The sockeye salmon dipnetted from the mouth of the Kenai River two years ago was but an oddity until it wasn’t.
Deformed fish seldom survive in the wild, but somehow this one had. It was at the time of capture strange enough to warrant a photo, but no more.
And then, well, a bunch of farmed salmon escaped into Puget Sound, and a firestorm of concern flamed up about an “environmental nightmare.” Not long after which there emerged a video that contained murky footage of a strangely similar looking fish, albeit skinnier.
The video is distasteful. It shows dirty net pens and young, dying salmon and older salmon with deformities – for instance, a misshapen lower jaw – that would spell their quick demise in the wild.
Nature has no program to help those born with deformities. It mercilessly kills them.
“New video appears to show disfigured, unhealthy farmed salmon,” the CBC headlined after viewing the video. There was no “appears” to it. The video clearly showed some disfigured and unhealthy salmon, or at least unhealthy for the salmon.
And then there was the subhead:
“‘I’ll tell you, I don’t sleep right at times, because I keep seeing [it] in my sleep, right?'”
Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) might say the same of the dipnet scene on Alaska’s Kenai River where people crazed with blood lust drag flopping salmon to the beach to pound their brains out with whatever kind of club is available and toss them aside for the always opportunistic gulls to peck out their eyeballs.
“….While ‘sea kitten hunting,’ formerly known as angling, is cruel to animals, commercial sea kitten hunting is environmentally catastrophic,” Newkirk once wrote. “It has devastated the ocean’s ecosystem to the extent that large fish populations are only 10 percent what they were in the 1950s. Scientists warn that the damage caused by the fishing industry is irreparable.
“So PETA is asking people to stop and think about who, not what, sea kittens are. We ask anglers to lay down their rods and take up a hobby that doesn’t hurt anyone on either end of the rod, and to walk briskly past the sea kitten counter in the supermarket.”
Newkirk is wrong about commercial fishing. Properly regulated commercial fishing does not damage the environment as has been well documented in any number of well-regulated fisheries, including those in Alaska.
And fish are not cats anymore than bears are humans. So there’s no sense in anyone losing sleep over dead fish anymore than deformed fish or little dead fish because the nature of nature is that millions of fish die between egg and adult.
A litany of death
The average Lewis River Chinook salmon buries about 5,100 eggs in the gravel, according to a study from the University of Washington. If fertilized by a male salmon, 65 percent of those eggs hatch and make it to the fry stage. This is a very high percentage for salmon. Some other species are down in the 10 percent range.
Of the 3,300 Chinook that become fry, however, only 336 live to become smolt and begin the journey to sea. And of those 336, only eight grow into adults, and of the eight only four make it back to the Lewis to spawn.
If a fish farm ran like nature, it would go bankrupt faster than the Alaska Dispatch News/ADN.com
The fundamental difference between a farm and nature is that a lot of fish, including some with abnormalities that would mark them for certain death in the wild, can survive when they are hand fed. Thus it is not surprising farms contain deformed fish.
What is surprising is when one shows up in the Kenai, and then there is a question that must be asked:
Nature or nurture?
Kenai fish might all look like they’re wild, but they’re not. Some of these fish, like those in the farm pens, are born in hatcheries and dumped into Hidden Lake which drains via Hidden Creek to the Kenai and then to the sea.
“Since 1976 Hidden Lake has been enhanced by annually collecting eggs from adult sockeye returning to the lake and releasing the resulting fry back to the lake. Enhancement by collecting eggs and releasing fry back to Hidden Lake bypasses some of the critical life stages that occur in the lake and takes advantage of the lake’s underutilized zooplankton community,” according to an old Hidden Lake Sockeye Salmon Enhancement Progress Report.
There is no reason to believe that bypassing “some of the critical life stages” predisposes salmon to deformities, but any step away from the natural scheme of things would be expected to increase the survival odds for all young salmon, including the less than perfect one.
Hidden Lake is now stocked with young sockeye to the tune of about 1.2 million per year. An estimated 30,000 of the fish come back to it as adults.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game considers these wild fish with all the implications of natural perfection that implies. Others in the scientific community wonder.
Some question the entirety of what they call the “fished or farmed dichotomy.” They have gone so far as to suggest there should be three kinds of seafood under discussion these days: farmed, hybrid and wild,
“A spectrum, not a duality, more accurately describes modern seafood production; and this spectrum is not accommodated by the current dual seafood production typology,” thirteen of them concluded in a 2013 paper written for the journal Marine Policy.
“A hybrid category of seafood production would…help identify the environmental impacts of different types of production,” the scientists wrote. “Aquaculture operations can affect ecosystems through use of marine resources as feed or source stock, pollution, habitat conversion, competition and interbreeding of escaped farm-raised animals with wild populations, and amplification and transmission of diseases and parasites.”
While aquaculture operations such as those in Alaska, where almost 2 billion young fish per year are now dumped in the ocean, are generally thought benign, they are so little studied there is really no way of knowing.
And of late questions have been raised about food competition between short-tailed shearwaters, a marine bird, and an ever-increasing number of hatchery salmon that live on much the same diet as the shearwaters, as well as about food competition between hatchery and wild fish.
A group of Alaska scientists in 2011 implicated Asian hatcheries, which engage in the same sort of fish ranching as Alaska hatcheries, in a massive decline of wild chum salmon in Western Alaska’s Norton Sound.
“….Norton Sound, Alaska, chum salmon populations were influenced by Asian hatchery chum salmon, which have become exceptionally abundant and surpassed the abundance of wild chum salmon in the North Pacific beginning in the early 1980s,” they wrote. “….A n increase in adult hatchery chum salmon abundance from 10 million to 80 million adult fish led to a 72 percent reduction in the abundance of the wild chum salmon population. These findings indicate that competition with hatchery chum salmon contributed to the low productivity and abundance of Norton Sound chum salmon, which includes several stocks that are classified as stocks of concern by the State of Alaska. This study provides new evidence indicating that large-scale hatchery production may influence body size, age-at-maturation, productivity and abundance of a distant wild salmon population.”
‘Blue revolution” in food
Aquaculture, it would seem, raises interesting questions whether the progeny of artificial birthing are raised inside pens or turned loose in the sea.
Ranching or farming, it’s all nature tampering in one form or another, according to the scientists. But that, too, could be considered natural enough given how long humans have been at it.
What humans do to the environment is not black and white; it is a wide range of grays, and the grays apply to almost everything. And if the complexityof what you’ve read so far doesn’t already appear confusing enough consider this:
“….Of the salmon ‘wild’ labelled on supermarket shelves (a significant number) comes from ‘enhanced’ “(or ‘augmented) hatchery-fisheries relying (in the fish’s early stages to smolt) on salmon feed containing notably GM/GMO ingredients. Those fisheries rely and thus support GMO agriculture/industries (not that this is necessarily an issue: that’s a very different topic altogether, and complete departure from the ‘transparency’ component/label discussed here),” writes Bertran Charron at SeaFood Intelligence.
Charron has an agenda; he pushes transparency in the seafood industry. Seafood Intell just released a report on transparency in the salmon-farming business. Charron has been one of fish-farmings harsher critics. He faults some of them for everything from their failure to reveal what they feed fish to their lack of disclosure on gender equity.
Cooke Aqua, the company that spilled Atlantic salmon in Washington state, “came second last in North America (number four out of five), and number 26 of 36 globally, with a ‘very poor’ level of transparency,” he emailed.
The state of Washington is now investigating how Cooke spilled about 150,000 adult salmon into Puget Sound. There are plenty of problems in the farmed salmon business, according to Sea Food Intelligence, but the wild salmon business is far from perfect.
“I’ll talk about the ‘wild catch’ salmon side later this year,” Charron wrote. “The ‘wild’ salmon industry lacks considerably in transparency terms as we already found out in our latest ‘Top 100 Benchmark’ looking at the 100 largest seafood companies in the world.”
So, according to Charron , while Alaska lawmakers are busy fighting genetically engineered salmon” – AKA “Frankenfish” – to satisfy Alaska commercial fishermen, some Alaska salmon hatcheries, largely funded by commercial fishermen, are feeding GM and GMO foods to hatchery spawned and raised salmon later to be released into Alaska waters.
It’s complicated. And the deformed sockeye tasted funny even if the filets looked a little odd.