions killed by a farm operator was discovered in Clayoquot Sound. Since then, more pits of dead Sea lions have been found in the same area. BC salmon farmers reported having killed at least 5,000 Seals and Sea lions in the last decade. The real figure could be much higher as some kills, according to fish farm employees, go unreported.
Lastly, keep in mind that while some wild salmon runs are threatened or endangered, many are still very healthy. As a general rule, wild stocks in Alaska are faring far better than those of California and the Pacific Northwest. As for Atlantic salmon, there are virtually no harvestable wild runs left in the United States.
Economy: Salmon farms in Canada and South American countries are often financially subsidized by their local governments. In the U.S. the flood of farmed salmon from abroad, competing with our locally caught wild salmon has greatly reduced the price of wild salmon, causing a drop in wild salmon prices. This has hurt thousands of commercial fishermen and the communities in which they live, drawing into question the true economic value of this industry.
Farmed salmon actually represent a net loss of protein world wide. It takes three to five kilograms of other fish, such as herring and anchovy to make the feed necessary to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon resulting a loss of edible animal protein worldwide. The price per pound may seem like a bargain at your local grocer, but globally speaking, farmed salmon is anything but cheap. Factor in the energy expended to catch, process and transport that fishmeal, and the added health and environmental damage done, and "cheap" Atlantic salmon suddenly seem absurdly expensive.
In Canada it is illegal to make animal feed out of proteins otherwise suitable for human consumption. As a result, most of the feed for BC salmon is obtained from South America. This reduces the amount of food energy available to people there.
Your Health: Farmed salmon are frequently fed antibiotics which contribute to the growth of drug-resistant bacteria in humans who consume them. As with livestock, farmed salmon are administered the same antibiotics used to treat humans, a practice condemned by the World Health Organization for contributing to worldwide antibiotic resistance. Wild salmon are not only drug / antibiotic-free, they also have higher levels of beneficial omega 3 fatty acids and lower levels of harmful saturated fats. Read more about the benefits of Omega 3 on our Health Benefits page.
Farmed salmon is much higher in saturated fats than wild salmon. This can contribute to health problems. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmed Atlantic salmon contain 70 percent more fat than wild Atlantic salmon and 200 percent more fat than wild Pacific salmon. But perhaps most importantly, farm-raised salmon have been found to contain significantly higher concentrations of PCBs, dioxin and other cancer-causing contaminants than salmon caught in the wild.
breastcancer.org has published an article on a report in Science, January 9, 2004 titled Farm-Raised Salmon Contain More Toxins Than Wild Salmon. The article cites The New England Journal of Medicine and other authorities, and discusses how scientists have begun raising questions about possible health risks posed by fish raised on farms.
A study released in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found much higher levels of some chemical flame retardants in farmed salmon compared to most wild salmon. The study concluded that, in spite of the heart healthy benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in all salmon, frequent consumption of farmed salmon is more likely than wild to boost levels of chemicals that researchers have found to be increasing rapidly in people's bodies.
The groundbreaking study, A Global Assessment of Organic Contaminants in Farmed vs. Wild Salmon: Geographical Differences and Health Risks was released January 2004 in the respected journal Science. The study, which is being considered the most thorough analysis of farmed and wild salmon to date, found in most cases that consuming more than one serving of farmed salmon per month could pose unacceptable cancer risks, according to United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for determining safe fish consumption levels. Farmed salmon were found to have up to 10 times higher levels of PCBs and dioxins than wild salmon.
A single serving of salmon, wild or farmed, gives you the suggested daily requirement of omega 3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids are also found in other wild fish like tuna, sardines or anchovies. Farmed salmon, however, contains more unhealthy fats.
Quality and Taste: In blind taste tests, farmed salmon lose every time. Testers including chefs, food critics and fishermen have judged the taste and texture of Wild Salmon to be far superior to farmed varieties. Farmed salmon are administered chemical dyes to color their flesh an appealing salmon pink. Without this dye, the flesh of a farmed salmon would be an unappetizing grayish-brown. Wild salmon simply taste better and have better texture than farm-raised fish, which tend to be mushy and insipid. For the very best salmon, buy it fresh and in season or frozen for quality and year-around availability.