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


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.

Like CAFOs, fish farms are incubators of disease, and one particular parasite is common -- sea lice. While sea lice are naturally occurring in the ocean and pose no threat to healthy, full-grown fish, they are deadly for juveniles. And unfortunately, British Columbia's salmon farms, infested with millions of sea lice, are sited right where juvenile salmon (or smolts) must pass through as they migrate out of rivers and streams to the ocean.

"It just takes a few sea lice to kill a smolt," said Kavanagh. "In a recent study published in Science it shows that reoccurring sea lice outbreaks killed up to 80 percent of wild pink salmon juveniles in some of the migrations streams with salmon farms present. The bottom line in BC is that wherever there are wild salmon, there should not be fish farms.  Wild salmon are not just important for a healthy ecosystem in BC, coastal communities rely on them economically and they are culturally and spiritually important for the First Nations there."

Wild salmon help support populations of orcas, bald eagles and grizzly bears.

"This shows a blatant disregard for the natural ecosystem of the area," said Alexandra Morton, director of the Salmon Coast Field Station. "Preservation of wild salmon depends upon the relocation of open-net salmon farms."

British Columbia is not the only place in trouble. Sea lice are common wherever salmon are farmed, but there are other health issues, too. Chile was just about to overtake Norway as the largest farmed-salmon-producing country until disaster struck -- it was hit with an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia (ISA).

The New York Times reported in February:

When a devastating virus swept through Chile's farmed-salmon stocks last year, some of the industry's biggest players laid off thousands of workers, packed up operations and moved to unspoiled waters farther south along the Chilean coast. But the virus went with them.

Last month, the Chilean government began hashing out tougher measures to improve the sanitary and environmental conditions of the troubled industry. But producers expect still-deeper losses this year, as the virus continues to kill millions of fish slated for export to the United States and other countries.

The decimation of the salmon-farming industry in Chile caused economic and environmental backlash.

"Some say the industry is raising its fish in ways that court disaster, and producers are coming under new pressure to change their methods to preserve southern Chile's cobalt blue waters for tourists and other marine life," the New York Times reported in a 2008 story.

You Are What You Eat

Of course, if you've got unhealthy fish, what's a "farmer" to do? Well, if you follow the CAFO playbook, that means jack them full of all sorts of drugs.

It turns out that salmon feed is loaded with antibiotics and other chemicals, some of which are outlawed in the U.S. for threats to human and marine health.

"Intensive farming breaks natural laws of density, distribution biodiversity and survival of the fittest. Disease is nature's relentless response to overcrowding, and so the farmers have to resort to drugs," British Columbia's Raincoast Research Society reported. "Small bays which might support a few hundred salmon in intermittent bursts throughout the year, are now filled with up to 1 million to 2 million stationary salmon. This is the best thing to happen to fish pathogens on this coast since the glaciers receded.

"In such close proximity, the feces of the crowded fish pass over each other's gills. Because the fish are confined and unable to migrate, pathogens accumulate into a rich broth. Antibiotics can keep most farm salmon alive long enough to reach market size, but leave the fish contagious, shedding pathogens into marine currents."

Of course this isn't just a problem in B.C., and the use of antibiotics has been particularly well documented in Chile. The New York Times reported that to produce a ton of salmon, 70 to 300 times more antibiotics are being used in Chile than in Norway, and these may be a threat to human health. The 2008 article stated:

Researchers say that some antibiotics that are not allowed in American aquaculture, like flumequine and oxolinic acid, are legal in Chile and may increase antibiotic resistance for people. Last June, the United States Food and Drug Administration blocked the sale of five types of Chinese seafood because of the use of fluoroquinolones and other additives.

Using documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, Pew Environment Group found other reasons to worry about what's being dumped into salmon feed:

The pesticide and antibiotic residues found are of concern due to their potential effects on human health and the environment. The pesticide emamectin benzoate, for example, is "very toxic to aquatic organisms" and "may cause long-term adverse effects in the environment," according to the manufacturer's safety data. The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in fish destined for food production also raises concerns about possible antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in humans.

Their report showed that in 2007 only 40 samples of imported farmed salmon from Chile were tested by the EPA -- out of over 100,000 imported tons of the fish. At the time, the U.S was importing most of its salmon from Chile.

Concern has also been raised about the level of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in farmed salmon. In 2004, the journal Science sounded the alarm about contaminants that may be in the food fed to farmed salmon. MSNBC summed it up:

The authors tied the chemical levels to fish food used in sea pens. Fish food is typically made from concentrated oil from other fish that absorbed chemicals in their fat during their lifetime. Wild salmon, on the other hand, have a more varied diet.

Eating more than one meal of farm-raised salmon per month, depending on its country of origin, could slightly increase the risk of getting cancer later in life, the researchers concluded.

The main issue with PCBs, Kavanagh explained, is that in order to feed farmed salmon, which are carnivores, producers have to harvest other wild fish, and sometimes these fish come from areas high in PCBs, like the North Sea. Not only does that pose a potential health risk for people eating the fish, but it's also bad for the world's fisheries.

 "The fact that we are taking wild fish out of the ocean to feed to this farm system is a big problem," said Kavanagh. "Right now overfishing is already threatening many important food fisheries with collapse. That was the promise of aquaculture, that it would feed the millions and take the pressure off of wild stocks. But instead it's contributing to the depletion of the world's oceans, taking on average 3 pounds of wild fish to make 1 pound of farmed salmon."

Runaways and Runaway Waste

Like its CAFO cousin, salmon-farming operations also generate a lot of waste, and because they are located in open waters, this waste goes directly into the environment.

Most people never think of the waste that comes from fish, but when there's a big concentration of them, it can be huge. Living Oceans Society reports that "the biomass of farmed salmon at an average farm site equals 480 Asian bull elephants -- that is 2,400 tons of eating, excreting livestock."

And that means everything that goes into the operation, comes out.

"So all things, like uneaten feed, any medications and millions of tons of feces, go directly into the ocean without any kind of filtering and no sanitizing," said Kavanagh. "That is like a big sewer tank being let go in the ocean."

The other thing that often goes right from the pens into the ocean are the salmon themselves. Bad weather and other natural disasters have made for lots of farmed salmon escaping into the wild each year -- about 3 million -- according to the coalition group Pure Salmon Campaign.

This means more of a chance to contaminate wild salmon with disease. It also means that those fish are now competing with wild fish for food, and in most areas, the farmed salmon are an invasive species. "In areas with wild salmon there is a degradation of the genetic wild stock," Kavanagh added. "In British Columbia where most all farmed salmon are Atlantic salmon there's a real concern about escaped salmon interbreeding with, and out-competing local wild salmon populations."

What's a Fish-Eater to Do?

Some environmental advocates say to only eat wild salmon if you've got a hankering for the fish. And groups like Raincoast Research Society say the farmed-salmon industry is simply not sustainable. They wrote:

Farming fish has been practiced for thousands of years, but not in the manner now underway on many temperate coasts worldwide today. Traditionally, fish that eat vegetable matter were used, such as carp or tilapia. For thousands of years, Chinese fish farms have cycled waste from vegetable crops through their fish, and then used the waste from the fish to fertilize the next vegetable crop. This sustainable, closed-loop system created protein. In the late 1970s however, a Norwegian hydro company, Norsk Hydro, initiated the first corporate effort to farm salmon. Salmon are carnivores. No one has successfully farmed a carnivore.

But the Environmental Working Group disagrees.

"Farm-raised fish are here to stay," it wrote. "If raised correctly, these fish can help meet global demand for high-quality protein and take some of the pressure off of highly depleted populations of wild fish."

Clearly, if that's the case, some major reforms are needed.

First, says Kavanagh, if there are wild salmon in the same environment, the fish farms either need to be moved or made to be totally enclosed systems so that farm waste, feed, drugs, parasites and escapees don't make it into the ocean. And, to protect fishery stocks, the feed should not come from wild forage fish, either.

Groups like the Pure Salmon Campaign, which works in coalition with environmental groups around the world, have been pressuring the largest salmon-farming companies -- Marine Harvest and Cermaq -- to make some changes. Both are publicly owned Norwegian companies, with the Norwegian government a majority shareholder in Cermaq. Activists say that when these companies operate overseas, they don't abide by the same, stricter laws enforced in their home country.

"The industry needs to apply the same rigorous standards for every country," said Kavanagh. "If they operate their farms a certain way in Norway, they should be doing the same in Chile and British Columbia, but they're not -- instead they operate to the lowest common denominator."

And for some, that lowest common denominator raises some serious problems.

The Raincoast Research Society wrote: "Salmon farming is not sustainable. It starves one ocean of fish, and pollutes another with the same fish. Its profit margin is so slight it cannot afford to deal with its own waste. Its product is of questionable food quality, being high in PCBs, low in omega oils and dyed pink."

But it goes beyond that. "It is favored politically because it produces salmon without a river, leaving the resource-rich watersheds of British Columbia open for exploitation. It is a classic example of destruction of the commons to promote the privately owned," RRS concludes.

And this idea of privatization extends to Chile.

"We are transforming public assets into financial capital," Lucio Cuenca from the Latin American Observatory for Environmental Conflicts told the Center for International Policy.

All that is likely to leave consumers with a pretty bad taste in their mouths.

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