With the cowboys of the sea now busy with their annual Alaska salmon roundup, the farmers who transformed the industry have opened an algal oil plant in Nebraska as their next step in industrial domination.
The oil will be used to boost healthy, omega-3 fatty acids in farmed fish. Omega-3s are a key selling point in pitching salmon as an alternative to beef, chicken and pork.
Seafood Source reporter Chris Chase didn’t mention farmed fish competition with wild Alaska salmon in a Tuesday story about the facility, but he did write that “the process leaves the final product free of any sea-borne contaminants, and with a EPA and EHA omega-3 content that is twice as high as fish oil.”
Technological advancement by technological advancement, the salmon farmers have been working their way around accusations their product is less healthy than wild salmon or environmentally unfriendly.
Salmon farms have begun moving on land to sidestep accusations the waste from penned fish might pollute bays and harbors, filtering and recirculating water in those farms to ensure clean fish and avoid the need to use drugs to protect them from wild parasites, and now manufacturing feed in the American Heartland to avoid complaints that the demand for fish meal to feed salmon leads to overfishing of some baitfish.
The $200 million Blair, Neb., plant has been funded by “Veramaris, a joint venture from two European companies: the Dutch life sciences company Royal DSM and German Chemical company Evonik, which produces a highly concentrated algal oil. The factory expects to offset the harvest of roughly 2.1 million metric tons of small fish for use as salmon food per year, roughly 15 percent of what the salmon aquaculture industry uses,” writes Ben Paynter at Fast Company.
The company said in a press release that its “unique strain of natural marine algae is rich in both EPA and DHA, and together with the technology to cultivate it at a very large scale, is a breakthrough that expands the future supply of healthy seafood without impacting ocean resources.”
The algae idea sprang from the minds of scientists for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who began experimenting with growing algae in space with the thought of providing nutrients for astronauts engaged in long-distance travel.
While Alaskan commercial salmon fishermen are still inefficiently catching wild fish with seines, gillnets and hooks using boats limited in size by state regulation in order to minimize their efficiency, the farmers have gone Space Age.
The Blair plant uses corn sugar from local farmers to feed the algae. The protein and nutrient-rich mash left after the extraction of the fish feed is sold as food for livestock.
Thanks to modern management and the warming of the North Pacific Ocean, a highly cited, 2018 study of salmon biomass concluded that wild pink, chum and sockeye salmon “are more abundant now than ever.”
Pinks, chum and sockeye are the predominate salmon in the Pacific.
“During 1990–2015, pink Salmon dominated adult abundance (67 percent of total)…followed by chum salmon (20 percent) and sockeye salmon (13 percent),” scientists Greg Ruggerone and James Irvine reported. Chinook and coho salmon combined comprised only about a percent.
Many scientists are skeptical this bounty can last forever. Nature is prone to cycles.
“For much of the 20th Century… Pacific salmon had a time dynamic that closely followed that of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which is the dominant pattern of North Pacific sea surface temperature variability,” University of Washington fisheries scientist Nathan Mantau observed a decade ago. “…Warm periods coincided with high salmon production in Alaska, and cool periods off the west coast of the continental U.S. and British Columbia coincided with high salmon production in those regions.”
The last time the cycle went strongly cold was in 2012. The statewide salmon harvest that year was 127 million. Harvests began going up as the ocean warmed in the years that followed, but what once seemed a simple link between water temperatures and abundance has also become more complicated in that time.
Despite a warm PDO, harvests have oscillated significantly from a low of 111 million to a high of 280 million in the last five years. The low returns have come in even-numbered years, the high returns in odd-numbered years when massive numbers of hatchery-boosted pinks have returned to Alaska.
A debate has erupted about those farmed fish – or what Alaskans prefer to call “ranched” salmon – and what influence they might have on the open ocean ecosystem.
The debate is complicated by the fact the hatcheries have become big parts of the economies in the state’s Prince William Sound and Panhandle regions, and they can’t solve their issues – if indeed they have issues – by simply moving all the fish onto land and feeding them algae.
Many of the hatcheries now run by private, non-profit corporations controlled by commercial fishermen were built in the 1970s and 1980s in the wake of the collapse of Alaska’s salmon runs.
The entire, statewide harvest in 1975 was 26 million fish. Past overfishing and cold water were blamed. More than 200 million salmon are expected to be harvested in Alaska this year.
About 10 million salmon pinks, chums and sockeye have been caught in the Sound already. By the end of the season, almost 60 million pinks are expected to have been caught there – most of them hatchery fish.