The coming year marks the 30th anniversary of the state of Alaska’s attempt to control world salmon markets by banning fish farming in the 49th state.
It would seem an appropriate time to review what has happened since then:
- Farmed salmon production, a meager 271,000 tonnes per year at the time of the 1990 ban, has grown to more than 2.2 million tonnes per year – a more than eight-fold increase.
- Bristol Bay sockeye salmon that spent the late 1980s trading near an average, annual price of $2 per pound ($4.24 per pound in 2019 dollars, according to the federal inflation calculator) is now worth $1.35 per pound or about 32 percent of its pre-ban value , according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures.
- Norway, a country about the size of Arizona, and once a minor player in the salmon business, now sells more than 1 million tonnes of salmon per year worth more than $7 billion, while Alaska, a state more than five-times bigger than Norway, on average, produces somewhere around 450,000 tonnes worth less than $700 million. The Norwegian harvest is primarily fresh, high-value Atlantic salmon; Alaska’s harvest is usually dominated by low-value pink salmon.
- Total global production of farmed salmon – Chile, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Faroe Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Japan and Iceland have all joined Norway in the business – now accounts for more than seven out of every 10 salmon consumed around the world and represents “the fastest growing food production system” on the planet, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
- Big, new, land-based salmon farms, called recirculated aquaculture systems (RAS), are popping up in the United States to grow chemical-free salmon in clean, filtered-water and free salmon farmers from environmentalist complaints that ocean net pens can foul local waters. One RAS operation in Florida is so big it expects to produce more salmon than Bristol Bay by the end of the next decade.
- The Alaska Permanent Fund – recognizing where the money is and ignoring state views that fish farms are inherently bad – has invested significantly in salmon farming companies.
- Alaska’s iconic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has teamed with a Norwegian company – Aker BioMarine – that pioneered and produces a salmon feed-additive for a which it claims a “40 percent better growth rate” that helps Norwegian salmon farmer net a tenfold increase in profits.
- And some Alaska salmon producers competing with the farmers have just told the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) that they are starting to hear “concerns from buyers about climate change, ocean conditions and water quality,” according to National Fishermen magazine. Misleading news coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere has helped spread the idea that Alaska salmon are today threatened by global warming when exactly the opposite is true. Warming has brought record harvests to the state. It has not been so kind to Canadian or Pacific Northwest salmon, but that is another story.
ASMI once promoted the idea that Alaska wild salmon were a healthier food choice better for the environment and, for a time, had a buy-in from “Seafood Watch” at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
A 2005 Seafood Watch reported concluded “that Alaskan salmon fisheries, which comprise the vast majority ofU.S. Pacific salmon, are very robust, and represent a Best Choice….all California, Oregon and Washington salmon are a Good Alternative.”
At the time, only two sources of farmed salmon were ranked “acceptable,” and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, one of the main funding sources for Seafood Watch, was reported to be in the middle of a program that “granted about $16 million for aquaculture ‘reform’ and demarketing farmed salmon.”
The effort seemed to be working.
“The interest in wild salmon has been boosted by the greater awareness of the health benefits of eating seafood that has arisen from the farmed salmon controversy,” Steve Wilhelm reported at the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2005.
By 2010, Target was reporting it had eliminated “all farmed salmon from its fresh, frozen, and smoked seafood offerings” and would sell only wild-caught Alaska salmon.
“In consultation with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Target is taking this important step to ensure that its salmon offerings are sourced in a sustainable way that helps to preserve abundance, species health and doesn’t harm local habitats,” the company said in a public statement.
“Many salmon farms impact the environment in numerous ways – pollution, chemicals, parasites and non-native farmed fish that escape from salmon farms all affect the natural habitat and the native salmon in the surrounding areas.”
The Target ban marked a high point for Alaska wild salmon. Seven years later, Seafood Watch announced it was recognizing as a “good alternative” all farmed salmon certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, an independent monitoring group set up by the WWF and the Sustainable Trade Initiative.
The Seafood Watch list of “Best Choice” for salmon is headed by net-pen Atlantic salmon from Nordic Blu in Norway and any salmon coming from a RAS farm; net-pen Chinook (king salmon) from New Zealand or anywhere with RAS; coho (silver salmon) from RAS; and wild pink and sockeye salmon from “lift nets” in Washington state.
The “Good Alternative” category is a litany of Atlantic salmon raised in net pens in the Faroe Islands, Chile, Norway, Canada, Scotland and Maine. Not a single Alaska salmon makes the list, although some wild fish from the Pacific Northwest do, but none as a “Best Choice.”
Meanwhile, the RAS farmers are starting to turn the health and environmental issues back on wild fish.
RAS fish are “grown without any antibiotics or pesticides ever. No contaminants or pollutants like you’ll find in the ocean,” Festival Foods, a Wisconsin supermarket chain proclaimed when it rolled out locally grown Superior Fresh farmed, RAS salmon last year, noting their “Best Choice” rating from Seafood Watch, their “organic diet,” their high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, and an “amazing flavor.”
Alaska wild salmon certainly weren’t helped when the Washington Post hosted a blind taste test in 2013 featuring some of the capital city’s best chefs and seafood buyers as tasters and afterward declared “the judgments were definitive, and surprising. Farmed salmon beat wild salmon, hands down. The overall winner was the Costco frozen Atlantic salmon (Norwegian), added to the tasting late in the game — to provide a counterpoint to all that lovely fresh fish, we thought.”
Costco now makes no bones about its attitude toward farmed salmon.
“We believe that farmed seafood should be an integral part of our business, that aquaculture is a critical source of affordable protein now and in the future, and that farming can be done in a sustainable, responsible manner with reduced impacts on the environment and local communities,” the wholesale marketing powerhouse says on its website.
That fish will not be coming from Alaska that boosted its production with “ranched” rather than “farmed” salmon. The difference is simple. Ranched fish are turned free in the ocean rather than contained in pens.
From a pure production standpoint, the Alaska ranching operations have been hugely successful. They have been responsible for about a third of the state record harvests of about 180 million salmon per year for this decade, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) data.
Over the more than 100 year history of Alaska commercial salmon fisheries, the state has never seen decadal average harvests anywhere near this high. Prior to the 1990s, the state and before that the Territory of Alaska never saw a single season harvest of greater than 130 million salmon.
The value of the catch, however, has been limited because 73 percent of the hatchery harvest of about 62 million salmon per year has been low-value pinks, according to the latest Alaska Salmon Enhancement Fisheries Annual Report from ADF&G.
And questions have been raised about whether the large number of hatchery pink salmon dumped in Alaska waters every spring could be reducing returns of more valuable sockeye, coho (silver) and Chinook (king) salmon.
Scientists Greg Ruggerone and Jennifer Nielsen in 2005 suggested “that pink salmon may be the dominant competitor among salmon in marine waters.”
“Since a number of studies have recently examined pink salmon interactions with other salmon, we reviewed them in an effort to describe patterns of interaction over broad regions of the ocean.” the wrote in a paper published in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries. “research consistently indicated that pink salmon significantly altered prey abundance of other salmon species (e.g., zooplankton, squid), leading to altered diet, reduced total prey consumption and growth, delayed maturation, and reduced survival, depending on species and locale.”
The state has ignored the issue of marine survival as too difficult to study and held to the view that correlations do not prove causation. Meanwhile the pink salmon hatcheries of Prince William Sound, in particular, have established themselves as regional, economic powerhouses based on their ability to head and gut large volumes of low-value salmon to be shipped to China for further, cheap processing while the remains in Alaska are converted into fish meal and oil.
The result of this “increased utilization” – as the McDowell Group, an economic consultancy called it – has come in the form of an evolving industry now worth nearly $200 million per year, according to a 2018 McDowell report.
And yet Alaska continues to lose ground to the salmon farmers it sought to out manuever when it banned farming in 1990.
Those salmon farmers show no sign of reducing their steady growth either. While some are moving onland with RAS, Norway Royal Salmon has teamed with Aker to expand farms far offshore into Arctic waters.
“According to both firms, their new ocean aquaculture concept, called Arctic Offshore Farming, facilitates sustainable growth in areas that the aquaculture technology thus far has not been able to exploit,” Norway News reported in December 2017.
Norway Royal provided the salmon farming expertise, the website said, while Aker took the lead on “expertise in offshore facility construction (Aker Solutions) and the environmentally certified fishery operations in extreme water (Aker Marine),” the website reported.
The Federation of Norwegian Industries says its “ambition is for Norway to become the world’s leading seafood nation through a five-fold increase in salmon production and a six-fold increase in value creation between 2010 and 2050.”
Aker built its business on trawling krill in the rough waters of the Antarctic Ocean. Krill oil contains astaxanthin the chemical given farm-raised salmon to turn their flesh pink.
“If it were not for krill meal, most of your store-bought salmon would yield a pale gray meat,” according to WellWise.org, a Netherlands-based nonprofit focused on health and nutrition issues. “The vast majority of krill harvested today (around 98 percent) is turned into meal for fish farming. Only about two percent is used for krill oil in dietary supplements.”
Aker has been trying to broaden the market for its krill products by expanding into supplements for people and for pets. Thus the connection with the Iditarod and other sled dog races.
“You might wonder how professional athletes are related to animal performance,” Aker says on its the website of its Qrill Aqua subsidiary. “Well, we all want to perform: athletes, sled dogs and even salmon. The connections are actually more related than what you might think, as nutrition plays an important role for all of us. Aker BioMarine has identified four positive krill effects across these species when it comes to performance: inflammatory response, heart health, well-being and muscular system.”
Preliminary studies “are encouraging for krill meal supplementation for dogs in general, whether they are performing in long-distance races or taking their leisurely afternoon walk,” the company says.
“But what about salmon? During the past decade, the effect of krill on salmonids health and fillet quality has been investigated. Fat content, fat distribution and fillet quality may be influenced by feed composition. Due to krill inherent advantages i.e. feeding stimulants, omega-3 fatty acids bound to phospholipids and highly digestible peptides, krill improves fillet quality, both in terms of yield and texture.”
The Qrill pitch sums well the problems facing the Alaska salmon industry going forward:
“Flesh quality in salmon is the result of a combination of characteristics of skeletal muscle, which include the muscle chemical composition (fat content and fatty acid profile, glycogen stores, oxidative stability, color) and muscle cellularity and is strongly influenced by a variety of extrinsic factors such as feeding, pre- and post-slaughter handling, processing, and storage procedures. One of the major criteria of flesh quality is texture, which is determined by muscle cellularity (fiber number and distribution) and connective tissue characteristics. Different studies have shown an improvement in gaping and fillet firmness and a decrease of melanin spots in salmon fed krill diets, which are key requirements for the salmon industry.”
The farmers are now in position to fine-tune the body composition of their salmon to suit the taste of salmon buyers, and they are in a much better position to oversee careful pre- and post-slaughter handling, processing and storage than Alaska processors shoveling huge volumes of salmon through their plants for a few months every year.
This might explain why most of the major salmon processors have also diversified into farmed salmon businesses. Thirty years after the ban it’s clear the state did a great job of keeping farms out of the state, but the ban did nothing to maintain wild salmon prices, one of its main goals, and in the long term is appears destined to make Alaska – once the dominate salmon producer – a bit player in global salmon markets.
Correction: An earlier version of this story overstated the tonnage of the Alaska salmon harvest.