Salmon Aquaculture Reform

May 2011
A discussion of farmed Atlantic salmon and its accompanying controversy in the United States.

Though the name "king salmon" belongs to a fish from the Northwest United States, the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) once ruled the waters of Long Island Sound, stretched its influence into the rivers of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and was a well-known symbol of Maine's fisheries.  In the 21st century, the Atlantic salmon has become another struggling fish on the ever-growing list of endangered species.  Of the three distinct population segments that once existed in the United States (Long Island Sound, Central New England and the Gulf of Maine), only the Gulf of Maine still supports a wild Atlantic salmon population.

Even as wild salmon populations in Maine rivers are declining, commercial aquaculture, existent in Maine since 1970, exerts its influence on the local environment and its inhabitants more and more.  From 1989 to 1998, Atlantic salmon production in the U.S. increased by 468%. Maine production alone went from 1 million pounds to 22 million between 1988 and 1995 peaking at 36 million in 2000.  Salmon aquaculture is a major source of seafood, outselling wild caught salmon 4 to 1.

Atlantic salmon are farmed the world over, from their native habitats in Maine, Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia, to foreign waters in Chile, Australia and the Pacific Northwest. And while fish farming can take pressure off of wild stocks and may in theory preserve the overfished populations, it has also led to:

  • High demand for wild forage fish used to feed increasing numbers of farmed salmon
  • Nutrient and chemical pollution in once-pristine marine ecosystems
  • The spread of parasites and diseases to wild juvenile salmon
  • Escapes of farmed fish into the wild

 This last item brings with it other concerns, including:

  • Escaped fish will compete with wild fish for resources like food and mates.
  • Escaped fish, more prone to severe outbreaks of disease because of their close quarters and genetic homogeneity (think: Dutch Elm disease), may spread disease to wild stocks in the same waters.
  • The possibility of genetic interactions as a result of interbreeding between the wild and the farmed fish that can result in decreased adaptability to environmental changes, an alteration and hybridization of the wild stocks, and even destruction of the original species.

This is a nation founded-and has parts that are literally built-on the backs of sea creatures and the industry surrounding them.  From New England's historic whaling and fishing traditions, to the oysters that once crowded New York harbor and are now part of the fill beneath downtown Manhattan. The United States imports 70% of the seafood it consumes, despite thriving farms and fisheries for both Atlantic salmon and salmon from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska (as well as many other species).  Atlantic salmon, however, are cheaper, and though we have the capacity to grow them in the United States, we get the majority of our farmed Atlantic salmon from countries like Canada, Norway and Chile.

Aquaculture creates domestic jobs. Keeping fish production local decreases the amount of fossil fuels used to transport them from afar; keeps more money in the regions where the fish actually live, resulting in the potential to put more money toward conservation of the wild populations; and can improve the local economy.  Plus, all else being equal, who would eat a frozen fish shipped from South America when you can get one fresh from your very own neighborhood?

It is not in the realm of possibility or desire to eliminate commercial fish farming, yet it is important to consider the costs even as we enjoy their benefits and work to maintain functional populations and healthy habitats until the salmon can once again maintain them on their own.

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