Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Alaska's (not) wild salmon

Alaska hates farmed salmon...until Alaska produces them and re-brands them "wild."

It's a little-known fact that many of Alaska's so-called "wild" salmon start their lives in a fish farm before being allowed to escape into the ocean.

Do you think I'm kidding? Read this just released by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation:
Pink salmon in the Prince William Sound (Alaska) are a modern, man-made marvel. Hatcheries operated by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation and the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) are responsible for virtually all of the pink salmon harvested in Prince William Sound.
A man-made marvel? These so-called "wild" Alaska salmon start their lives in fish farms before escaping into the ocean and being caught as "wild."

What do these salmon look like in a store?

And what does the salmon industry tell us about these salmon?

Salmon newly hatched from eggs remain in fresh water for about a year before heading out to sea. The fish feed and grow in the ocean for an average of four to seven years. Remarkably, each fish will return to the exact stream in which it hatched to spawn and die.
Oh really? Nothing about people collecting eggs in a bucket (see photo at right)?

I suppose describing this picture in a "wild" salmon brochure wouldn't produce the same image of romance and charisma...
...two men lean over a bowl in a laboratory with eager anticipation as the first eggs begin to spill out of the female salmon, soon to be followed by miracle of fertilization...the fertilized eggs are then stacked on temperature-controlled racks to be monitored daily until they hatch and are released into the cold clear waters filling concrete ponds, their home until they get big enough to swim out to sea...

Moving on, what does the salmon industry tell us is thebiggest enemy of Alaska's wild salmon?

There is, however, a threat to this heaven-sent fish that concerns all who love to catch and consume Wild Salmon. The threat is Farmed Fish. With the increasing popularity of salmon farms around the world, commercial fishermen aren't the only ones paying the price. Penned fish have an increased risk of disease. Fish escaping from these farms, into the open ocean, pose a serious hazard to the health of wild salmon stocks.
Say what?

The biggest problem for wild salmon is when farmed salmon escape from fish farms into the ocean? But letting farmed salmon escape into the ocean is exaclty how Alaska produces most of it's pink salmon and many of it's other salmon (sockeye, coho, and chinook--also known as king salmon). In some places in Alaska, so-called "wild" salmon catches are dominated by hatchery fish, even for the most prestigious chinook (king) salmon. These man-made salmon are hugely popoular among the people of Alaska, based on public support for the hatchery program.

The fine words about wild Alaska salmon are hardly matching the reality, and almost everyone in Alaska seems OK with that. Maybe the real cause of Alaska's opposition to fish farms is market competition between Alaska's hatchery-supplemented "wild" fish and farmed fish produced elsewhere.

We'll come back to the probems further down, first let's hear from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says about the recent boom in so-called "wild" salmon production from Prince William Sound, quoted in Alaska Dispatch
The average annual harvest for the most recent decade-long period stands near 45 million salmon per year. How salmon harvests in the Sound doubled, and then doubled again, has everything to do with human alterations to the environment. But not in the form of spilled oil.

"It's the hatchery fish,'' said John Hilsinger, commercial fisheries supervisor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "There's a real large number of hatchery fish."
There can be no doubt, Alaska is dependent on farm-produced salmon that escape by design into the ocean. Statewide totals are 1.2 to 1.4 billion salmon each year that are raised in hatcheries and released into the ocean, accounting for 14% to 37% of annual salmon catch. Overall odds are about 1 in 4 that a so-called wild Alaska salmon actually started it's life in a fish farm.

According to Trout Unlimited, the statewide figures by species in 2000 were:
64% of the 2000 statewide Alaska commercial harvest of chums, 42% of pinks, 24% of coho, 4% of sockeye, and 19% of Chinook salmon were of hatchery-produced fish.

Is the salmon industry worried about these salmon that are allowed to escape intentionally from fish farms? No, in fact the salmon industry is eager to expand hatchery production of salmon in Alaska. From the Alaska Dispatch:

So why not do more to boost the salmon economy in the Sound? What's wrong with a bigger fish spill?

That is a hard question to answer. A lot of people think helping out nature by adding things -- can you say "bird feeder"? -- is a good thing. Only when it comes to subtracting things -- can you say "aerial wolf hunt"? -- or adding ugly things -- can you say "oil spill"? -- do people get upset about nature tampering.

Even officials at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game -- having originally questioned the hatchery expansion -- are now in the process of approving most of PWSAC's requests for expansion. What else are they going to do?

"You're not going to shut down the hatcheries,'' Eggers said. "The Sound is supported by hatcheries now. The (fishing) industry depends on hatcheries."

Is this a problem? Also quoting from Alaska Dispatch:
"Our obligation to manage wild (salmon) stocks in Prince William Sound is very challenged at current levels of population,'' an April memorandum from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game warns. "Department straying studies suggest that at current production levels, hatchery salmon straying may pose an unacceptable risk to wild salmon stocks."

This warning comes from a review of Alaska's salmon hatcheries by the University of Alaska:
Based on a review of the scientific literature and discussions with biologists, geneticists, and fishery managers about protecting salmon biodiversity, the potential impacts of extensive ocean ranching appear to pose a great concern...

Fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn, who is often a good friend of the fishing industry, has this stark warning about artificial production of salmon, especialy when it's desgined to boost fishing:
Artificial propagation is often seen as a way to maintain and increase or augment fish stocks that have suffered from habitat loss and overexploitation. Large-scale hatchery programs for salmonids in the Pacific Northwest have largely failed to provide the anticipated benefits; rather than benefiting the salmon populations, these programs may pose the greatest single threat to the long-term maintenance of salmonids. Fisheries scientists, by promoting hatchery technology and giving hatchery tours, have misled the public into thinking that hatcheries are necessary and can truly compensate for habitat loss. I argue that hatchery programs that attempt to add additional fish to existing healthy wild stocks are ill advised and highly dangerous.

This is not a new issue. Scientists and conservationist have been critiquing salmon hatcheries for a long time, although Alaska has better practices than some other areas and has so far escaped the worst criticism. Blogfish has been knocking on this door for years, and salmon farming advocates have been calling for a more truthful comparison between farmed salmon and Alaska's so-called wild salmon.

Maybe we're finally starting to see a broader recognition that there is a bit of mythology behind the reputation of Alaska salmon.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely smack on Mark! This is one of your lengthier blogs, so I would think there is a bit of emotion behind this one!

As Jan Konigsberg wrote for Trout Unlimited years ago, "Alaska has long poo-pood salmon farming, but ocean ranching may in fact be a greater risk to wild salmon"...

Jan's funding was immediately cut by guess who - the Packard Foundation. Yes, the same Foundation that funds everything that attacks salmon farming. Hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

Those who "grow salmon"-which would include hatcheries and farmers-should get together and promote salmon for the healthy food it is. This in-fighting between salmon people doesn't help sell your product. People will just turn to beef, and that's not a smart choice when compared to seafood.

Leslie Banners

Jan Konigsberg said...

Actually, as it was explained to me by the regional Trout Unlimited director to whom I reported for purposes of my Alaska Salmonid Biodiversity Project,it was Moore Foundation that made my departure from Trout Unlimited a pre-requisite for funding TU work in Alaska.

To my knowledge, Trout Unlimited has not pursued reforming Alaska's hatchery program since (2003). Nor has the Alaska Board of Fish, nor has the Department of Fish and Game.

In fact, this summer the Commissioner Fish and Game overruled the staff recommendation to reject Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association's request to increase hatchery production. Instead the commissioner approved increasing sockeye from 10.2 to 12.4 million eggs and chum from 17million to 34 million eggs. Meanwhile, as someone following Russian fisheries told me recently, Russia is also intent on increasing its hatchery production -- citing Alaska as a shining light.

Ironically, upon his retirement announcement a week ago or so, the Commissioner of Fish and Game stated the wild/hatchery interaction was one of the "top" issues for the department!

Leaping Salmon said...

I think you are confusing hatchery fish which boosts wild egg and fry survival with farmed fish that are born and raised in captivity. Baby hatchery salmon are released back into the wild to grow up. In the great Pacific they eat zooplanktons and amphipods that turn their flesh orange and provide a high omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. Farmed salmon are grown in tight ponds eating soy and corn based food that raises omega 6 levels, (we Americans have an abundance of these in our diet) and their flesh color which is an unappetizing gray is manipulated to be salmon color.

Leaping Salmon said...

I think you are confusing hatchery fish which boosts wild egg and fry survival with farmed fish which are raised in captivity. Baby hatchery salmon are released into the wild Pacific to eat zooplankons and amphipods which creates a high omega 3 to omega 6 ratio and turns their flesh orange. Farmed salmon are raised in tight ponds and fed soy and corn which raises their omega 6 ratio. The flesh of farmed salmon is an unappetizing gray which has to be manipulated to become orange.

Anonymous said...

You know, I have to say that I’m actually incredibly relieved that some salmon farms are finally taking an initiative into a more sustainable direction and away from past practices, such as the ones recently outlined online in the press (http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=CUECRUKZDUO1&preview=article&linkid=dd75b2ba-428b-47fc-b155-6cf49dbfdef4&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d). Still, with the increasing population and thus demand, it will take more than lukewarm measures to ensure a good, stable source of salmon and other seafood.

Well anyway, some food for thought :]

Anonymous said...

This article is misleading because you claim that alaska salmon is pretty much the same as farmed salmon. There is a big difference. The alaska salmon grow up in the wild. It is true that the alaska salmon are not 100 percent purely wild since they are assisted by humans in their egg stages and birth stages... But this is much better than a farmed salmon which is captive all its life.

If a captive middle aged farmed salmon gets released into the wild, this is much more dangerous than a salmon getting released into the wild which is just newly born (in alaska). Don't you see the difference? It's not the same.

In order for the world to continue the way you want it (pure wild salmon, perfect world) we would have to have millions of people COMMIT SUICIDE to sustain ourselves. Is this what you are advocating? This is what Lierre Keith advocates (she also thinks killing men is a good idea since Lesbians are apparently much better humans).

Anonymous said...

Well, Mark...I had a hard time reading this 'blog' of yours. you obviously don't know the difference between "FARMED FISH" and Hatchery fish. Farmed fish are raised exclusively in pens, shot up with antibiotics because of their imprisonment, when they escape, they can infect healthy WILD fish...hatchery fish are RELEASED when they are at the age to 'go to sea' like they normally would. No antibiotics, no sickness because they are allowed to grow normally with the room they need. BIG difference between the two...but I must say you are right about ONE thing. Alaskans hate farmed fish, they're soft and nasty tasting and shot up with FAKE color, unlike Wild Alaska Salmon...

Anonymous said...

This article is ridiculous. I work in a salmon processing plant in Alaska and I can tell you there is no big difference between salmon hatched in the ocean and salmon hatched in hatcheries. In fact, these hatcheries are absolutely necessary for the survival of wild salmon. If these hatcheries did not exist the wild salmon population would take a serious toll. More than it already has. The hatcheries simply hatch the eggs (they often do not keep the hatchlings for as long as a year) and return them to the ocean where they lead the life of any other wild salmon.

Mark Powell said...

Anonymous said: "there is no big difference between salmon hatched in the ocean and salmon hatched in hatcheries"

Say what? Salmon don't hatch in the ocean, if you don't know that basic fact, I'm skeptical about your ability to judge the impact of hatcheries.

If hatcheries are necessary, how did salmon survive in the millenia before we came along and built hatcheries?

Anonymous said...

Hatcheries are not Fish Farms. Do some more research on this topic and then re-write this article.

Anonymous said...

Hatcheries are necessary when movement of species is restricted, compared to the normally evolved reproductive adaptations from what you call "the millenia before".