Behind that Farmed Salmon Steak

by Seth Zuckerman*
Spring 2001

While genetic engineering is a pervasive affront to the wildness that surrounds us, humans have manipulated Mother Nature's bounty for some time. In particular, we've developed a talent for cultivating and mixing the nearest and dearest elements of the natural world: our food. Crossing different varieties of crops and livestock has long been used to create hybrid flora and fauna that better meets our needs, suits our tastes and fills our stomachs (and wallets).
How do these subtle changes in color, texture and yield affect the other members of the ecosystem? Could an innocuous supermarket salmon steak really impact anything other than your gut? You be the judge.


*The following was adapted from "Behind That Farmed Salmon Steak," by Seth Zuckerman, in Salmon Nation: People and Fish at the Edge (Ecotrust, 1999; Edward C. Wolf and Seth Zuckerman, editors).

The sight of a whole salmon in the supermarket conjures up the feral power of these fish, which range the high seas for years until they zero in on their home river for the final chapter of their lives. They evade sea lions and grizzly bears, leap cascades and waterfalls, and couple in streams too small to contain their robust bodies. Ingest a morsel of this fish, the word "salmon" seems to promise, and it will imbue you with some of that wild strength and perseverance.

But if you eat salmon these days, you may well be consuming a product that's no wilder than a grain-fed steer. A glut of farmed salmon - amounting to roughly half of the world's supply - has flooded the market from fish feedlots around the globe. These factory farms consist of mesh pens anchored in cold-water bays and inlets in places such as Norway, Scotland, Chile, Washington State and British Columbia. The ingredients in the salmon they produce are quite different from what goes into their free-ranging cousins captured by nets or hooks.

In captivity, salmon are raised on a diet of oily brown fishmeal pellets made from inexpensive fish such as anchovetas, sardines and mackerel. Raising each pound of farmed salmon takes four pounds of those smaller fish, in effect wasting three-quarters of the catch that is processed into fishmeal. In this way, B.C. farms alone account for a loss of nearly 90 thousand tons of edible protein each year. Wild salmon flesh gets its color from the fish's prey, particularly krill, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans. But the fishmeal pellets turn the flesh of farmed salmon a pale gray. Fish farmers know that gray salmon won't sell well, so they add dye to their feed. And because salmon are natural-born predators, smaller native fish (including juvenile wild salmon) that stray into the farms don't stand a chance. Salmon farmers notice that when native oolichan (minnow-sized smelt that are important to indigenous people's diets) pass by the pens, the salmon stop eating their fishmeal pellets but "mysteriously" continue to gain weight.