While fisheries biologists in the north are hard at work crunching numbers in an effort to develop their best guess at how many salmon will return to Alaska next year, Atlantic Sapphire is getting ready to load it first 800,000 salmon eggs into a massive, onshore “Bluehouse” in Florida.
The implications for Alaska commercial salmon fisheries are significant, but those who suggest the growing competition warrants some serious discussion as to how the 49th state retains value in its salmon resources are generally vilified as commercial fishery haters.
Alaskans like to believe their wild salmon are easily marketable as superior to those raised on farms, but it was farmed salmon that led a big boom in sales in Japan – home to some discerning fish consumers – because the farmed fish were safer to eat.
“To capitalize on salmon’s popularity, efforts to culture the fish are (now) starting in various parts of Japan,” NHK Newsline from Tokyo reported in October. “In August, Kotoura Town in Tottori Prefecture started shipping silver salmon grown at an onshore facility.”
Japanese onshore production is so far small, but the 90,000 tons Atlantic Sapphire plans is massive.
“Between 1978 and 2003, the Bristol Bay sockeye harvest averaged 62,000 metric tons (mt), and ranged from a low of 26,000 mt to a high of 110,000 mt,” according to a report written by Alaska fisheries economist Gunnar Knapp, who first started warning about the farmed fish challenge to Alaska salmon more than a decade ago.
“In 1980, total world salmon supply was less than 550,000 tons, of which 98 percent was wild,” he wrote in a 2004 report. “By 2001 world supply had more than quadrupled to more than 2.2 million tons, 62 percent of which was farmed.”
The percentage of farmed salmon in the marketplace is now up over 70 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and steadily growing thanks to projects like that in Florida.
Atlantic Sapphire’s start-up production of 10,000 tons will about equal the average sockeye salmon harvest in Cook Inlet, the waterway at the doorstep of the state’s largest city.
And if the company’s massive, U.S. recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) proves successful, the company’s Homestead, Fla., operation is expected to be a model for others.
RAS is the hot topic in global aquaculture these days. A company called Pure Salmon announced only a month ago that it was investing $162 million to build the “Soul of Japan,” a state-of-the-art, land-based salmon farm in that country.
“Pure Salmon will use RAS technology in its land-based farms, a proven and scalable method of aquaculture,” reported Far Eastern Agriculture. “With further planned rollouts of large-scale facilities of 10,000 tonnes or 20,000 tonnes production per annum in the US, Europe, China and around the world, Pure Salmon’s launch is seen to generate hundreds of local jobs and helping solve the global fish shortage in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The advantages to processors of salmon farms, whether onshore or off, are hard to ignore. The farms provide a reliable supply of fish on a year-round basis, instead of an unknown number of fish seasonally.
Year-round operations mean dealing with a limited-size staff of full-time employees instead of trying to annually round-up a large staff of seasonal employees. Because farmed salmon can be harvested to very specific sizes, it is easier to create computer run processing lines.
Meanwhile, Norway’s Cermaq AS is building what it calls the world’s first “Smart Factory” for salmon processing north of the Arctic Circle. Its new 86,000-square-foot plant at Storskjæret on the island of Vandve will take fish processing out of the hands of people and put it under the control of machines.
Every major salmon processor is now in the farmed fish business because it’s where the future of the industry is headed. There will always be a market for Alaska salmon, of course, no matter what happens with farming.
But the question is what that market will look like.
Alaska salmon is already a niche product. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has tried to push “the superiority of wild Alaska fish, much the same as producers of free range meats market their fare,” as Sitka writer Will Swagel observed in Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
“And, much the same as free range meats, wild fish have a firmer texture than fish raised in crowded pens. The Alaska fish are also free of the antibiotics needed to cope with diseases that can arise from that crowding and of the dyes farmed salmon receive to make their flesh a desirable bright red color.”
The problem is that farmed fish are winning blind-tasting competitions, RAS systems eliminate the need for antibiotics and free farmers from criticism about escaped salmon, and the fish are usually not dyed.
“In both wild and farm-raised salmon, that red color comes from pigmenting compounds called carotenoids, which are found in crustaceans, algae and other naturally occurring sources,” writes Mahita Gajanan at Time. “While wild salmon get their color by eating shrimp and krill, farm-raised salmon generally have carotenoids added to their feed, either through natural ingredients like ground-up crustaceans or synthetic forms created in a lab.”
Which salmon are healthier – wild or farmed – is open to debate, but debating it is largely irrelevant at this time in that the farmed salmon have taken over the market and are only expanding their presence.
Because of their market dominance, farmed salmon exert a strong influence on the price of wild-caught fish. That isn’t going to change. And as farming increases, there is going to be less pressure on processors to negotiate with Alaska fishermen on price, although the state’s female wild salmon remain highly valuable for their roe.
The value of roe in pink and chum salmon can top the value of the fish. Farmed fish are generally harvested before they reach sexual maturity.
Alaska has also been exploring new markets for salmon in Asia, but those are not the premium markets to which the state once tried to market wild salmon as healthier and better for the environment.
Improving aquaculture took some of the steam out of that pitch. Diversified salmon processors involved with ASMI, wild salmon and farmed salmon did more to steer marketing campaigns toward the current idea that all salmon is good but Alaska salmon is better.
How much longer that sales pitch will work is questionable.
“Inside the BluehouseTM, the water is continuously purified to remain crystal clear by a state of the art filtration system. Furthermore, the fish are free to swim against strong currents, as they do in the wild,” Atlantic Sapphire says in its marketing.
“Atlantic Sapphire salmon will never have contact with sea lice or be exposed to wild fish diseases. This allows them to grow strong and healthy in a humane way.
“The waste generated in our BluehouseTM is used as fertilizer and creation of renewable energy in the form of biogas.”
The best Alaska could hope for is that RAS technology fails, but that looks unlikely. The other alternative, as suggested by Knapp, is innovation in Alaska fisheries.
The problem with that idea is that innovation usually means more efficient harvesting to get more value out of the fish, and more efficient harvesting is likely to mean a reduction in the number of fishermen as happened in the state’s Panhandle where a permit buyback program was organized.
Downsizing works well for the fishermen who remain, and maybe for those bought out, but the overall impacts on the state’s economy can be problematic. The same can be said for increasingly automated processing likely to make it into Alaska fish processing operations in the future.
All of this raises questions about how Alaska can get maximum value out of its salmon resource going forward, but the state seems so mired in opposition to the idea of change in anything that even talking about the problem is difficult.