Investigative journalists give salmon aquaculture the pink slip
In 2017, a salmon farm in Puget Sound began to collapse because the nets had not been cleaned. The nets were covered in mussels and algae, and more than 250,000 exotic Atlantic salmon escaped into Pacific waters and caused an environmental disaster. The event led to a movement by citizens and Washington state lawmakers to ban open-net salmon farming in the waters. Today, salmon net farming is prohibited on the West Coast of the United States.
Farmed salmon can be found in every grocery store, and salmon farming is the fastest growing food production system in the world. In their book “Salmon Wars‘, investigative journalists Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins dive deep into salmon farming and discover a totally unappetizing world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: What is a salmon farm? Are they akin to CAFO (confined animal husbandry) feedlots where cows are raised intensively?
Catherine Collins: It’s a very good comparison to make. Imagine a floating buoy larger than a football field, anchored in a fragile cove where the waters are calm, often located on a migration route of wild salmon. The farm will generally consist of 10 to 12 cages. They’re also called pans, and they’re made of a tough plastic mesh that’s supposed to allow ocean currents to pass through, while keeping predators out. The cages are suspended by flotation devices and extend 30 or 50 feet below the surface of the water, and each cage can hold up to 100,000 fish and a farm can hold up to a million salmon.
According to a study, the excrement, excess food and chemical residues from a single farm can equal the waste produced by a small town of 65,000 people. But a city’s waste is treated, while a salmon farm is allowed to dump its waste directly into the ocean, where it creates a toxic stew under the salmon farm that damages the seabed below, but also the marine life at hundreds of meters beyond the farm. Some salmon spend up to two years crammed into cages where they are prey to disease, parasites and climate change. 15-20% of these fish die each year before they can be caught.
Is this the model that is most used for salmon farming in the world?
Douglas Frantz: Yes it is. (Over the past 20 years), salmon farming has grown into a $20 billion global industry. It is controlled by a handful of multinationals. And 90% of the salmon we eat in the United States and Canada is raised on these farms. 70% of this is imported. These fish farms are almost identical all over the world.
We are told that salmon is one of the healthiest protein choices we can make. Is it really true?
Collins: I think consumers should be wary of eating farmed salmon. When you read the salmon packaging, it often boasts that the fish is organic, sustainable and naturally raised. But the reality is strangely different. Science warns that residues of pesticides, antibiotics, PCBs and farmed salmon pose risks to our health, especially if you are pregnant, or if you are an infant or child. These risks were identified decades ago, but the industry has done very little to eliminate the dangers.
When I think of this particular industry, it seems like a place where scientific curiosity, combined with a lack of regulation and greed, have come together to produce a juggernaut that looks a lot like big tobacco.
Frantz: We found parallels with large tobacco producers, as well as large agricultural companies and the automobile industry. Science does not say that eating farmed salmon is as dangerous to your health as smoking. However, there are similarities. And the main similarity is that for years the tobacco industry suppressed the science about the link between smoking and cancer. Similarly, the salmon farming industry has suppressed critical studies of contaminants found in farmed Atlantic salmon.
In 2004, a study published in Science Magazine indicated that farmed Atlantic salmon contained seven times more PCBs than wild salmon. PCBs are carcinogenic and build up in your body over time. The flesh of this fish is pink – how do they make it so pink? Consider going to the paint store where you can look at the colors of the paint chips – they have something [like that] for the salmon industry called Salmofan. It has a similar color range and you can use certain amounts of dye to get exactly the color you want for your salmon.
Labeling and marketing is a recurring problem in the seafood industry. What is the government’s responsibility to ensure public safety?
Collins: We think the government has a huge responsibility on this particular topic, and generally on food safety. Three years ago, the FDA only inspected 89 samples from 379,000 tons of imported fish. They need to do a better job. They do a much better job with other products than with seafood.
“The droppings, excess food and chemical residues of a single [fish] farm can equal the waste produced by a small town of 65,000 inhabitants according to a study”, explains Catherine Collins. Photo courtesy of Macmillan.