Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Fish farms produce so-called wild salmon?

When is a wild salmon not really wild? When it's raised for part of it's life in a fish farm called a hatchery.

Those so-called wild salmon you enjoy eating might have been fertilized in a bucket, then hatched in a tray and grown in a concrete pond for a year or more before being released into the ocean.

It's a dirty little secret of the "wild" salmon industry that the difference between some so-called "wild" salmon and "farmed" salmon is really just a matter of degree. Numbers vary with region and salmon species, but anywhere from 40% to 90% or more of so-called "wild" salmon come from salmon hatcheries that are essentially large-scale fish farms. The numbers are lowest in Alaska and higher in Washington, Oregon and California. For some species, notably chinook and sockeye from Alaska, it's likely (but not certain) that a fish called "wild" has never been inside of a bucket, tray, tank, or pond.

This is not the same problem as the mislabeling of farmed salmon as wild salmon. Hatchery fish are actually considered to be wild fish by all seafood standards currently in place, and hatchery-raised fish are considered to be wild fish by all seafood standards currently in place.

Definitive numbers are not available, but about 80% of west coast "wild" salmon from major rivers come from hatcheries. Even in Alaska, hatchery fish can be 70% or more of the catch of so-called "wild" salmon. So for many if not most salmon, a fish called "wild" has probably spent a major part of it's life in captivity being fed by people. Sort of blurs the distinction between wild and farmed fish, doesn't it?

Why should we care? Several reasons, including the huge price premium for "wild" salmon based on claims of health benefits, better taste and texture, lower environmental harm, and sustainability. If those benefits are only real for fish that have NEVER been in a fish farm, then you are being deceived. But if those benefits accrue during the last half of a salmon's life, then maybe it's ok to call a fish wild even if it was produced and raised in a hatchery.

Some evidence shows that young fish become contaminated during short periods exposed to toxic chemicals, so even a grow-out period in the ocean doesn't ensure fish are clean and healthy. Such problems loom even larger now that the melamine pet food scandal has spread to farmed and hatchery-raised salmon.

Many fishing guides believe strongly that hatchery life breeds salmon (or their cousins, steelhead) that are more like livestock than real wild fish, including my North Umpqua mentor Frank Moore, the world-renowned guide who first noticed the inferiority of North Umpqua hatchery steelhead. Sometimes, reeling in a hatchery fish is like a dead weight when compared to a robust and fiery fish that is truly wild, spawned in a river and never touched by a human.

What exactly is a "hatchery?" In general, hatcheries kill adult fish, mix their eggs and sperm in buckets, raise the eggs in trays until they swim, and then raise fish for up to 2 years in tanks or concrete ponds until they are ready to go to sea. The salmon then begin the wild portion of their lives in the ocean for 1-4 years until they return to freshwater to spawn (or get caught).

Thus, a "wild" salmon may live half its life in a pond and the next half swimming in the open ocean, compared to a "farmed" salmon that lives half its life in a pond and the next half in an open-ocean net pen. When in captivity, the "wild" and "farmed" salmon are in nearly identical conditions.

It's true that a year or more swimming free in the ocean is a significant difference. But is it enough to justify the whopping judgment of superiority given to "wild" salmon, even if they were spawned, hatched, and raised for part of their in a fish farm?

Decide for yourself. One thing is certain, the world of salmon is a lot more complicated than just wild vs. farmed. Hatchery fish that are called "wild" are somewhere in between these two extremes of wild and farmed, and nobody really knows whether hatchery salmon are more like farmed salmon or more like real wild salmon. Also certain is that if you eat so-called "wild" salmon you have probably paid wild fish prices (up to twice as high as farmed salmon or more) for fish that were spawned in a bucket and did some hard time in a concrete pond.

Image: hatchery where so-called "wild" fish get their start


Bix said...

Oh man ... I like a product called WildCatch. I thought I was buying wild salmon. They label it as "wild", but also as "harvested from a sustainable fishery." Man... (Thank you for a great post.)

Mark Powell said...

King (chinook) and sockeye from Alaska that is labeled "wild" has the fewest hatchery fish of any salmon products available, it appears. According to information that I've been able to find, the numbers are probably below 10% hatchery fish in those products. Not ideal, but not too bad.

Unfortunately, information is not great because people don't like to talk about this issue. Ask WildCatch to answer the question, and be persistent in seeking an answer. Only consumer pressure will get this issue out into the open.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,
We here in Ireland could be facing similar problems in the future.
Our current challenge is to restore the stocks of the Wild Atlantic Salmon after three decades of rampant over fishing and neglect of river systems. The Irish government have had to ban the drift net fishery as a drastic last resort solution because they failed to follow the scientific advice given to them over the years.

We now hope that with single river management systems in place for the wild salmon, such as Conservation Limits for each river, that the stock position will reverse itself.

With 100,000 or more salmon able to get back into the rivers to spawn, this must be of benefit.

The question of re-stocking and ranching re-stocked rivers will, I'm sure, soon become an issue here and your comments are very relevant.

Bix said...

Thanks for that feedback, Mark.

In Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", he shows the world's population increasing by about 4 billion in just the last 60 years, yet only increasing by about 1 billion in the span from 100,000 AD to the present 18th century.

I'm no expert here, but it occurs to me that overfishing and subsequent stock depletion probably led to fish farming, with its associated problems. I sure don't have an answer but I can see how such an exploding demand for food might lead to this. (I feel the same way about livestock factory farming, but I don't have an answer there either.)

Bix said...

BTW, I did write to WildCatch. It was over a year ago and I don't have their reply. I asked how their salmon could be wild if it was harvested from a fishery. Their answer was confusing for me, still is. Something to the effect of ... just because salmon are "managed" in a "fishery" doesn't mean they aren't "wild".

Mark Powell said...

Bix, Salmon are sold as either wild or farmed, and hatchery fish are lumped with wild.

Interestingly, biologists who study salmon are careful to distinguish between wild and hatchery salmon for many reasons. Hatchery fish are almost always harmful to wild fish when they interbreed or compete. Books have been written on this subject.

What region do WildCatch salmon come from? What species of salmon? My read of their website says they sell Alaska chinook, sockeye, coho and keta (chum).

My best info says that hatchery fish are less than 10% of so-called "wild" chinook, coho, and sockeye, but so-called "wild" keta (chum) have about 70% hatchery fish over the last decade. Thus, when you buy "wild" fish from WildCatch, you have a chance of buying hatchery fish. If it's keta, it's probably from a hatchery. If it's chinook, coho, or sockeye, it's probably not from a hatchery--but it might be.

Your questions are great because they show WildCatch that buyers care about the sources of their food.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making the connection between wild salmon and hatchery salmon. This deception has been carried out for over 130 years in the Northwest. It has been a nagging irritation that the enviros have paid so little attention to the impact of public hatchery farmed salmon and steelhead, for they have a degrading effect on wild salmonids across the landscape. Attention to the issues of farmed salmon is important and even more important is the impact of public funded farmed fish on wild salmonids in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia and Alaska. So thanks for connecting the dots. Great job.

Bix said...

Public funded? I have to say, I'm learning a lot here. Is that true? That our taxes are being spent to support the farming of fish?

Mark Powell said...

Hatcheries are publicly funded, yes. In some cases, it costs more to produce an adult salmon than that salmon is "worth" in the market. So not only is public money used, the cost is very high. The entire issue of publicly-funded hatcheries is a scandal in the eyes of some, because of harm to wild salmon from competition and interbreeding (among other problems). Is it worth blogfish digging a bit for figures on public spending for hatcheries?

Here's one reference I found with a quick search:

Anonymous said...

Hello Mark
Thought you might be interested in this youtube video..
not the music..

I do advertising and design for U.S. owned seafood companies.
American Gold Seafoods is the only U.S. owned Salmon farm and most of the employees are 20+ year veterans. They wouldn’t be in business if they ran their hatchery like this Alaskan one… Oh it’s illegal to farm salmon in Alaska .. LOL

Mark Powell said...

Amazing video, a day in the life of so-called "wild" salmon. Thanks for sending the link, I watched the whole thing once and I'll probably watch it again. I'm looking forward to more in this series, please post a link when it's ready, ok?

Unknown said...

When you buy Wildcatch brand salmon you are buying certified sustainable wild Alaskan salmon (MSC). We use no hatchery salmon in any of our frozen products. Our Keta is purchased from the native people of Kotzebue, our Sockeye comes from the largest red salmon fishery in the world('fishery' is an area of Alaska managed by the state for commercial fishing). We buy our king and coho salmon from the kuskokwim region and it too is wild. We have worked with Salmon Nation, Sustainable Connections, the Marine Stewardship Council, and Seafood Watch to name a few. I understand the word 'fishery' and 'harvest' can be misunderstood, but you can be certain that Wildcatch brand wild Alaskan salmon is just that, wild and never farmed.

Mark Powell said...

Why do you way wildcatch salmon are never from hatcheries? How can you be sure?

Do you know the difference between hatcheries and farmed salmon? Hatchery fish are called wild by most people because they are caught in the wild, never mind that they were raised in hatcheries for part of their life before being released into the wild.

Unknown said...

I say that Wildcatch products are wild and not from hatcheries because its true. we source our salmon from western Alaska, from the Aleutian chain north to the arctic circle. Salmon hatcheries in Alaska are found in south east Alaska and on Kodiak island. Our Sockeye are born naturally in the lakes that feed the 5 rivers of bristol bay. The King and Coho are from the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, harvested by native Alaskans, thousands of miles from the nearest hatchery. As well as the Arctic Keta from the Kotzebue bay a few hundred miles north of the arctic circle. We too are frustrated by hatchery fish, competing for the same feed as natural wild fish and lowering the price of coho and chum salmon to the native and local fishermen who struggle to make a living wage.

Mark Powell said...

OK, sounds like WildCatch has done everything possible to avoid hatchery fish. Maybe Wildcatch is the best place to buy truly wild salmon. I haven't investigated every salmon label, but Wildcatch sounds less likely to have any hatchery fish than most so-called "wild" salmon. Thanks for explaining.

Anonymous said...

Isn't also possible to tell a hatchery salmon from a wild salmon by the lack of an adipose(?) fin? I think I've heard at some point or another that many (all?) fish hatcheries clip fins to identify fish from hatcheries?

Mark Powell said...

Fin clips are used in some places, but I don't think they're universal. And that assumes that people want to separate hatchery from wild salmon. This is true for biologists, but NOT TRUE for most seafood marketing. Most seafood businesses are satisfied with the name "wild" for a hatchery salmon.

Anonymous said...

I would think that identifying the fish as hatchery fish would be popular with the hatchery operators. If people are catching lots of fish from hatcheries then they are more likely to think that they are a good idea and are more willing to contribute to funding the hatchery. Despite the potentially negative implications of a significant fraction of the fish being from a hatchery source.

I'm kind of doubtful that seafood marketers would be too worried about whether the fish had clipped fins or not. Most people buying the fish aren't going to see the fins in the first place. If they do see the fins they most likely won't notice or care if one of the adipose fin is missing

Anonymous said...

somewhere in between these two extremes of wild and farmed, and nobody really knows whether hatchery salmon are more like farmed salmon or more like real wild salmon. Also certain is that if you eat so-called

discus fish care and

KatieAlaska said...

I know this post is really old but I'm actually doing a research paper on Alaskan fisheries and I thought if there was still confusion I might try to clear it up. Regarding Bix's confusion on sustainable fisheries and their wild catch I think I might be able to explain what WildCatch said to him a little bit better. First a little bit about me: I am and have been a commercial fisherman in Alaska for the last 5 years. I am a 19 year old girl born and raised in Alaska. My father has participated in nearly all types of commercial, sport, and personal use fisheries there are and is also on several boards and a member of several associations that deal with "fish politics" in our area. This by no means makes me an expert but I do have lifetime of his fish stories, personal experience that I can draw from and a passion for fishing, conservation and my beautiful home state.

I'll tell you right now almost all alaskan fisheries are certified sustainable. This means that there are regulations in place in order to avoid overfishing or over harvest. The term harvest can be confusing because, since its a term used by farmers, it implies the harvesters had a hand in cultivating their product. This is not the case regarding Alaskan fish. When the Wild Catch people wrote back to Bix saying something along the lines of, "just because fish are managed in a fishery doesn't mean they're not wild" they were correct. To understand this answer I think we should have a little vocabulary lesson... A 'fishery' is a certain type of fisherman with very specific equipment, trying to harvest a specific kind of fish in a certain location. 'Management', means that a team of biologists monitors the fish populations in a certain area and make the rules to prevent overfishing
For example: I participate in the Sockeye Salmon Drift Gillnet fishery every summer in Upper Cook Inlet, Alaska. We have certain days with specific hours where we are allowed to fish, No exceptions. These openings are determined by the biologists (the fishery managers) who have made preseason predictions, based on past years, how many fish are expected to come back to the rivers for the current season and then, they count the fish that actually get by us, open ocean fishermen, and into the rivers.
The biologists job is to make sure that there is enough salmon swimming upstream to support not only the predatory animals and human sport and personal use fisheries that happen from the river banks, but also that there are enough salmon to spawn and ensure strong runs in the years to come. Sustainability is extremely important to Alaskans and fisherman. The fact that our fisheries are sustainable just means that our management has been successful in perpetuating the strength and longevity of the salmon as a natural, renewable resource. It really has very little to do with whether the salmon are truly wild or partially wild or farmed.

P.S. In my opinion regarding the high price of any degree of wild salmon versus cheap farmed has a lot to do with the means of obtaining the fish in addition to better quality. Believe me, it's hard work to catch all the fish that I do, and I have the scars to prove it. Whether my salmon originated in a river or a hatchery doesn't matter to me when I go to sell them. I put the same effort in either way. Farmed fish are easily moved from their tanks to where they are killed and then processed. This is a point that I think is largely ignored because 1) consumers don't really care/want to know and 2) the superior nutritional value and purity of wild fish vs farmed is enough of a marketing technique.