Almost every day it seems there comes a new swell in the wave of change breaking over an Alaska commercial salmon industry that has been a mainstay of the northern economy since territorial days.
“Dubai is no stranger to ambitious projects, with a no-limits approach that has seen a palm-shaped island built off its coast, and a full-scale ski slope created inside a shopping mall,” Shatha Yaish writes at Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“But the farming of salmon in the desert is ‘something that no one could have imagined’, said Bader bin Mubarak, chief executive of Fish Farm. ‘This is exactly what we’re doing in Dubai.'”
Farming salmon in the heat of Arabia might sound like wildly ambitious nonsense if not for the fact Atlantic Sapphire, a Norwegian company, is in the process of doing the same thing in sunny Florida.
That company just happened to be named “Star of Innovation” at a European business conference in Brussels earlier this month. It is already raising fish in the tanks at its $350 million farm near Miami, and it announced expansion plans even before it shipped its first fish.
A mob of competition
And Atlantic Sapphire is not the only big-time, land-based, recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) underway in the U.S. Nordic Aquafarms, another Norwegian company, is moving ahead on plans for major RAS farms in California and Maine, despite NIMBY opposition to what is being called a “mega-industrial extractive project” in the latter state.
“…In Greater Belfast…almost every recent development proposal — from the land-based salmon farm to a new Tractor Supply to turning an old school into apartments — has been met with noisy, sometimes hostile, opposition,” the Bangor Daily News reported.
“People are objecting to these projects for all kinds of reasons, of course: fears about pollution, water use, urban sprawl and neighborhood decline, to name a few. But underlying all these objections may be one, more simple idea: ‘we just don’t want that here.'”
Alaska solved the “we don’t want that here” problem simply in 1990 by banning salmon farming thinking that if it did so the 49th state could corner the market on salmon. The salmon farmers were at that time producing a paltry 271,000 tonnes per year – near equal to what Alaska wild salmon fisheries were catching.
Thanks in significant part to a warming ocean, the wild Alaska fisheries were able to up their catch by an unprecedented 25 percent in the 1990s, but farmed salmon production was at the same time multiplying logarithmically.
Global farmed salmon production today is 2.2 million tonnes per year and still growing. 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.
Aker Biomarine – the parent firm of Qrill Aqua, one of the new backers of the Iditrod Trail Sled Dog Race – says that “in Norway there is ambition to grow aquaculture to a five or six-fold increase by 2050.”
That would bring Norwegian production to 5 million tonnes. Alaska is these days squeezing just about all it can out of its wild-catch salmon fisheries and on average, produces somewhere around 450,000 tonnes worth less than $700 million.
A lot of the Alaska salmon harvest is in low-value pinks that go into cans or foil pouches. Most of the Norwegian harvest is of fish shipped quickly to market and sold fresh as a high-end product.
Despite tough competition in the market for farmed salmon, the business remains good enough that Chile, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Faroe Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Japan, Iceland, China and, yes, even Dubai have joined Norway among the farmers.
“Fish Farm, the UAE’s only fish farm, hopes to meet at least 50 percent of the country’s needs within two years,” AFP reported. “In April, Fish Farm began selling its products in supermarkets. Despite its decidedly unnatural origins, the salmon is marked ‘100 percent organic’ because of the fish feed and the absence of antibiotics in a closed environment.”
Cleanliness, which has become second only to Godliness in the sale of food in the 21st Century, has become a big selling point for all of the RAS operations.
“Delicious, healthy and truly sustainable” is how Atlantic Sapphire is now promoting its product. “When choosing Atlantic Sapphire salmon, you are not only caring for your health and well being, but also for the health of our planet. Every choice counts and together we can make a difference.
‘Atlantic Sapphire salmon is raised in a revolutionary Bluehouse – the equivalent of a Greenhouse where fish are given ideal conditions to thrive.”
The company, like others in the RAS business, is trying to turn the tables on the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) which has over the last two decades spent tens of millions of dollars promoting the idea that wild salmon is better salmon.
The RAS operators pitch their salmon as the opposite of uncontrolled, unknown wild and thus even healthier.
“Inside the BluehouseTM, the water is continuously purified to remain crystal clear by a state of the art filtration system,” Atlantic Sapphire says “Furthermore, the fish are free to swim against strong currents, as they do in the wild.
“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.
“(And) the waste generated in our BluehouseTM is used as fertilizer and creation of renewable energy in the form of biogas.”
Were the brand marketing here the biggest problem facing the Alaska industry, it would be one thing. But it’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the competition between the fish farmers themselves – competition that is sure to hold down fish prices.
Earlier this month, the Scottish Financial News reported that the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) was the beneficiary of a £10 million ( $12.9 million),five-year funding package from the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
The intent of that investment? To expand Scottish salmon farming and bring costs down.
“Over the next five years, we will build on Scottish aquaculture’s existing foundations to establish a low-carbon, hi-tech, data-rich, and cutting-edge sector that is led by pioneering research aligned with genuine industry need,” SAIC CEO Heather Jones told the News.
The Norwegians, the Chileans, the Danes, the Canadians, the RAS operators in the U.S. and more are all doing the same thing, and because they are by now the largest producers of salmon, the price of their fish determines the market price.
Alaska has already suffered as a result. The state’s prized Bristol Bay sockeye was in the late 1980s trading at an average price of about $4.24 per pound in 2019 dollars, It was this year selling for somewhere around$1.35 per pound, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures.
This is not going to change. The Alaska commercial salmon industry is not going to die any time soon, either. It still has a long future ahead of it, but economists expect its value in real-dollars to decline over time and for its market to become more and more a niche.
Some fishermen have already taken note and turned to direct-to-consumer sales. Business Insider India in October featured a story on the Wild Alaskan Company, “a seafood delivery service founded by a member of a third-generation Alaskan fishing family” with a mission “to make trustworthy, sustainable fish (salmon, halibut,
cod, and more) convenient to access.”
But the implications for the Alaska economy as a whole and how Alaska should adjust salmon management changes in a rapidly changing world have been the subject of little discussion with many of the state’s commercial fishermen apparently still convinced the Alaska ban on fish farming protected their business interests.
Or that the Alaska industry can be propped up with private, nonprofit hatcheries – Alaska’s answer to Norway. The hatcheries dump about 1 billion baby salmon into the ocean every year and hope 30 million to 50 million adult fish eventually return to be “wild caught.”
To date, the Alaska private, nonprofit hatchery system subsidized by the state but in large part paid for by commercial fishermen has driven the most successful salmon “ranching” program in West Coast history.