Clean fish


plastic trash

Tons of plastic litter removed from Alaska beaches comprises a tiny fraction of what is in the Pacific Ocean/NOAA photo

News analysis

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was out this week with an ominous warning about the disappearance of global fish and wildlife, and the huge volumes of plastic in the ocean. 

It came not long after the Atlantic Salmon Federation, an international organization dedicated to the preservation of wild runs of those fish, highlighted an Undercurrent News report about RAS.

The convergence of a trend noted in the WWF report – the build-up of plastics in the worlds’ oceans – and a globally heightened interest in RAS – a potential breakthrough technology of the future – could have serious, serious implications for the Alaska economy.

Most people reading this are unlikely at this time to recognize the meaning of RAS – recirculating aquaculture system. But in the fishing business, RAS is on its way to becoming one of those tech acronyms that become their own word.

It was this way with GPS 30 years ago although the U.S. military had been experimenting with a global positioning system for a decade. 

GPS went live in 1989, and Magellan Industries hit the market with a handheld, GPS navigation device not long after. It took awhile for GPS to catch on. Loran C – a shore-based, long-range navigation system – remained the norm for mariners off the Alaska coast well into the mid-1990s, and it wasn’t finally shut down until 2015.

By then, GPS was everywhere, and journalists had stopped referring to it as satellite “tracking by the global positioning system (GPS)” and just wrote “GPS.” It had become an everyday word like “laser,” an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” or “taser,” an acronym for “Thomas A Swift’s electronic rifle,” or a bunch of other now common words from “care package” to “zip code” that began as acronyms.

“RAS Conference in Miami Attracting Strong Investor Interest” is how Undercurrent  headlined the story, below which it featured Norwegian fish farmer Tone Bjornstad Hanstad quoting Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates:

“‘We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10,’ the Microsoft co-founder and former CEO said in his late 1995 book, adding: ‘Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.'”

Land-based aquaculture

Recirculating aquaculture systems are the technological answer to the biggest problem facing the salmon aquaculture industry today, the public relations storm of accusations that salmon farming threatens the environment.

There is also, unfortunately for Alaska fisheries, a food safety side to RAS that is valuable to the salmon farmers who long ago took over the global salmon market and now own 75 percent of it. And that food safety issue goes way beyond the parasites common in wild salmon, parasites that kept salmon sushi out of Japanese sushi bars until the Norwegians arrived with farmed fish.

Farmed salmon marketers have picked up on the fact that RAS salmon can be raised in clean, controlled, filtered water in today’s polluted world.

“They are grown without any antibiotics or pesticides ever. No contaminants or pollutants like you’ll find in the ocean” as Festival Foods, a Wisconsin supermarket chain, put it in pitching Superior Fresh salmon.

Superior Fresh runs an aquaponics business producing salmon and fresh lettuce in rural Blair, Wisc. 

Though global bankers seem to be gambling on expensive, industrial-size RAS salmon farms, such as the one on which Atlantic Sapphire broke ground in Florida, operations like Superior Fresh might pose the biggest threat to Alaska salmon in the market place in an age when “locally grown” and “farm-to-table” have become buzz words in the grocery business.

Superior Fresh could prove to be the fish version of the craft-beer breweries that have overrun the U.S. in the past decade. Craft beer went from less than 1,500 breweries in 2007 to more than 6,000 by 2017, according to the Statista website. 

Once a rarity, craft beers now represent almost one of every four beers drunk in the U.S. on a daily basis, according to Fortune magazine. 

Wild is better

Alaska commercial fishing interests have long taken solace in the idea that a “wild-caught” cachet will guarantee a premium for 49th state salmon in the marketplace, but that premise looks increasingly tenuous.

Or maybe it was always tenuous.

Wesley Loy, a one-time fisheries reporter at the Anchorage Daily News and now the editor of Pacific Fishing magazine, decades ago noted a possible downside to “wild.” His relatives back in the American Heartland didn’t see “wild” as a good thing, he said; they saw it as a bad thing.

They were conditioned to favor domestically grown fruits, vegetables, grains, meat and fish as cleaner and healthier than similar, unmonitored products from the wild.

Alaska wild was at its best when fish farms were being accused of selling a unhealthy product, but that has changed in recent years. Both the WWF and Monterey Bay Aquarium, which runs a  well-known “Seafood Watch Program,” are now working with the farmers.

 Seafood Watch once teamed with Alaska wild-salmon interests in an attack on farmed salmon. For reasons that are not clear, it changed its position in 2015, and not a single Alaska salmon is on the organization’s 2018 list of “Best Choice” salmon selections. 

And now comes the WWF preaching about the badly polluted nature of the world’s ocean.

“Plastic pollution has been detected in all major marine environments worldwide, from
shorelines and surface waters down to the deepest parts of the ocean, including the bottom of the Mariana Trench,” says the WWF “Living Planet Report” for 2018.

Plastic pollution is today everywhere. There is no doubt about that. Volumes of microplastics and nanoplastics are accumulating in the North Pacific Ocean as in every other ocean, and salmon eat these plastics.

Canadian scientists concluded “juvenile salmon off the British Columbia coast would consume two to seven microplastic particles per day in its prey,” the website FishBio reported. “For those of us who enjoy eating Pacific salmon, this is a truly unsettling thought – the last thing we want is seafood riddled with plastic.”

Whether these salmon-ingested plastics pose any legitimate threat to human health, no one really knows. The risks could be nothing as with threats of salmon being contaminated with radiation from the disastrous meltdown at Japan’s Fukishima nuclear power plant in 2011.

But in these days of the-sky-is-falling environmental fears, even what isn’t can scare people away from certain foods, especially when hyped by the media – fake or otherwise.

“The entire Pacific Coast of the United States, Canada and Mexico has been contaminated with radioactive particles from Fukushima,” reported “And finally, it is being officially acknowledged. This is really happening…

“Of course, they claim that it is “safe” because the levels are low. USA Today emphasized the ridiculously minuscule dose of radiation that say, a swimmer would get at the beach – while admitted for the first time that those warning about the spreading radiation were, in fact, correct….(and) the linear thinking about ‘low levels’ ignores the mounting scientific evidence about cumulative exposure to radioactive isotopes and other toxins and free radicals.”

In this post-truth world of fake news where so many define facts solely by what they want to believe, it probably wouldn’t take much of a suggestion of danger to cause many to believe “wild” salmon are something to be avoided.

One look at some of the claimed photos of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch might be enough to turn most people off to wild salmon. 

“Clean, filtered water” and “carefully monitored feed,” possibly even “government-certified feed,” could become big selling points for farmed fish going forward. Wegmans, a major supermarket chain in the Northeast, is already selling “EU Organic Salmon” while the U.S. government wrestles with the issue of organic certification for farmed and/or wild salmon.

“Wegmans seafood buyers are proud of the farmed salmon offered in our stores,” the company says on its website. “They work with aquaculture partners who rely on the latest-science so we can offer fresh, high-quality, great-tasting, environmentally compatible, and competitively priced salmon. All salmon sold at Wegmans meets or beats FDA (Food and Drug Administration) standards.”

Top dog to second fiddle?

There are legitimate reasons to worry “Alaska wild salmon” could go from a premium product to something less pretty quick, although the demand will be there for a long time at lower price points.

Asia-Pacific markets for canned salmon are projected to grow through 2024. China and India are seen as growth centers.

The problem for Alaska is that prices paid fishermen for the salmon stuffed into cans are a fraction of the prices paid fishermen for salmon to be sold fresh or “fresh-frozen,” and it now appears inevitable that Alaska salmon processors, who already ship large volumes of salmon to China for processing, will be forced to replace humans with machines to compete with the fish farmers already running highly automated plants.

Norwegian “producers are turning to lasers, automation and artificial intelligence to boost production and cut costs,” the BBC reported earlier this year.

“It’s not hard to imagine highly automated fish farms of the future, in which humans have very little to do,” reporter Chris Baraniuk wrote. And the technology doesn’t stop at the farm.

“Since the end of May 2018…Norwegian salmon producer Leroy has been operating a new highly automated salmon processing plant…(where) hardly any people are needed in the entire production area,” Eurofish magazine reported in its September/October issue.

“The slaughter and processing lines are almost fully automated. Self-propelled forklifts transport the finished products, and the huge amounts of data for traceability and analysis purposes are stored in the cloud.”

Automated head and gut (H&G) machines have already come to Alaska. Seattle-based Trident, the biggest processor in the Alaska seafood business, boasts how its “Kodiak facility was expanded in 2015 to include a new, fully-automated H&G production line for Alaska pollock and salmon.”

More automation is sure to follow. It will save processors from the headache of trying to recruit cheap labor from around the globe to work summer operations in remote parts of Alaska, but it will not be good for the small Alaska communities home to seasonal workers. Low-paid workers don’t do a lot to boost local economies on their own, but the money spent by their employers to house and feed them are a significant boost for those communities.

Meanwhile, the loss of processing jobs and the probable loss of effective income to commercial fishermen as salmon prices stay fixed in a market controlled by farmed fish portends big economic problems for the state’s now third largest industry behind oil and tourism.

Alaska’s response so far has been to ignore the wave of change on the horizon, oppose any attempts at innovation in salmon harvesting operations, and try harder to sell wild-caught salmon. When the automated processing equipment arrives, it will likely have been built by Iceland’s Martel, an industry leader, and the few people necessary and trained to run the equipment will probably come from Outside.

The economic return to the state will be small. The loss could be significant given how little the commercial fishing industry already contributes in state revenue.

The annual revenue the state collects from the fishing is near equal to what the oil industry pays in three weeks, according to the Department of Revenue, but more than a third of fisheries taxes go back to the industry to help it pay for hatcheries or marketing.

Deduct those kickbacks, and the annual revenue from fish equals about two weeks worth of state revenue from oil. What the state gets to keep doesn’t quite cover the cost of managing and policing the commercial fisheries, according to an ISER study.

Worse yet, most of the revenue the state keeps, and shares with municipalities, comes from a landing tax on each fishermen’s catch, which means that if the value of the fish go down the state and local communities gets less.

The picture going forward does not look good.

Not even the experts seem to have an answer as to what to do to maintain the value of Alaska salmon fisheries, but Gunnar Knapp, the retired director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has talked about the need for innovation.

Innovation, of course, starts with people talking about the problem, and as with so many Alaska issues, hardly anyone wants to talk about the problem. In this case, they’d much rather just argue over who gets to catch the fish.




















33 replies »

  1. When you wrote:
    “Alaska’s response so far has been to ignore the wave of change on the horizon”…
    I feel this is true on so many fronts facing Alaska (unemployment, job loss to automation and outside employees)…
    A “talk of Alaska” show just said over 25 percent of all current jobs in Alaska are held by non alaskan residents.
    Add automation of fish processing, logging and mining, and you see there are not many jobs available for residents living in AK.
    Local government is becoming one of the main source of employment…not the private sector.
    Blocking the new technology of fish farming is bad for our lical economies.
    Let the consumers decide at the market which salmon is “better” or “cleaner”.
    Let the politicans stop deciding who gets to be in business and who gets to leave the state.
    I also feel more consumers are switching to plant based diets since toxins in animal proteins are such a concern.
    The reality is a diet in fruits, vegetables, organic grains and nuts is far healthier for the average human.
    The only animals that eat both meats and plants are dogs, hogs and bears….
    Hopefully things move into the 21 century in AK, but I would not bet the house on that….
    Thanks for the reading!

    • Howdy Steve –

      Where toxins are concerned, the dose makes all the difference. The natural world is awash in toxins Out immune system is designed and operates best when dealing with those things on a regular basis. Too much, and you overwhelm it. Too little, and it gets weak and flaccid like muscles that aren’t regularly exercised. The brain and heart works the same way. The trick is figuring out where to draw and enforce that line. There is such a thing as too much protection from the elements. Too little starts killing a few people. Too much kills a LOT of people. Hobson’s Choice.

      Please add fish to animals that eat both meats and plants.

      The most healthy diet is a lo carb, high fat one, minimizing whites – sugars, flours and starch.

      Finally, the more jobs you create and more importantly allow to be created, the more jobs available for Alaskans. Most of the rest of your stuff is pretty good. Cheers –

  2. Craig, I’m thinking you might want to follow-up this article with one that shows how plastics play into these RAS systems. The wrong kind of plastics (or perhaps any plastics) could introduce a lot more plastics (into salmon) than any ocean rearing IMO.
    I’m not holding my breath waiting for such an article, however.

    • c’mon, Bill, i know you’re smarter than that comment. RAS aren’t going to introduce any plastics into salmon. conceivably, if the tanks have plastic liners, they could introduce some leachates – the plastic water bottle problem. but if they’re recirculating water, they can probably filter that out as well.

      if you’ll pay my way to Wisconsin, i’d love to investigate the Superior Fresh operation and explore the leachate issue. it could be it is a legitimate concern. could be they have their fish in concrete raceways.

      nothing i’d like better than to take a good look at that operation and write about it. could be (my gut feeling) that it’s the first of a lot more to come. could be it’s a big experiment destined to fail.

      • Craig,
        When you look at how the “waste” water can be used to grow veggies like lettuce and how “agricultural” has been with our species over a thousand years, you can see this is the wave of the future “grow local” economies which are sure to surpass the “ship and truck” everywhere system of food distribution we currently have in place.
        It seems the Chinese have invested in a huge system in Scotland that is one of the largest onland fish farms to date.

      • Craig, it would be my guess that majority of piping would be plastics and while micro-plastics could probably be filtered out the question remains are they now? They would only do that if they were forced to do it (by some regulating agency) and even then, the size of micron filter would probably need to be enforced as well. Your comment that “RAS aren’t going to introduce any plastics into salmon” is nothing but a guess IMO.
        There is a huge trout operation in Twin Falls, ID that could be a start but that operation does not use salt water so not as susceptible to corrosion as a salmon operation. Even then, my guess is that majority of pipes are plastic. And a look at hatcheries could also be a hint at how much plastic is used.
        While the issue is relatively new, I doubt anyone is filtering for these micro-plastics but I know many people are concerned about their water bottles these days and certain plastics are avoided. The study I linked to did mention “seafood”, although no mention of what kind, and this makes me think that some are thinking micro-plastics in our water. And the surface trawling that has taken place around the world has shown that the tan and brown plastic bits are absent with the thinking that something is eating them (culprits are most likely birds). Anyway, plastics are relatively new but could be a huge environmental issue IMO.

      • Hey Bill,
        The majority of the piping in modern houses (as well as for “storage wells” on fishing ships are also made of plastics)…
        The difference is micro plastics in ocean food source get in the tissues (ie the flesh of fish we eat) and are hard to mitigate, whereas the piping is a low leaching source that is easily mitigated through modern filtration…scientifically proven.
        Not too mention parasites, radiation, Mercury and other diesel byproducts in the Sea which affect us.

      • Steve, you’ll have to show us where those plastics are getting into the flesh of fish in the ocean. I’m going to say that plastics are going to either float or sink and thus not be in the water column, other than surface or bottom of ocean. Different situation with RAS, IMO. These micro-plastics could be filtered but are they? I doubt it and home water systems are not filtered. By the way, my home has copper piping and no filters. My boat water tank is stainless.
        At any rate, I suspect that no RAS systems are filtering their water for micro-plastics because the issue hasn’t come up. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t do it, but they will need to be forced into it IMO.
        I brought up the issue because I think it could be a serious problem and am being attacked for bringing up something that may cause problems for fish-farming. Whew!
        This is relatively new (micro-plastics being eaten by humans) and we are going to be hearing more about it IMO. Study I linked to shows that there is a problem and its most likely not coming from the ocean. There will be more studies and they will most likely get to the culprit(s) but along with those studies there will also be studies showing whether/not these plastics are causing health problems (and how serious).

      • Thanks for that link, Steve. However I do question the premise that those particles are in the flesh-I suspect they were found in the dried fish but they clearly could be eaten by humans.
        Anyway, while some had clearly eaten those plastics, they were mostly found to not contain them. How do you suppose those plastics got into the flesh of those fish??
        On the other hand, RAS type fish farms could introduce micro-plastics and they would pose a much greater risk of being eaten IMO. Granted they could perhaps be filtered out but we all know that they won’t be removed without public insisting it be done.

      • I can understand that a bit, Steve. But how are those plastics getting into their flesh?
        My point was that ocean fish may get some plastics in their digestive systems but the chance of it happening are much greater in an RAS system. And the study I linked to clearly showed humans are getting these plastics in their digestive systems but it also appears that this is clearly not just due to eating seafood (whatever that means). We do have large numbers of fish farms nationwide and their product would most likely be considered “seafood” IMO. So again, there is nothing in that study to suggest those plastics found in humans is from ocean grown fish.

      • I see now, finally that this latest link of yours suggests these micro-plastics are small enough to pass through the gut into flesh of small fry. While this is for extremely small fish it could be something that would affect fry in hatcheries, as well as RAS systems IMO.
        I still suspect it is an extremely limited problem in the open ocean.

      • Bill,
        Not only does this study state that these plastic pellets are absorbed into the tissues of young fry (then enter food chain), it also states it somehow makes the young fish more susceptible to prey…
        If this is true, it could explain some of the low returns off of the nearly 1 billion annual hatchery fry released out of the gates in AK?
        I remember many studies point to something affecting the hatchery fish during the fry stage?
        These contaminates are not leaving our seas unfortunately and I feel the same consumer culture that buys all Organics will also start buying fish from smaller farms onland or slowly switch to a more plant based diet…the are many of these closed system fish farms on east coast today.

      • Steve, except your study is not talking open ocean fish but rather those raised in more of a hatchery situation. Those fish are fed regularly and are quite used to feeding frenzies which would also explain why they would gobble up plastics, especially if they were colored similarly to their regular feed.
        Again, there would have to be shown that ocean fish would do the same thing and only then there would also need to be shown that those micro-plastics were also prevalent when those ocean fish were present. Too many variables IMO. And the on land farms would need to be shown that their product does not contain these plastics or the toxins from said plastics.]
        Almost all the shrimp served in Hawaii are farmed from small farm ponds and they may/may not have these plastics in them. It would be interesting to know, for sure.

    • Howdy Bill –

      We are into the measurement vs harm discussion, and I haven’t as yet seen any actual data on the harm that plastic micro particles cause to a living system.

      I am wondering if we are into radiation-land, where we can measure breakdown of individual atoms in a world where it takes the near-simultaneous breakdown of trillions upon trillions of them to cause any physical harm. Just because you can measure or observe something doesn’t in any way define it as harmful.

      So we observe micro particles of plastic in living systems. For the sake of argument, I’ll give you that. What are they doing? How long do they reside? Are they passing thru? Are they staying a while? If so, what then? Cause and effect, guys. What is really happening? Does anybody know? Not that I can find as yet. Cheers –

      • Moving the goalposts a bit on this, Bill. The question was about microparticles of plastic. Your web site was about birds ingesting large chunks of plastic and monofilament. Cheers –

      • I don’t have a link agimarc but there have been surface trawls collecting small plastic pieces over the world and tan and brown plastic bits are missing from their work. The argument is that they are being eaten, by birds most likely, but that by itself doesn’t mean those pieces are killing them but you get the idea. Birds are somewhat different because of gizzards but the situation seems something to be concerned about, to me-at least as concerning as a few million pink salmon fry being released into North Pacific.
        Large numbers of people are concerned about the plastics in their water bottles, but not you??
        We’ll put you into the column of folks unconcerned about ingesting micro-plastic particles until you see them in the whites of our eyes.

  3. I was personally involved as an equipment supplier to a planned local start up urban mid-scale RAS that would have coupled contained non-potentially invasive fish with hydroponic agriculture. Because of the State’s overly broad anti-fish farming regulations, half the system had to be eliminated, making the remaining hydroponic vegetable side uneconomic and forcing the use of external stuff, rather than being an essentially closed system.

    Here is a recent study showing humans are taking in microplastics as all 8 subjects had these particles in their stools. Further, here is a look at possible culprits: “All dined on plastic-wrapped food and drank from plastic water bottles.”
    As for seafood, 6 out of the 8 samples ate seafood during the study. While 3/4 of sample is significant, it does pretty handily show that the problem is not exclusively in the ocean.

  5. The most important part of this article is the reminder of the Superior Fresh operation. I had forgotten it from Sept. Do like the analog to craft breweries. It’s coming like a freight train. Either get on board or get run over. Cheers –

    • In a decade F&G’s fisheries management will be easier. The commercial salmon industry will be decimated (sadly) and management will be more focused on sport/subsistence catch.

      • Greg: I don’t even want to contemplate that possibility. The economic consequences would be devastating. But I do worry the commercial fishing business will be back to where it was before Alaska voters approved limited entry, and that was not a good place.

        I was not a big fan of permit stacking. Because supply is smaller than demand, permit prices already lock a lot of rural Alaskans out of the fisheries. But if the state doesn’t encourage stacking – more than one permit fished by the same boat – going forward, I fear it could become difficult for anyone to make much money.

        I don’t see the prices paid for Alaska salmon dropping that much in today’s dollars, although that could happpen, so much as I see prices being capped by farmed fish as competition in that business continues to grow. It’s the history of industrial agriculture.

        And I see that Alaska niche some commercial fishermen seem to think will last forever going away as higher-quality, environmentally friendly farmed salmon increasingly enter the market.

        God forbid what happens if some enviro group in the PNW decides all of our hatchery fish are part of their salmon problem and state pressuring people to avoid Alaska wild….

      • Craig, you do realize that those permit prices are holding up because investors/fishermen don’t agree with your concerns/fears about commercial fishing businesses going back to pre-limited entry.
        You are merely speculating with words, they are putting their money up.
        We’ll get to see who’s correct, of course, but there have always been fluctuations within salmon fisheries and most likely that will continue. And I think your “environmentally friendly farmed salmon” is a pipe dream.

      • Bill Yankee, You say permit prices are high because people believe commercial fishing is a good long term investment. Remember 1999? People believed .com boom stocks were good long term investments. How did that work out for those investors?

      • James, what you are speaking of is a bubble. Are you suggesting that permit values are in a similar bubble?? And permit prices are not booming. This has been going on for some time, now and I remember when farmed fish were going to destroy wild fish in the 90s.
        It takes some real reaching to be pushing something going bust when prices are staying high. Craig has been pushing this BS for some time now and he keeps expecting something to happen-who knows maybe he’ll get his wishful thinking some day.

      • Bill, here’s a challenge for you. why don’t you go look at some real numbers. here’s the website:
        tell me which permits have increased in average value since 2013. i only looked at a few key ones: SE drift, down; CI drift, down; BB drift, down (that one surprised me); SE seine, down; PWS seine, down (that one surprised me too)…
        but i’m sure there must be some permit that has seen an average increase in value. let me know when you find it.
        i’m frankly getting pretty tired of your bullshit. i’m not pushing anything other than the fact that the world is changing, and Alaskans need to pay attention.
        i fear for the economic forces closing in on the commercial fishing business in this state because it’s one of the few pieces of the Alaska economy that works to some degree to support jobs in rural Alaska.
        Cordova and Petersburg wouldn’t be much without commercial fishing. Dillingham would probably waste away. other communities would suffer to greater or less degrees.
        you remind me way too much of the dumbasses i used to work with at the newspaper who scoffed at internet news:
        “there’s no way those ‘bloggers’ (said in the snarkiest tone) are ever going to compete” with us know-it-all print journalists.
        and today?
        the damn know-it-all-print journalists can’t compete with fake news producers half the time.

      • Craig, for as long as I’ve read your articles you have always pushed against commercial fishing interests. Since the world is always changing, that argument is pretty weak IMO.
        But don’t ask me, ask any commercial fishermen and they’ll tell the same thing. You’ve always had that hard-on for fishermen and you can’t hide your bias IMO. Your sudden concern about “economic forces closing in on the commercial fishing business” is a joke IMO. And why do you think the comments like “Birdstrike” above show up on here? Just my opinion, here Craig, but the choir you preach to is right on board and it does show.
        While we are at it, what does average permit values since 2013 have to do with anything?? Did you have some reason for your challenge to me? My comment to James only said that permit prices are not “booming.” And with all the problems in North Pacific, relative to both king salmon and sockeyes, its not hard to expect permit values to show that but they are clearly not collapsing.
        All that aside, you’ve preached commercial fishing was going the way of the Dodo bird for as long as I’ve payed attention. Nothing new!

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