Frequently Asked Questions
- What is salmon farming?
- What is the difference between Atlantic and Pacific salmon?
- How can you tell if the salmon is farmed or wild?
- Is canned salmon farmed or wild?
- Does eating farmed salmon help protect wild salmon because there is less pressure placed on wild stocks?
- Are the levels of hormones and antibiotics higher in farmed or wild salmon?
- I’ve heard farmed salmon is naturally a grey color and that it is dyed pink or red – is this true?
- What are sea lice?
- If sea lce are a natural part of the ecosystem, why are they considered a problem?
- Do salmon farms harm other wildlife such as birds and seals?
- What do farmed salmon eat?
- I’ve heard some salmon farms are switching to soy-based feed. How does raising a high-protein product such as salmon on a vegetarian diet work?
- Why do most BC salmon farms raise mostly Atlantic salmon and not native Pacific species?
- Why doesn’t Canada label farmed salmon? What can I do to support labeling?
- What are PCBs, and why are higher levels found in farmed salmon?
- What are the solutions to salmon farming problems?
- What is CAAR’s position on ocean ranching?
What is Salmon Farming?
Salmon farming is the practice of rearing hatchery-origin salmon from smolt to adult size in a net-cage, pond or contained system. As currently practiced on a commercial scale, salmon farming in most regions involves the use of large floating open net-cage pens, usually located in sheltered bays along the coast. In BC, the open net-cages are generally sited in close proximity to wild salmon streams and rivers. Learn more salmon farming facts.
Other than the obvious fact that wild Atlantic salmon are found in the Atlantic Ocean and wild Pacific salmon are generally found in the Pacific Ocean, Atlantic salmon are from the genus Salmo and Pacific salmon are from the genus Oncorhynchus. The major distinction is that, unlike the Salmo genus, most species of the Oncorhynchus genus die after spawning once. There are seven species within Oncorhynchus that populate BC waters: pink, coho, sockeye, spring/chinook, chum, cutthroat and steelhead. Learn more at thinksalmon.com.
In the marketplace: If it isn’t labeled, you can’t always be certain without asking the retailer or restaurant. It is always best to ask. However, there are some clues. If the label reads “Atlantic” salmon then it is farmed. In Canada, there are no legal commercial fisheries for Atlantic salmon and virtually all Atlantic salmon served in restaurants or sold in stores are farmed fish. If the label simply reads “fresh salmon”, there is a good chance it is farmed. Most wild salmon will be identified by species – pink, coho, sockeye, spring/chinook or chum salmon. But chinook (also called spring) salmon are farmed as well so the name is not a guarantee. Always ask. If it’s farmed, don’t buy it and tell the store to stop selling it until the industry adopts better practices.
On the water: Escaped farmed Atlantic salmon have been captured as far away from BC’s farms as Alaska, where they are considered an invasive species. Although Atlantic salmon look somewhat like coho, here are a few ways to tell the difference:
- Atlantic salmon have large black spots on their gill covers and no spots on their tails. Pacific species of salmon do not have spots on their gill covers but many species have spots on their tails
- The upper lip on Atlantic salmon doesn’t extend past the back of their eye
- Atlantic salmon have 8-12 fin rays on their anal fin, while Pacific salmon usually have more than 12
If you do see escaped Atlantic salmon, keep the fish and report the capture by calling Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) Atlantic Salmon Watch Program’s toll-free reporting line at 1-800-811-6010.
Health Canada states that salmon used in canning is primarily wild, although some can be farmed. Fresh salmon can be either wild or farmed, however, a large amount of fresh salmon is farmed. There are no labeling requirements in Canada distinguishing between wild or farmed salmon. If the label on the can reads pink or sockeye salmon it’s probably wild. In the United States, retailers are required by law label fresh or frozen fish with the country of origin and whether it is wild caught or farmed. Canada needs to catch up and adopt similar labeling laws.
Quotas for the wild salmon fishery are based on management decisions which are not influenced by the availability of farmed salmon but ideally are guided by the health and abundance of the wild salmon populations. In other words, fishermen will fish what they are allowed to fish – catches won’t be reduced because farmed salmon are being consumed. The industrial-scale production of farmed salmon can, however, flood the market with a cheaper product which pushes down the price fishermen can obtain for wild salmon, leading to a loss of income in coastal communities.
Salmon farmers often claim their industry is helping to “feed the world.” In truth, the salmon farming industry is producing a luxury product for the western world that accelerates the depletion of wild fish stocks and strains the food chain in poorer nations. On average, it takes two to five kilograms of wild fish (used in the feed) to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon. In Chile, the ratio is often much higher with as much as 8 kilos of wild fish used to produce 1 kilo of farmed salmon (Terram Foundation Report). Most of the wild feed for BC farmed salmon is taken from the southern hemisphere, diverting local protein to raise a luxury product for northern consumers.
Farmed salmon also pose a threat to wild stocks by transferring parasites and diseases through net-cages and contaminating wild salmon stocks. Farmed salmon often escape their nets and disrupt the spawning of wild salmon species in local rivers or compete for food.
It depends on the source of the fish, but generally farmed salmon are more likely to have residual traces of antibiotics than wild salmon would be since antibiotics are frequently administered to the farmed fish via their feed. Canada requires a withdrawal period from antibiotics prior to harvesting but not all fish sold in Canada is raised here. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has issued numerous import alerts for farmed salmon imported from Chile – the most recent being in March, 2008 for farmed salmon containing “Amphenicols”, a class of antibiotics. CIFA issued several alerts in 2007 for Chilean salmon containing the pesticide Emamectin and/or Ivermectin.
Learn More: Les Burridge, Judith Weis, Felipe Cabello, and Jaime Pizarro (March 2008). Chemical Use in Salmon Aquaculture: A Review of Current Practices and Possible Environmental Effects. Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue Technical Report, World Wildlife Federation.
Yes. Wild salmon get their pink to red flesh from the diet they consume including crustaceans such as shrimp or krill. Since farmed salmon eat a diet of pellets, the colorants canthaxanthin or astaxanthin are added to the feed to create that appealing ‘salmon’ color. Retailers in the United States are required by the Food and Drug Administration to label salmon containing colorants. There are no similar regulations in Canada.
Sea lice are small marine ‘ecto’ (surface) parasites that occur naturally on many different species of wild fish. Sea lice feed on fish by attaching to the outside, usually on the skin, fins and or gills. The two native species of sea lice in British Columbia, Lepeophtheirus salmonis and Caligus clemensi, share a similar lifecycle (planktonic larvae maturing into juvenile and adult parasitic stages), with the main difference being that L. salmonis requires a salmon host to complete its lifecycle while C. clemensi can survive to reproduce on salmon as well as other fish. Learn more about sea lice and the chemical treatments of sea lice.
Before fish farms arrived on our coast, nature had a system to protect juvenile wild fish from the lice that were common on adult salmon. When wild adult salmon spawn in rivers, they break the life cycle of the sea lice. Sea lice cannot tolerate freshwater and as the adults enter their natal rivers, the lice are shed and die. The following spring when the young wild salmon migrate from the freshwater to the ocean, there are virtually no sea lice in their path. But salmon farms changed that – acting as unnatural reservoirs for parasite populations to over-winter. The chances of juvenile wild salmon encountering sea lice on their way to the open ocean are now greatly increased by the lice infested salmon farms located along the out-migration routes.
A number of wild creatures are naturally attracted to salmon and fish farmers use deterrents like perimeter nets meant to keep these predators away from their fish. Sometimes the predators get tangled or trapped in the nets and drown. Salmon farms are also allowed to shoot and kill “nuisance” predators such as seals and sea lions. There have been some reports that salmon farms have shot grizzly bears attracted to the farm waste and storage tubs containing “morts” – dead farm fish. At night salmon farmers use bright lights to increase the growth of their fish. Numerous marine organisms such as fish larvae, herring, oolichans and juvenile salmon are attracted to the night lights and become easy prey for both the penned farm fish and other natural predators including dogfish, cod, sharks, marine mammals and birds.
Farmed salmon eat pellets made up of a variety of ingredients but with a fishmeal content for starter feed of 30-70%, and grower feed of 20-50%. The majority of this protein is fishmeal and fish oil derived from wild pelagic (open ocean) fish such as anchovy, menhaden and capelin often sourced from the southern hemisphere.
Results to date show that it is possible to significantly reduce the amount of fishmeal and fish oil in carnivorous diets but not to a level where complete replacement is possible. Carnivorous species such as salmon are highly susceptible to dietary imbalances and the anti-nutritional factors present within plant meals. In addition, an increasing percentage of the soy and canola grown in North America are genetically modified. The long-term health and environmental consequences of genetically engineering food crops are still unknown.
Good question. Farming Atlantic salmon in Norway began in the 1970s. By the mid 1980s Norwegian companies began expanding their operations to BC waters due to our physical geography, and the introduction of production limits and controls in Norwegian waters. The influx of Norwegian operators meant the importation of the Norwegian species of choice—Atlantic salmon (Volpe, 2006). In Super Un-Natural (2001), Dr. John Volpe notes three reasons why Atlantic salmon is now the primary species being farmed:
- The Norwegian-dominated industry had decades of experience with Atlantic salmon (vs. Pacific species).
- Norwegian companies had already invested heavily in developing markets for an Atlantic salmon product.
- Atlantic salmon are, on average, less aggressive and grow faster and more efficiently than Pacifics. Pacific salmon are more aggressive and prone to diseases, which makes production costs higher. (p.9).
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada state that on Canada’s west coast, salmon farming (starting with chinook, coho and sockeye) was first established around the town of Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast. However, the BC industry had problems with water temperature and algae blooms and by the mid-’80s many companies left the Sunshine Coast and relocated to more remote sites on Vancouver Island. At about the same time, BC farmers began culturing Atlantic salmon to capitalize on the demand created by Norwegian and Scottish farmed salmon.
Learn More: Volpe, John (2001). Super Un-Natural: Atlantic Salmon in BC Waters. David Suzuki Foundation.
Volpe, John (2006). “Salmon Sovereignty” and the Dilemma of Intensive Atlantic Salmon Aquaculture Development in British Columbia (Chapter 5). In: Resetting the Kitchen Table: Food Security, Culture, Health and Resilience in Coastal Communities. Editors: C.C. Parrish, N.J.Turner and S.M.Solberg, Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Successive Canadian federal governments have long been proponents of the salmon aquaculture industry, supporting its growth and the relatively minor economic benefits the industry brings to struggling coastal communities while ignoring the global weight of scientific evidence documenting concerns associated with the industry. As an active proponent of salmon farming, the government doesn’t want to make it easier for consumers to identify – and possibly reject – net-cage farmed salmon in the marketplace. In general, Canada has lower consumer information standards than the US and the EU. The US, for example, requires all fresh and frozen fish labels to identify country of origin, whether the fish is wild or farmed and whether it contains colouring agents. Write to the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency and demand labeling laws to protect and inform Canadian consumers.
Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs, are persistent, cancer-causing chemicals that were widely used from the 1930s to the 1970s and are now banned from North America. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, are chemical fire retardants used in several products and are found in the environment.
A study published in the American Journal of Environmental Science and Technology on August 11, 2004 found on average higher levels of PCBs in farmed salmon than in wild salmon. The authors of the study concluded that frequent consumption of farmed salmon is more likely to boost exposure to PBDEs than wild salmon. In a global assessment of farmed salmon in Science in 2004, 13 persistent organic pollutants we found.
The economic incentive to speed the growth of farmed species has led to the use of an increasingly high-energy diet, which means farmed salmon have a higher fat content than their wild counterparts. This makes them more vulnerable to contamination by fat-soluble pollutants (i.e. PCBs) that accumulate up the food chain. And, since feed ingredients are sourced from fisheries all over the world, “local” farmed salmon can contain contaminants from distant seas.
Learn more about the PCBs in farmed salmon.
- Read the 2004 Science study, Global Assessment of Organic Contaminants in Farmed Salmon.
- Read CBC’s 2002 story on Vancouver geneticist Michael Easton’s study that found even one meal a week of B.C. farmed salmon could pose health hazards.
- Find out Health Canada’s position on PCBs and PBDEs.
- Separate wild and farmed fish.
- Remove open net-cage salmon farms from the BC coast and rapidly transition to land or ocean based closed containment systems.
- No new open net-cage farm sites in British Columbia.
- Until the transition to closed containment is complete, provide safe migration routes for juvenile wild salmon via the removal of farms along key routes.
- No increase in production levels at current farm sites.
- Fish meal and fish oils used in farm fish feed must be harvested from verified sustainable and well-managed sources.
Learn more about the solutions CAAR is working towards.
Ocean ranching is the artificial propagation and release of juvenile fish to support future fishing opportunities. The term ocean ranching implies priority access to returning hatchery/enhanced fish, possibly including the use of relatively selective capture methods in terminal areas near where the salmon were released.
Potential impacts of ocean ranching to aquatic ecosystems include:
- competition with and predation of wild fish in the marine environment;
- increased exploitation pressures on fish co-migrating with hatchery fish;
- loss of genetic integrity and diversity of wild salmon (through interbreeding and harvest impacts); and
- localized impacts from disease/parasites, exploiting mature adults for brood stock, and the physical impacts of the facility.
In Alaska, where ocean ranching is commonly practiced, small fish are generally held in sea pens for only very short periods of time (compared to fish grown to market size in commercial scale finfish aquaculture operations), which limits disease outbreaks and the spread of disease pathogens to wild fish.