Salmon’s popularity is undeniable—it’s one of the top three seafood products eaten in the U.S. (alongside shrimp and tuna). Salmon are a northern hemisphere species that spend most of their lives at sea but play a critical role in rivers and ocean ecosystems. As a “keystone species,” their existence influences the survival of many other species, providing a vital source of nutrients for both animal and plant life from the forest to the sea. In fact, researchers can trace nutrients from salmon in the tops of old-growth trees in the ancient rainforests of British Columbia.
The salmon industry is divided into two major sectors: wild caught and farmed. Wild salmon are caught in Canada, Russia, the United States, and, to a lesser extent, Europe. In the U.S., Alaska is home to the world’s most prominent wild-caught salmon industry, producing approximately 850,000 tons of salmon annually. Europe and Eastern North America used to have strong salmon runs, but Atlantic salmon populations have dwindled relative to their historical size and serve as a cautionary tale of overfishing and habitat change.
Salmon farming is predominantly concentrated in Norway, Chile, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and produces mainly Atlantic salmon and a few other species, such as steelhead or Coho. There are environmental issues that are worth understanding for both the wild and farmed industries before you next head to the grocery store.
Challenges Facing the Salmon Industry
Wild-caught salmon issues include:
conflicts over who has rights to the salmon stocks given that salmon can traverse many international boundaries
habitat loss in watersheds where salmon spawn due to logging or mining
interactions between hatchery-reared fish and wild fish
In the case of hatcheries, the concern is that artificially enhanced salmon stocks can interact with wild stocks both on fishing grounds and in rivers while spawning. Hatchery fish breeding with wild fish in spawning grounds can affect the health of a salmon population by reducing overall genetic diversity.
The impacts of the salmon farming industry have been more widely publicized, ranging from the effects of farm pollution on marine habitats below salmon pens, to the killing of sea lions who get tangled in the farming nets, the transfer of disease or sea lice from farmed salmon to wild salmon, and the use of feed and chemicals. While there have been improvements, as demonstrated by the availability of both green and yellow Seafood Watch–rated farmed salmon, work remains to be done in markets such as Norway, the United Kingdom, and Eastern Canada, where most salmon are rated “avoid”.
In the U.S., the future of salmon farming is unclear. Production has improved in Maine (now recognized as an “Approved” choice in the James Beard Foundation Smart Catch program), but salmon farming has been banned for years in Alaska, and is now also banned in Washington state after a massive escape event at a salmon farm caused legislators to act in early 2018.
So, should salmon be featured as a menu item? The answer is a resounding yes, provided you make the appropriate choice. Fortunately, there are good wild and farmed options. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website is an excellent resource, but here are a few examples to get started:
Wild Salmon Choices
Wild Alaskan salmon are harvested from the open ocean, transported for processing to small Alaskan coastal fishing communities, and exported to consumers worldwide. Since these long-established villages and towns rely on salmon for their livelihood, they are incentivized to support long-term, sustainable fisheries management.
River Select Salmon in B.C. represents salmon fisheries that are truly artisanal and focused on place-based branding. According to their website, they “draw from countless generations of First Nations experience to selectively harvest the best wild salmon from the pristine rivers of British Columbia.”
Farmed Salmon Choices
Seafood Watch gave Maine Atlantic farmed salmon a “good alternative” rating in 2016, making it the first North American farmed salmon to receive that rating (British Columbia has since qualified at the same level).
New Zealand chinook salmon farmed in marine net pens is a Seafood Watch “best choice”. In order to mimic the species’ life cycle in the wild (going from fresh water to salt), rearing starts in spring-fed hatcheries and in less than a year, smolts are transferred to the Marlborough Sound waters where they are raised at a 98% water space to 2% salmon ratio until harvest. Evidence shows minimal environmental impacts, including no disease or parasite outbreaks and low risk of impacts from escapes.
The Nordic Blu brand of Atlantic salmon produced in the Skjerstad Fjord in Norway is a “best choice.” With strong tidal currents carrying saltwater back and forth from the sea and substantial freshwater flowing in from nearby rivers and valleys, most environmental impacts are minimized. Furthermore, lower salinity levels render the fjord inhospitable to parasites, minimizing the need for chemicals and antibiotics.
While the salmon industry continues to face its share of challenges, some producers have made progress in the right direction. It’s important to shift our perspective on salmon from a daily food staple to a premium product to ensure its longevity. That way, salmon can continue to provide value to diners both as a healthy dinner item and one that can help support jobs in the seafood industry.