Salmon Farming Can Be Sustainable

Smithsonian Magazine staff writer Abigail Tucker takes a closer look at the salmon farming industry

I have avoided eating salmon since the spring of 2008, when I reported on a die-off of West Coast chinooks that shut down much of the California fishery. Unfortunately for me, salmon was the only fish I knew how to cook (in my toaster oven, with teriyaki sauce. Mmmm.) But I felt guilty after learning about the wild fish’s plight–problems range from dams to pollution to ravenous sea lions–and whenever I spotted wild salmon on a menu, I envisioned shimmering chinooks valiantly flinging themselves up rapids with no thought of landing on my dinner plate.

The less photogenic alternative, of course, is farmed salmon, the source of most of our fresh salmon meat. The farmed fish, while typically less expensive than wild varieties, are reportedly bad for the environment, may contain more contaminants and look a bit scary to boot – the flesh is naturally gray, due to a lack of krill in the fishes' diet, so the meat is dyed pink. Not too appetizing.

But this month, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch–whose guidelines are gospel to the sustainable seafood crowd–announced its support for a new salmon-farming technique, the first it has ever endorsed. Most fish farms raise salmon in vast ocean net pens; the fish can escape and spread disease to wild populations. But at AquaSeed Corp., an aquaculture company based in Rochester, Washington, salmon are bred to be kept in freshwater tanks on land, which reduces pollution and the spread of sea lice and other maladies. The fish receive special feed, requiring less wild-caught fishmeal than the salmon at traditional farms. Furthermore, their meat contains plentiful omega-3 fatty acids and low enough levels of PCBs to land it squarely–cue the heavenly chorus!—on the Seafood Watch’s "Best Choices" and “Super Green” lists.

Coho salmon spawning, courtesy Flickr user "Soggydan" Dan Bennett

AquaSeed raises Pacific coho (silver) salmon, which is said to be a bit milder in flavor than sockeye or chinook but, with an artful slathering of teriyaki sauce and a steady hand at the toaster oven, still very tasty. Though production is relatively modest and you won't find it in stores yet, AquaSeed is reportedly working with big chains like Whole Foods and is selling salmon eggs to Asian fish farms.

“This is extremely exciting,” Geoffrey Shester, senior science manager for Seafood Watch, told Scientific American. “It’s not an experimental science project. It is mature to the point where there is real potential to scale it up.” (We like that pun.)

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