The state of Alaska might have banned salmon farming in 1990, but a craigmedred.news investigation has found the state of Alaska now big into the salmon-farming business.
The Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation is invested in no less than seven of what the publication Salmon Business in 2017 identified as the world’s 20 largest salmon farming corporations.
Among these companies is Norway’s Marine Harvest, by far the globe’s biggest producer of farmed salmon. It annually turns out nearly twice as much salmon as all of Alaska’s salmon fisheries combined.
The Permanent Fund holds more than 79,000 shares of Marine Harvest valued at about $1.6 million. The investment has increased its value by $657,000 since the Fund purchased it, according to its online portfolio.
The Permanent Fund’s investments don’t stop there, however. The Fund’s reach into salmon farms is global with multiple investments in Norway and Chile to the tune of about $6 million, and more than 40,000 shares of stock in Stanford LTD, a New Zealand-based company that has taken a leadership role in “sustainable fisheries.”
On the opposite end of the continent, it is farming Chinook salmon – kings to almost everyone in Alaska – which have “been recognised by world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium – who has named New Zealand King Salmon the world’s most environmentally sustainable farmed salmon,” the company website proclaims.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium was once aligned with Alaska commercial fishing interests in trying to kill salmon farms. The aquarium’s Seafood Watch program in 2011 advised consumers to avoid farmed salmon except for the very few coho (silver) salmon then being raised on land in closed-containment water systems.
Pressure from Seafood Watch led Target – the countries number-two, discount retailer – to pull farmed salmon from its 1,744 stores at the start of the decade.
“The Minneapolis-based company consulted with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to make its decision to remove farmed salmon from its shelves,” Seafood Source, an online trade publication, reported at the time. “Target called the decision an ‘important step’ to ensure that the salmon its sells is from a sustainable, environmentally friendly source.”
Three years later, Seafood Watch modified its position and said some farmed salmon were OK to eat. And just days ago, the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal revealed Target has quietly brought farmed salmon back into its stores.
“In a statement, Target said that farmed salmon could still be sustainable, and that it added the fish back to shelves last year using fish certified by the nonprofit Aquaculture Stewardship Council,” the online publication reported. “‘Currently it is the only major eco-certification for farmed salmon that has been benchmarked to perform to at least a Yellow Seafood Watch equivalency and now meets our sustainable seafood policy.'”
“Sustainable” has become the buzz world in salmon markets these days. Norway’s Marine Harvest produces close to 400,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon per year at farms in Europe and South America, and touts its efforts to do so as environmentally friendly.
“Impact on the environment is a key concern in all Marine Harvest’s activities,” the company says on its website. “Since 2008, Marine Harvest Group has worked with the World Wildlife Fund-Norway to strengthen its focus on sustainable aquaculture and to help shape and improve the whole industry’s environmental standards.”
The other fish-farming businesses in which the Permanent Fund has invested make similar marketing pledges as to sustainability. Those companies are:
- Salmar ASA, a company based in Trøndelag in northern Norway with farms there and a half interest in Scottish Sea Farms. It is the fourth largest farmed salmon operation in the world producing about 130,000 tons of salmon per year.
- Grieg Seafood ASA, a company based in Bergen, Norway with farms in the Rogaland and Finnmark regions of that country and in British Columbia, Canada and the Shetland Islands. It is the sixth largest producer of farmed salmon in the world churning out about 80,000 tons of salmon per year.
- Multiexports Foods SA, a company based in Puerto Montt, Chile. Ranked seventh in terms of world production, its output about equals that of Grieg.
Cia Pesquera Camanchaca SA, a Chilean company with its headquarters in Santiago and salmon and mussel farms scattered all along the central Chilean coast. Its salmon production ranks fourteenth in the world with an output of about 34,000 tons.
- Norway Royal Salmon ASA, a company based in Trondhiem. It produces was ranked 18th in global production in 2016, but now reports a harvest of about 70,000 tons of salmon per year.
Combined with Marine Harvest, the companies in which the Permanent Fund is invested produce about 850,000 metric tons of salmon per year. Alaska wild salmon fisheries at their best produce about 250,000 metric tons, and most of this tends to be low-value pink salmon.
The fish farms are focused on high-value, fresh, Atlantic, coho (silver) and king salmon.
“Everyday fresh fish is flown to Miami and Dallas where we package and ship it across the country,” Marine Harvest USA brags. “Our strategic plant locations enable us to ship fresh, never frozen fish anywhere in the US.”
Chefs across the country agree fresh salmon is the best salmon, which appears to have given farmed fish an edge.
After conducting a blind taste test of farmed and wild salmon in 2013, the Washington Post reported the farmed fish won “hands down.’‘ The top-rated fish came from Costco and Trader Joe’s retail stores, which do not disclose the suppliers of their fish but identified the product as Atlantic salmon from Norway.
Atlantic Sapphire, another Norwegian company, is now trying to one-up Marine Harvest in the freshness game. It is building a $130 million land-based salmon farm in Florida from which it will be able to pull fresh fish to be shipped almost anywhere in the U.S. in a matter of hours.
Meanwhile, a former Marine Harvest executive is helping to build land-based salmon farms in China, a market coveted by Alaska fishermen, and the Japanese are plunging into land-based salmon farming with hopes of overtaking the monstrous production of Norway.
Land-based salmon aquaculture is considered the gold standard of environmentally friendly salmon farming, but the operators of net pens have in many cases cleaned up their act.
Two net-pen operations are now rated “Best Choice” on the Seafood Watch list from Monterey Bay. No Alaska salmon rise to that category.
Of a total of eight “Best Choice” options, six are farmed – including the two raised in the marine net pens Seafood Watch once abhored – and two are wild.
The latter are Washington state sockeye (red) and pink salmon caught in “lift nets,” or what that state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife calls a “reef net.”
Reef nets provide for “a selective fishery…in which bycatch is avoided altogether or able to be released alive and unharmed,” the agency’s website says. “…Reef nets stand out as the original and still the best in selective fishing.
“Practiced by the Indians of the Puget Sound region using materials gathered locally, reef nets are unique to the area. Modern materials and hydraulics have improved efficiency but the basic methods remain the same. Reef nets do not gill or surround salmon with a net. Rather they count on natural and manmade structures to lead the salmon into a shallow laid net which is then lifted and the fish spilled into holding pens.”
Alaska has no similar commercial fisheries although it introduced a commercial dipnet fishery on the Yukon River in 2013 to provide for the harvest of abundant chum salmon while allowing for the release of king salmon struggling to meet spawning goals.
Most high-value Alaska salmon are harvested with gillnets. Mortality has generally proven high when efforts have been made to try to free unwanted salmon species from the nets. The nets can to some degree sort salmon by size, but not by species.
More Alaska salmon are caught in purse seines than gillnets, but they are nearly all pink salmon, most of which go into cans. Sales of canned salmon are forecast to grow in coming years, but canned salmon are expected to remain a comparatively low-value commodity.
Pink salmon accounted for 63 percent of the 2017 Alaska salmon harvest, but only 25 percent of the value, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A catch of 141.6 million pinks was worth about half as much as a harvest of 52.4 million sockeye.
Most of the sockeye were harvested in hatchery-free Bristol Bay. Most of the pinks were harvested off Kodiak Island or in Prince William Sound or Southeast Alaska, and about a third of them were hatchery fish.
Though Alaska banned fish farming in the form of net-penned salmon, it encouraged and supported fish farming in the form of ocean ranching. Alaska fish farms would likely have created new, independent businesses. The ocean ranching operations started by the state are now run by collectives of commercial fishermen the state helped organize as regional aquaculture associations.
“From a political science perspective, the Alaska controversy over salmon
farming is fascinating,” Brent Paine, wrote in a 1991 Oregon State University, graduate-level analysis of the state’s ban on fish farms. “The bitterness and rancor expressed in the debate reveals a profound ambivalence in our attitudes towards development and the extraordinary role that politics plays in the economy of a state. Allowing one industry to exercise veto power over another seems like third world politics. In a sense it is given Alaska’s history of fisheries development.
“We all remember how, in the early 1970s, Detroit automakers ignored the underlying trends in the marketplace in favor of short-term profits. Finally they lost so much of their domestic market share to higher quality Japanese imports they were forced to seek protection from the federal government through import quotas. Alaska currently is the General Motors of salmon producers. By not taking advantage of the salmon farming opportunity, and build a foundation for a future aquaculture industry with other marine species, the commercial fishing industry is in danger of becoming a victim of its own political power.”
Paine’s word turned out to be prescient. While Alaska commercial fishermen in many areas of the state are struggling to survive this year, salmon farmers now so dominate the global salmon market that wise investors like the Permanent Fund are banking on them for the future.
Laura Stine contributed research for this story.