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How Farm-Raised Salmon Are Turning Our Oceans Into Dangerous and Polluted Feedlots

"Farm-raised salmon" sounds nice and sustainable, but they've become harbingers of disease, contaminating the oceans with antibiotics and toxic chemicals.

The fish makes gourmets rejoice. Smoked-salmon quiche, grilled salmon with lime butter sauce, salmon sushi, poached salmon fillets with dill crème fraîche -- really the choices with salmon are endless and delicious.

The omega-3-fatty-acid-rich fish is also coveted for its health benefits. And, if you're looking for protein, eating salmon seems a great alternative to industrial-produced meat in the U.S. But somehow this dream fish has become a nightmare. As it turns out, farmed salmon comes with its own set of environmental and health issues -- threatening wild salmon populations, becoming harbingers of disease, and contaminating the oceans with antibiotics and toxic chemicals. And if you're eating salmon in the U.S., the chances are very good that it's farm raised.

Only about 10 percent of salmon on the market in the U.S. is actually wild these days Alex Trent, executive director of the industry group Salmon of the Americas, told the New York Times.

If this were a few years ago, your farm-raised salmon would have come from Chile, but since a disease outbreak has crashed the industry there, the U.S. has looked elsewhere for imports. If you're on the West Coast your farmed salmon is most likely from British Columbia, and if you're elsewhere in the U.S. it's probably from either Norway, Ireland or Scotland. And that's actually a bad thing -- for more than just food miles.

While salmon "farming" conjures an agrarian image, the industry is more akin to CAFOs -- the concentrated animal feeding operations -- used by the industrial meat industry that is responsible for most of the chicken, burgers and pork that Americans consume. They're also responsible for a lot of waste and pollution that comes with raising a whole bunch of creatures in a confined space.

The farmed-salmon industry, which raises the fish in floating "pens," has some striking similarities to CAFOs. The industry was jump-started a few decades ago, and it was initially seen as a great boon for wild salmon, which have been decimated by dams, pollution and invasive species.

If more people eat farmed salmon, the reasoning went, then that would help protect wild salmon populations. Unfortunately, that hasn't exactly panned out.

Raising salmon in farms has meant that you can buy salmon (although not wild) at a much cheaper price, and that has helped to keep the popular fish on the dinner table -- but at what cost to the environment and human health?

Incubators of Disease

We've all seen the pictures or heard the stories of how animals live on today's version of the "farm" -- the CAFO.

Squeezed into pens, the animals are fed the same diets, injected with antibiotics and other drugs to fend off the inevitable disease outbreaks, and their waste washes into waterways, causing widespread pollution.

The same is true for salmon farms, only the problem is largely invisible -- hidden beneath the surface of the sea.

"You can't look at a salmon farm and just see the problems on the surface," said Andrea Kavanagh, manager of the Salmon Aquaculture Reform Campaign for the Pew Environment Group. "They are usually in some gorgeous British Columbia or Chile and the only thing you see on the top are a few buoys and some nets, it really looks like a pretty low intensive operation."

But the reality is quite different. These farms can stretch as far as four football fields and contain over a million fish crammed together in floating pens.

In British Columbia, which sells most of its farmed salmon to the U.S., there are some 100 farms submerged in the cold water of coastal bays. The provincial government is hoping that the industry will double in the next decade, but that would be bad news for the the region's wild salmon.

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