Well-known for its high protein, high omega-3 fatty acids, and high vitamin D content, like most seafood salmon is becoming an increasingly popular food, especially in places that don’t traditionally have access to oceans-going fish. In order to service this demand, an increase in farmed salmon has spread across the globe. 99% of all Atlantic salmon commercially available are farmed (while more than 80% of Pacific salmon is harvested from the wild). While harvesting wild salmon (wild anything really) is more beneficial in terms of nutrient content, sustainable fisheries practices are necessary to maintain a healthy and vibrant population. With the advent of damming rivers and mining activities, logging, et al, the situation for wild salmon migrations has turned political. On the one hand there are many native populations that still depend on salmon for a large part of their diet and economic livelihood, not to mention their millennia-old cultural importance. And on the other hand there are large commercial interests jockeying for access to energy sources, logging rights, mineral deposits, and hegemony over the fish farming industry itself. Who knew a large majority of the world’s salmon supply was farmed in Chile? Which begs multiple questions: 1) is there enough wild salmon to go around and 2) is the proliferation of farmed salmon doing more damage than good in harming the environment, the fish, and we, the consumers, who just want a damn taco?
The NOAA fisheries stat sheet states that “Coho salmon on the west coast of the United States have experienced dramatic declines in abundance during the past several decades as a result of human-induced and natural factors. Water storage, withdrawal, conveyance, and diversions for agriculture, flood control, domestic, and hydropower purposes have greatly reduced or eliminated historically accessible habitat. Physical features of dams, such as turbines and sluiceways, have resulted in increased mortality of both adults and juvenile salmonids.”
The key characteristic of salmon is adaptability. What else would you expect from an anadromous fish? Being born in fresh water river beds, migrating to the ocean to feed, then returning, often to the exact place of their own birth to spawn, and then unceremoniously dying in a heap of stinking fish flesh. What an epic life. Yet one that the farmed variety never gets to experience. It does not hunt, as it is fed fish pellets (a ratio of 1.5 – 8 kilograms of wild fish are needed to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon) and never gets to expire in spawning ecstasy yet rather mills about in its open net pens, polluting the ocean floor and proliferating sea lice.
While the majority of coho salmon seem to inhabit the waters surrounding Alaska, they range throughout the Pacific from Japan and eastern Russian, and south all the way to Monterey Bay, California. As baby fry, coho feed frantically on aquatic insects and plankton, as well as cannibalizing their own the eggs deposited by adult spawning salmon. They grow peacefully in the pooling river beds, ponds and lakes, eating and defending their turf from their cousin fish, trout and char. But there is simply not enough food present in fresh water for their growth. So they head out to sea to gorge on all sorts of fish and squid. Yet even as technologically savvy as modern fishery sciences are we know little about the ocean migrations of coho salmon. Tagging has shown that maturing Southeast Alaska coho move northward throughout the spring and congregate in the central Gulf of Alaska in June–probably one final feeding frenzy–until at some point setting off toward shore and reaching their stream of origin. Once the return home begins they never eat again, eventually even dissolving their own stomachs to make room for eggs and sperm. Now that is dedication.
After reentering fresh water the dehydrated salmon change appearance and lose their delicious flavor as the salt leeches from their bodies. Weakened by the long journey and fight to spawn they, and their fresh laid patch of roe are easy pickings for bears, the ecosystem engineers of the forest. It is the bears unique fishing ability that allows them to rely on salmon as a major food source. Once caught the bears transport the fish to the forest where the remains become nutrients for the soil, trees, and plants. The salmon leftovers are scavenged by birds and other animals and eventually feed the forest floor and release nitrogen as they decompose, also feeding the trees. And the cycle continues. Unless you’re a Norwegian farmed salmon. Then it is abruptly stopped.
The Audubon Society reports that wetlands that connect lakes and rivers leading from forests to the open sea are crucial to maintaining a healthy salmon population. Over the last 200 years, the continental United States have lost at least half of all its wetlands. NOAA goes on to say that “Washington and Oregon’s wetlands have been estimated to have been diminished by one third, while it is estimated that California has experienced a 91 percent loss of its wetland habitat.” Human action in wild habitats, once a part of the natural cycle of life, has become an intrusive, destructive and catastrophic to the general welfare of the entire ecosystem. So sayonara wild salmon. Hello farmed fish. Hope you’re happy, people in Kansas, yes now you too can eat salmon.
While farming fish may be an exploding market of potential revenue for investors the larger item at stake here is not just one fish but the entire Pacific ocean coastal ecosystem. There must be balance or we will wipe out a keystone species. That will most likely have devastating effects on a wide range of issues we have no idea the depth of. Let the rivers flow and the wetlands return and their will be fish, wild and healthy, enough for us all who live within reach. Those living in landlocked regions can eat what is available, as their ancestors once did. Keep Salmon wild. And properly labeled. And now, please enjoy what I caught, cleaned, cooked and ate with a deliciously home-brewed double IPA last night.