How Safe Is the Salmon on Your Plate?


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This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.Amanda Little: Demand for farmed fish has been soaring in recent years as wild fish populations decline. This might be a good thing in a world where seafood is the dominant source of protein for nearly half of humanity, and a low-carbon alternative to beef. Yet the aquaculture industry – and, in particular, salmon farming – has come under scrutiny for problems including waste, fish escapes, disease, and chemical use.

In “Salmon Wars: The Dark Underbelly of Our Favorite Fish” you examine Atlantic salmon farming and the risks associated with eating the fish the industry produces. The two of you have enjoyed varied careers in journalism, government and the field of private investigations. You now live in a small coastal town in Nova Scotia. What are you having for lunch?

Douglas Frantz, co-author, “Salmon Wars”: Fresh vegetables from our garden, cheese and crackers, homemade kombucha, and wild blueberries from our front yard. We can also get fresh Atlantic salmon that was grown in land-based facilities here in Nova Scotia, which we believe is the future of farmed Atlantic salmon: they’re on land, they’re chemical free and they don’t damage the environment .

AL : Why publish this book now?

Catherine Collins, co-author, “Salmon Wars”: A couple of years ago, we heard from a neighbor here in Nova Scotia that one of the largest fish-farming companies in the world, Cermaq, was considering expanding into Nova Scotia with potentially 20 fish farms. It prompted a whole series of public meetings called “Hello, Nova Scotia,” in which they tried to get feedback from the community and support from the government for this investment in the province.

DF: Those meetings turned out to be “Goodbye, Nova Scotia.” In the areas where they planned these farms, the public rose up almost unanimously, because of their fears of the impact on the environment, on the lobster industry, and on tourism, because these farms are kind of ugly and make a lot of noise. There was this groundswell of public opposition here. And we used that as a vehicle to look at the larger global problem coming from open-net pen salmon farms all around the world.

AL: The growth of the salmon industry has been meteoric. Can describe the arc of that growth?

DF: Demand for farmed salmon has tripled in the last decade. When commercial salmon farming on the ocean began in Norway, in the 1970s, it was a series of small farms that grew at a reasonable pace. Small farms don’t produce the pathogens and parasites that the big ones do. But you know, over time, as with many businesses, the industry grew. The seminal moment for salmon farming came in 2006, when the richest man in Norway, John Fredriksen — who had become a billionaire by grabbing a monopoly on oil tankers in the Middle East — took that idea to salmon farming and started buying up small farms. At the same time, here in eastern Canada, there was an outfit in New Brunswick called Cooke Aquaculture that was doing the same thing. There are now only 10 big salmon farmers globally; four of the biggest ones are Norwegian, a couple others are in Chile. It’s become a $20 billion global industry.

Ninety percent of the farmed Atlantic salmon eaten in the US is imported. More than half of it comes from Chile — a place where they use a lot of chemicals, a lot of pesticides and a lot of antibiotics because of conditions in the water there.

AL: You walk through a lot of problems with salmon farming in this book: the waste, the fish escapes, the parasites, the pathogens, the chemical use, among others. Which of these concern you the most, and why?

DF: First and foremost are the health risks from eating farmed Atlantic salmon — particularly for women who are pregnant, for infants, for children, and for anyone who has a history of cancer in their families because of the way these toxins, particularly polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), remain in the salmon flesh, and are therefore transferred to our flesh. That’s our number one concern.

Number two is the impact on the environment. And that breaks down two ways: first, the impact on the few remaining wild salmon. These farms are petri dishes for pathogens and viruses and parasites, which inevitably spread through the nets to the wild salmon. Many of these farms are located on salmon migration routes. Salmon come down from freshwater rivers on the way to maturing in the open ocean and have to pass by these open pen salmon farms which are steaming out columns of pathogens and parasites. It’s particularly dangerous in that early stage of migration, when you have young salmon that are no more than four or five inches long. They get attacked by sea lice, which clamp their jaws on the fish and kill them.

CC: And then there’s the impact on marine life. We found a photograph of a salmon farm on the south shore of Nova Scotia that shows a yardstick buried in the seabed, 32 inches deep in muck — muck left by excess feed, by feces and the various chemicals and things that were used on the salmon . And these are grounds that are used by other fish, by lobsters, by lots of bottom feeding fish. It’s not a good thing.

AL: You also show how the operations themselves are creating sort of natural feedback loops that are really cutting into fisheries’ production. Can you describe this phenomenon of nature fighting back against the industry?

CC: Worldwide, the mortality rate for farmed Atlantic salmon is 15%, maybe 20%. This is a lot of fish. Compare that to chicken and cows, which see about 3-5% loss every year. But it doesn’t stop there. In Newfoundland, not far from here, one company in the summer of 2019 lost 2.6 million salmon in a couple of weeks. That’s an astonishing amount of fish. The photographs showed the salvage boats taking these dead creatures out of these massive pens and shooting rotting salmon flesh out of huge pipes. It coated the coastline for thousands of meters, the impact was terrible. Newfoundland that year lost more fish than it harvested. And in the years since then, it’s lost between 40-50% of its fish each year. That is the definition of an unsustainable business.

AL: So on top of the fact that it’s not good for the environment, losing that amount of product is a problem for the companies’ bottom line. My understanding is that the seafood giant Mowi, among others, have collaborated with environmental groups to try to address some of these problems. Do you see any hopeful signs of change and progress in the industry?

DF: I think that the industry’s changes have been primarily lip service. For example, some companies have reduced the amount of forage fish in salmon feed. Forage fish are collected by huge trawlers off the coast of West Africa. The local fisheries there are collapsing because of the demand for forage fish, which are then ground into fish meal and fish oil for aquaculture feed and for pet food. The salmon industry has reduced the amount of fish meal in its feed, but they’ve done it not to protect the forage fish, which they call trash fish, but because the demand has pushed the price of these forage fish up. So they’re responding to the economics of the situation and they’re trying to put this gloss on it. They’ve taken words like “sustainable,” “naturally raised,” “organic,” and applied them to a product that is in no way sustainable, and no way naturally raised. There’s nothing natural about the iconic salmon swimming around for more than two years in its own feces.

AL: So when you’re in Whole Foods and see the seal of approval from a marine organization that the fish you’re buying is sustainably farmed, is that a thing? Can we trust labels like “sustainably farmed salmon?”

DF: I don’t think you can. Our research shows that farmed salmon is inherently unsustainable, because salmon are carnivores and you have to feed them other fish to get the protein.

We were just at Costco yesterday. We looked at the labels on their salmon, as we often do, and they say, “Fresh Atlantic salmon farmed.” Now, that’s even more disclosure than you often get in a supermarket, because often you’ll just go in and see “fresh Atlantic salmon.” And if you ask the person behind the seafood counter, what does that mean? Where did this come from? Chances are they won’t know.

AL: You explore ways that the industry can be reined in through appropriate regulations. Can you walk me through some of them?

DF: Some have been more radical than others. In August of 2017, an entire salmon farm collapsed in Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state and more than 250,000 alien Atlantic salmon were released into the waters of the Pacific salmon. In the aftermath of that, Washington state passed a law banning all open-net pen Atlantic salmon farms from its waters, because they’re non-native fish. If you want to still have locally raised, farmed Atlantic salmon [in Washington]you’re going to have to do it on land.

Norway has also done something interesting: they’ve made salmon farm leases on the water far more expensive. You pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to lease public land on the water for an open-net pen salmon farm, encouraging them to move on to land where the government gives licenses for free.

Unfortunately, the profit margins are so high for the open-net pen salmon farmers that they haven’t taken advantage of this. They’re freeloaders. They’re using the public commons for their business. They’re paying very little money; they don’t have to treat their waste, they just let it flow into the ocean. Their overhead is very small, since they have only a handful of workers for every one of these sites. And so they can sustain mortality losses of 15-20% per year, or even sometimes 50% per year, because the margins are so high. The families that control the four largest salmon producers in Norway made $2.2 billion net profit in the first quarter of 2022. It’s a highly profitable industry right now.

AL: So walk me through the growth of on-land salmon production. I’m guessing it’s expensive, and so it’s been slow to displace the open-net pen farming. How does it work?

CC: Superior Fresh, in landlocked Wisconsin, has a really interesting facility where they raise their salmon in freshwater. Recirculating aquaculture systems pump the water through special filters in order to prevent disease and contamination and then treat the water with an ultraviolet light. So the fish are not swimming in excess feed, they’re not swimming in their own feces, and the systems recirculate about 99% of the water. But it’s very capital intensive. It takes financing, planning, permitting and construction. It’s not a plug and go system.

DF: The biggest on-land facility in the world, Atlantic Sapphire, is in Homestead, Florida, just outside Miami, and they tap into the Florida aquifer to get both their sea water and their freshwater. Then they recirculate it down to that aquifer, where it’s cleaned and shipped back out in the ocean. They want to produce up to 20% of the salmon eaten in the United States. You can buy their salmon in many places in the US now and it’s very good. We hope that eventually, with help from consumers and from governments, land-based farms will replace the open-net salmon pens in the ocean and force these companies to pull their operations out of the water. That’s a much better alternative for the environment, for the climate, for the health of the fish and the health of consumers.

AL: What’s the best-case scenario, in your mind, of the fish-farming industry in 30 years, in terms of its size and its practices and its volume of production?

DF: We hope that the volume of aquaculture increases, particularly vegetarian aquaculture. There are plenty of fish that just eat plants and grains, tilapia being one of them. So what we would hope to see in 30 years is open-net pen salmon farms out of the water and on land, or in closed-containment systems, if they can be developed. We don’t want people to stop getting this wonderful source of protein. But it has to be raised in a sustainable way that doesn’t damage the environment and protects our health.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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