Real world

News analysis

While the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was celebrating what it claims as another “record” season for commercial fishermen in remote Bristol Bay, a company rooted in Denmark was forging ahead with its salmon “Bluehouse” at the opposite corner of the continent in Homestead, Fla.

Atlantic Sapphire plans to bring its first salmon to market by the end of the year, Seafood Source reported Thursday, and it has purchased 80 acres adjacent to its existing property with plans “to expand production capacity to 220,000 metric tons annually by 2030.”

Bristol Bay, according to Fish and Game figures, produced about 173,000 metric tons this year. That was not a record, but it was the second-highest harvest in history.

The record, according to Fish and Game, was for “highest ex-vessel value of all time: $306.5 million (all salmon).”

That is true and not true depending on how it is viewed. The $306.5 million is a record if one ignores inflation. It is far from a record if inflation is considered.

With the ex-vessel value of Bristol Bay sockeye over $2 per pound in 1988, the catch that year was valued at $178.8 million, according to Fish and Game. 

The U.S. inflation calculator places the value of that catch at $387.8 million in 2019 dollars – more than $81 million above the value of this year’s harvest.

Three decades after the heyday of Alaska’s commercial fisheries, Bristol Bay gillnetters were this summer getting $1.35 per pound for sockeye, National Fisherman reported. That’s 65 cents less than what they were paid 31 years ago when a dollar was worth twice what it is worth today.

Given that sockeyes are the most valuable salmon in the Bristol Bay catch, the price disparity with other species is even greater.

The farmers invade

What happened?

Alaska banned fish farming in 1990, thinking it could hold down global supply and keep prices high. As with so many other efforts to control the free-market amoeba, it didn’t work.

Instead the then-tiny business of farming salmon in Norway popped out into a global juggernaut. Today, more than 70 percent of human-consumed salmon comes from fish farms, and the farmers show no sign of backing off their push for dominance.

Norway hopes to increase its production by five or six fold by 2050, and Norway isn’t the only player in the game anymore. The Chileans, the Scots, the Kiwis, the Aussiesthe Japanese and even the Chinese are now farming salmon.

A lower 48 fishing friend – someone well familiar with West Coast wild fish of all sorts from Alaska south to Oregon – confessed the other day that about all that is eaten anymore at home is Costco farmed salmon.

The warehouse discount giant says those fish “are raised without antibiotics, and the feed they eat is GMO-free.”

The use of antibiotics to control sea lice and diseases has been the big rap against farmed salmon along with accusations that natural waste from the fish swimming around in the net pens of farms can contaminate waterways.

Farmers have countered that with the argument these problems can be solved by locating farms in areas with tides that disperse waste, but a growing segment of the fishing business – as illustrated by Atlantic Sapphire – has suggested a better idea:

Recirculating aquaculture systems or RAS for short.

RAS farms have no need for antibiotics to protect the fish since they are insulated from natural pathogens, and the wastewater from the farms can be used for fertilizer. Atlantic Sapphire with its massive “Salmon City” just northeast of the Florida Everglades is the biggest player in this country, but it is not alone.

Superior Fresh – a Wisconsin company that looks to be the microbrew beer model for future, small-scale salmon farms – this summer announced a $10 million expansion of its joint RAS salmon farm and greenhouses.

“With millions of dollars in financial backing from Todd Wanek, the CEO of Ashley Furniture, and his wife, Karen, this is where a team of experts schooled in the minutiae of aquaculture and hydroponics uses water from the fish rearing process to grow vegetables year-round on floating mats. It’s all certified organic with no pesticides, growth hormones or other additives,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Water in which fish are raised is then used to fill greenhouse tanks to grow plants. The fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, and the water recirculates between the tanks.

Like hydroponics, aquaponics systems require less land and water than conventional crop production methods, increase growth rates and allow for year-round production.”

Fish of the day

That “year-round production” is a problem for Alaska salmon producers who can only provide seasonal products in a market where most of the world’s top chefs believe fresh is best when it comes to just about any sort of fish.

Add to this the ability of RAS farms to control what the fish are eating – who knows what wild fish might eat? – and the marketing problems for Alaska wild only grow. Stir in the economic muscle tied to the size of the farmed fish these days, which translates into dollars available for advertising, and Alaska fisheries face a future that looks a lot like that which strangled the newspaper business.

Technology changed the game, and a business model once extremely profitable became hard to sustain.

Alaska’s wild salmon fisheries aren’t going to go away. Apparently thanks to global warming, Alaska has this decade been enjoying an unprecedented average, annual salmon harvest of about 180 million per year.  These are volumes never seen in northern history, and the volume of fish, especially of pink salmon, is such that there is still money to be made for processors even if prices for Alaska salmon remain stagnant.

But the future does not look bright.

The price of Alaska salmon was long ago capped by prices paid for the farmed fish that own the market, the “premium market” where Alaska wild salmon once held an edge is shifting, and the farmers just keep increasing production.

Alaska catches might be able to keep creeping upward despite historical precedents indicating harvests of 200 million salmon per year, as again this year, are not realistic. But even if that happens, Alaska market share is destined to decline.

Exactly what the Alaska Legislature feared when it banned fish farming 29 years ago is coming to pass. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see the warning signs amid all the hype about Alaska being awash in salmon.

















12 replies »

  1. Ok, I’m going to hand the monkey the banana here.

    Since back in the Hippie daze, and likely a couple generations before, we’ve known that fish, aquaculture methods in general, convert their feed rations into top-quality human food more efficiently than any other important source of animal protein & fat.

    Read ’em weep, Alaska boys & girls hung up on the marvel of salmon. It’s inherently destined to become the cheapest & most mass-produced – and best! – source of human nutrition on the plant. Yes, other fish could well end up in the mix, too, using tweaked versions of salmon-farming … but salmon is highly preferred & marketable, keeping it competitive with catfish, carp, and tilapia that might edge it out, efficiency-wise. Notice that those growth-champs are warm-water species … and the new salmon farm is in … southern Florida. Can we say ‘Hello’ to warm-water salmon?

    The silver lining cum warning here, obviously, is to shift from commercial to charter & recreational fishing of wild salmon, as rapidly & completely as possible. Folks already shell out $100 a pound for the fun of catching their own … and throw a gratuitous trip to the Last Frontier in the bargain.

    Wake up and smell the fish-farms, people.

    • Life in Alaska has revolved around salmon for 30,000 years. So there’s now KFC and SNL … nothin’s changed in Alaska.

  2. Hi Craig, just out of curiosity; do you just throw ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ in your articles just to trigger certain segments of your readership? Things that make me go hmmm…

    • Searching this page from the top down using the phrase ‘climate change’ … your own instance is the first. Not used in the article, only in Comments.

      ‘Global warming’ is in the article once. How will we ever bear up?

      Notwithstanding that climate change is baby puppies, and warming is cool.

  3. Remember in America, your money is your ultimate vote.
    Many health conscious consumers are waking up to the hazardous and toxic conditions in our oceans…
    Whether or not you feel Fukushima contaminated food sources is alot like denying that Climate Change is real.
    Future generations will not be as complacent with accepting the way things must be.
    Microplastics in our Oceans is another major concern driving the banksters to fund onland fish farms…and may be killing many smaller fish.
    “From Fish to Humans, A Microplastic Invasion May Be Taking a Toll…
    Tiny pieces of degraded plastic, synthetic fibers and plastic beads, collectively called microplastics, have turned up in every corner of the planet—from Florida beach sands to Arctic sea ice, from farm fields to urban air.”

    • Good point Steve, “Whether or not you feel Fukushima contaminated food sources is alot like denying that Climate Change is real.” People who “feel” Fukushima contaminated food sources outside of the immediate area impacted by the release simply disregard facts, the same way people who “feel” anthropogenic global warming is real simply disregard facts. People who dare question other people’s feelings about Fukushima and anthropogenic global warming and rely on facts will probably become less and less as time moves on because the dumbing down of society is evidenced by the very fact that people “feel” that feelings are superior to facts.

      • Well said Steve-O. On a different note, out with the Chileans and in with the Norwegians. Norway is the player to watch. Alaska is more like a novelty in the lower 48 until the whole “wild caught” label loses its luster. Then game over. Costco alone drives a huge consumer base and their money is on Norwegian salmon.

      • So Bryan,
        You said:
        “Costco alone drives a huge consumer base and their money is on Norwegian salmon.”
        Why do you think this is happening?
        Especially when Costco is based out of Seattle which is the destination of so much “Ranched” Alaskan Salmon?
        My take is the mega yuppies of Seattle do not want fish from the Pacific for many reasons.
        The water filtration system in land based salmon farming is far superior to the back flushed contaminated water of the North Pacific.

      • Spot on, sir. Scientific evidence is greater than feelings any day. Regardless of political agendas, A=A. Reality is what it is.

    • I took a look at your SciAm ref; I didn’t ‘study’ it – and that’s what it really calls for (and it could get to be a pretty darned open ended Study!) – but I got a feel for it (feelings are important?), and I do like it. I’m a very long-time (old-time) SciAm Amateur Scientist guy. Specifically, I like the illustrations for the (mussel) research they’re talking about. Us amateurs can do versions of this kind of work, ourselves.

      We would use jars & bottles, commonly on the window sill, but better under a fixed light, like a 48″ shop fixture. We would not use expensive microscopes to look for microbeads inside mussel blood cells, but we could very well make good use of cheap microscopes for suitable & cool tasks.

      We would tend to rely on “comparative” methods, rather then “quantitative” methods. By eye, we can compare the brightness of two nearby stars to a very fine degree. But by eye, we cannot quantify the brightness of a single star by itself well at all. This is a very broadly-applicable & powerful Principle. Looking for … a Difference.

      So we would set up pond-water cultures that support a particular microorganism ecosystem, making sure we can get the same results from the same initial conditions. Then we add a variable, and change it, comparing results with our Standard Culture.

      The new variable might be added microbeads, say from a common brand of whitening toothpaste. We might need to investigate, test, whether the beads remain in suspension, or settle out pretty quick and become sequestered in the bottom layer/sediment. If the beads do settle out, then we could establish a Protocol, like to shake or stir our bottles each morning & evening. Does it take a few hours for the beads to settle? Then that should do fine.

      Do the beads make a difference? Like obviously, kill everything? There are herbivorous & predatory protozoa … they are fascinating to watch, even with a cheap ‘scope (and cheap microscopes, like other cheap optics, are much better today than formerly). Marvelous behavior on display … all from a single cell organism. Hmmm.

      One of the important ways to amplify the effects of a substance-of-concern, is to focus on apex predators, which do not directly consume the substance, but which might concentrate it, from their prey. We could actually do this, with easy protozoa prey-predator cultures.

      My hunch (scientists & technologists make use of feelings, too!) is that microplastics will prove to be like the dangers of exposure to the fields of electrical powerlines. Again, comparative methods give us a lot of easy leverage: perform basic botanical & invertebrate Sample-Plot examinations (and quantitative inventories are not hard in this case) beneath the powerlines, versus similarly cleared sites, but without the powerlines (such as cleared roadsides). Even just along the sides of the cleared ROW, versus down the middle under the HV lines, will be a large field-strength difference (easy to measure) (these field-strengths diminish … as the “inverse cube of the distance”? – fast!). Is there ‘something going on’, under the power lines, or not? Great ‘field-lab’, across the water from Anchorage and running the coast west along Cook Inlet!

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