Anxiety at the Fish Counter: Wild or Farm-Raised Salmon?

Salmon photo by Ian Britton, courtesy of FreeFoto.com

I’ve developed a severe case of “fish anxiety.”  First, it was hearing about PCBs and mercury in farmed-raised salmon. Then it was the stories about overfishing cod. Now it’s worrying about whether Gulf Coast shrimp are still safe to eat.

Should I only buy wild fish?  Should I avoid certain species? Should I just buy fish when it’s caught locally?

Even though I belong to a community-supported fishery, it doesn’t offer  enough quantity or variety to meet all of my household’s fish-eating needs. As a conscientious consumer, who’s trying to support food that is healthy, is environmentally sound, pays producers a fair wage, supports local economies, and is sustainable over the long run, it’s really hard to figure out what fish and seafood I should buy.  While there is a variety of consumer seafood buying guides I plan to explore, my goal is to educate myself—and you—about what to buy.

Four Fish, by Paul Greenberg

Take salmon, for example.  I’ve been reading Paul Greenberg’s excellent book, Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food. According to Greenberg, salmon grow best in free-flowing, oxygen-rich, fresh-water rivers that are protected by timber cover. Thanks to industrialization—dams, agriculture runoff, industrial waste—and overfishing, there are very few good salmon-fishing rivers left in the US. Today, the only Atlantic salmon available in supermarkets is farmed; most of the Pacific salmon you see at the supermarket is wild, but the supplies are dwindling.

I was fascinated to learn that the first effort to farm salmon began around 1400, although the vast development of farm-raised salmon didn’t happen until the ’70s. Thirty years ago, there was no salmon in Chile, and now Chile is the second largest salmon-producing country in the world. As producers became very efficient at farming salmon, the prices dropped, and producers started farming more and more salmon to make up for lost income.

Similar to industrial farming on the land, high-density salmon farms create pollution and waste and spread disease. Most farmed-fish are not well separated from wild populations, so diseases can spread to the wild fish, and the genetic populations get mixed. Both farmed and wild salmon feed on smaller fish, but wild salmon eat lower on the food chain, where there is less concentration of contaminants like PCBs.

Kwik'Pak Fisheries is a community fishery run by the Kupik people.

It would be wonderful if we could all eat wild salmon, but there simply isn’t enough wild salmon on the planet to satisfy the demand. Greenberg believes that we need to develop food policies that incorporate both wild and farm-raised salmon.  His book describes some promising ways that salmon can be farmed in a more environmentally sound way that protects wild salmon.

Greenberg points out that if we seek to feed people efficiently by growing the most salmon using the least amount of feed, it would be logical to support the genetically altered salmon produced by AquaBounty Technologies in Waltham, Massachusetts now seeking FDA approval.  AquaBounty says its salmon grows to maturity in half the time of other farmed salmon, and because it is reproductively sterile, it eliminates the threat of interbreeding.

While Greenberg may be right, I’m not quite ready to embrace genetically altered salmon.  Until farm-raised salmon produced by better standards is available, I’ll buy less salmon, purchase wild salmon when I can, and be prepared to pay more for it.  And I’m going to look into one of Greenberg’s other suggestions: wild Yukon River salmon from the Kwik’Pak Fisheries.  Kwik’Pak is a community business run by the Yupik people.  It was certified by the Fair Trade Federation in 2005, although I can’t find any current information about their membership on the FTF web site. Nonetheless, they seem worthy of support. Their fish is available on the Internet, but I’m going to look for it at restaurants and grocery stores. Hopefully, it’ll be coming soon to a supermarket near you and me.

And I’m going to keep trying to educate myself on what to buy at the fish counter, so I can overcome my fish anxiety.