Norwegian salmon is flooding into China and the first, farmed Chinese salmon are due to hit the market to help grace the traditional Yee Sang prosperity salad as the lunisolar calendar officially welcomes the new year to much of Asia this month.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be obvious now: salmon have gone domestic, and they go a little more domestic every year.
The implications for one of Alaska’s largest industries – commercial fishing – are profound. The full impacts are still out there a ways, but on a horizon creeping closer and closer year by year.
“Fish farming has come a long way from its humble origins 4,000 years ago in China, when cages were used to raise carp,” Lee Bruno wrote at All Turtle in October. “Two years ago, fish farming surpassed a major hurdle in human history when the amount of consumed farmed fish globally exceeded that of wild-caught fish. That threshold speaks to the important role of aquaculture in feeding people. Fish farming is now the fastest-growing animal-food production sector in the world.”
All Turtles is a San Fransisco based artificial intelligence (AI) start-up with offices in Tokyo and Paris. It is looking at aquaculture for the obvious reason: the ability to produce high volumes of protein in limited amounts of space at relatively low cost.
“In Norway, Cermaq’s salmon farming technology designed for use in open water cages uses a combination of sensors and computer vision to help operators monitor health conditions, and identify parasites like sea lice as well as other signs of disease,” Bruno wrote. “After capturing visual data on individual fish, the company’s automated IFarm system sorts diseased fish and steers them into separate cages where they can be rehabilitated through targeted treatment….”
The Norwegians have harnessed technology to become the world’s number one salmon producer. Norway produced 1.2 million metric tons of salmon in 2017, the last year for which complete number are available.
Alaska production in the same year was 487,000 tonnes. The state made up more than 50 percent of an entire Pacific Ocean catch that didn’t quit reach 1 million tonnes, according to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission.
The 2017 Alaska catch was the third highest in a recorded history dating back to the 1800s. The largest catch in Alaska history – nearly 510,000 metric tons – came in 2013, more than a third of them were hatchery raised fish, according to the 2013 Fisheries Enhancement Report by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The catch was still less than half that of Norway’s production. Norway is a Scandinavian country about a fifth the size of Alaska.
Both Norwegian and Alaska salmon production has been growing in the 2010s. Alaska’s five-year average harvest now comes close to a mind-boggling 205 million salmon per year. Historically, an annual harvest over 100 million was considered good.
Some ocean ecologists have suggested the Pacific has reached carrying capacity and the only direction for harvests to go is down.
“So we have to ask ourselves: Is it possible that there are too many salmon in the Pacific Ocean? Since the late 1970s, salmon in the North Pacific have been more abundant than any time since comprehensive statistics began to be collected in 1925,” Canadian scientist Jim Irvine told the American Fisheries Society last year.
“Chum salmon and pink salmon, which tend to be most common in northern regions, dominate. Although each salmon species has somewhat unique feeding and habitat preferences, they co-exist in the same ecosystem. If the North Pacific Ocean is at its carrying capacity with respect to Pacific salmon, the large numbers of pink salmon and chum salmon may be having detrimental effects on growth and survivals of other species.”
Irvine is one of the leading authorities on Pacific salmon populations. He and colleague Greg Ruggerone from Seattle co-authored the definitive study on Pacific salmon abundance. It concluded there are now more salmon in the Pacific than at any time in history.
Suffice to say, there is little reason to doubt that from a salmon standpoint, Alaskans are now living in a period destined to become the good old days. Alaska salmon production is almost certainly going to go down in future years.
Farmed fish – like farmed chickens, turkeys, pigs and cattle – will only increase. Domestic production is not constrained by natural forces or subject to the whims of the same.
Domestication to create farm animals succeeded because early humans discovered it was more efficient and more productive to raise animals for food than to hunt them.
The domestication of salmon is a relatively new phenomenon, but it has been steadily growing and shows every sign of continuous growth, especially with the Chinese jumping heavily into the game.
China might be the last, great Communist nation on the globe, but in world markets it functions as a ruthless capitalist. There is a lot of debate among economists about whether the Chinese model of state capitalism can sustain itself over the long-term, but some are starting to warn of it winning in the short-term.
China’s latest plan to become a world technology leader has rattled its old German business partners to the core.
“Until three years ago, we thought these were complementary economies,” Thorsten Benner of the Global Public Policy Institute think-tank in Berlin told Financial Times in January. “This has totally changed. With Made in China 2025 we could see that state capitalism was out to eat our lunch.”
Americans are conditioned to think of government industry as inherently bloated and inefficient. Historically the record is less clear. Wars, in particular, have shown the ability of governments to build very efficient and deadly industries.
But there have been significant peace time successes as well. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – basically a U.S. government business – pioneered space and put the first man on the moon.
Aquaculture is one of the businesses to which China is now turning its attention. The country is already the biggest player, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and is expected to play a major role in a projected 34 percent increase in aquaculture production by 2026.
The good news for Alaska is that only a tiny portion of that increase is expected to come in the form of salmon. The bad news for Alaska, which has already lost most of the market to farmed fish, is that there is no reason to foresee anything but steady increases in farmed salmon production year by year.
“China’s first, deep-sea fish farming facility, Shenlan 1, will be put into use later this month for salmon cultivation in the Yellow Sea, which will enable the country to achieve large-scale breeding,” China’s official news agency announced in May.
Shortly thereafter, Shenlan 1 was towed 130 miles offshore and lowered beneath the waves. The farm takes advantage of a deep pool of cold water there.
“The huge (area of) water, with good quality, is suitable for the cultivation of cold-water fish, especially salmon. But it’s far from the coast and deep, so exploitation has remained a dream for fish farmers,” Shenlan 1 designer Wang Yu told China Daily.
Remotely monitored, the 300,000-salmon cage can dive to a depth of 150 feet or rise to within about 10 feet of the ocean’s surface to stay within waters providing optimum temperatures for young, growing salmon.
The project is being run by the Wanzefeng Fishery Co. in the Shandong province. Shandong has been a focal point for Chinese aquaculture activities.
The Chinese government announced a plan to launch a “Shandong Province Modern Ocean Farming Comprehensive Pilot Scheme Construction Project,” Seafood Source reported last month. As part of the project, 83 massive “ocean pastures” are to be constructed in which to raise fish and shellfish.
The Chinese, like the Norwegians before them, are moving rapidly to modernize and domesticate their fisheries to make them more efficient and increase their production.
Alaska, meanwhile, continues to forge ahead with fishing controlled by government-mandated inefficiencies in the hopes that by promoting catches as “wild” a premium can be extracted to maintain industry profitability.
It isn’t exactly working well in the emerging markets of Asia.
“A Chinese New Year is not complete without a good Yee Sang to be tossed around during the Great Dinner,” the Malaysian news wire Kr8tif Express was reporting in the lead up to the holiday. “It symbolizes prosperity, good fortune and abundance. With that, yue or fish will always be the centerpiece of the Yee Sang and the Norwegian salmon and Fjord trout have gained a foothold becoming the main fish option to accompany the Yee Sang. This is mainly due to their versatility (and) ability to be safely served raw….”
The farmed fish are parasite free. Wild salmon carry parasites that must be killed by cooking or solidly freezing the fish before eating.