If you’re an Alaska commercial salmon fishermen, be forewarned; the farmers in Wisconsin are coming for you.
Dangers lurking in the future might be easy to overlook coming after another boom year for Alaska salmon, and the news that per capita incomes in the Bristol Bay Borough were the fourth highest in the country in 2018.
But who knows where those Bristol Bay sockeye salmon spent their lives. They could have been feeding in the waters off Fukushima, a place now so famous it now needs no further identification.
There are so many experts saying there is no reason to worry about glow-in-the-dark salmon due to leading Fukushima radiation that some people are sure to worry. Shakespeare captured the problem here in seven words in Hamlet:
At some point, telling people their worries are unfounded – no matter how unfounded those worries might be – only makes people more suspicious.
Enter the marketers.
A Better Ocean
“A Better Ocean in Your Backyard” is the new marketing theme of Superior Fresh, a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) farm in America’s Heartland:
“Until now, it’s been impossible to get truly fresh Atlantic salmon in the Midwest, not to mention salmon of the incredible quality that Superior Fresh offers. Healthy, delicious, and without the same contaminants you’d find in the wild. And we did it sustainably to boot.”
The word that will, or should, jump out to Alaskans there is “wild.”
“Wild” was the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s answer to the rise of farmed salmon as a market force. ASMI pitched the idea wild was better. It worked for a while.
Target, one of the biggest retailers in the country, banned farmed salmon from its stores at the start of the decade.
“Target® today announces that it has eliminated all farmed salmon from its fresh, frozen, and smoked seafood offerings in Target stores nationwide,” said a company statement on Jan. 26, 2010. “This announcement includes Target owned brands – Archer Farms® and Market Pantry® – and national brands. All salmon sold under Target owned brands will now be wild-caught Alaskan salmon. Additionally, sushi featuring farm-raised salmon will complete its transition to wild-caught salmon by the end of 2010. 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.
“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. Wild-caught salmon from Alaska is considered a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and is certified as sustainable to the standard of the Marine Stewardship Council.”
The ban was short-lived. Farmed salmon quietly reappeared on Target shelves in 2017.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch,” which once helped lead the pushback again farmed fish, had by that time already began its move toward farmed fish. Today, six of the eight “best choice” salmon on the watch list are farmed fish.
The other two choices are pink sockeye salmon from “lift nets” in Washington state. Lift nets are a selective fishing technique with some similarities to fish traps, which are banned in Alaska.
While lift nets don’t appear to be specifically banned in Alaska as are traps and fish farms, there are no Alaska lift net fisheries. There are also no Alaska salmon on the influential Seafood Choice advisory for consumers.
Superior Fresh is now taking the marketing battle to the next level.
Over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, it announced its salmon had been certified “non-GMO” by A Greener World, a non-governmental entity (NGO) opposed to genetically modified products.
The certification was a thinly veiled pitch for Superior Fresh salmon as “organic,” a hot-button marketing tag these days.
Given the “inability of the government to inspect all imported seafood, we want our customers to be confident in our brand and products,” Superior Fresh President Brandon Gottsacker told Seafood Source. “With the inability to receive USDA Organic [certification for] seafood, we want to assure our customers that we have the highest standards for our salmon.”
Superior Fresh which opened its first farm in rural Wisconsin and is now in the processing of expanding across the Midwest is all about the environmental advantages of its product. It’s web page claims:
- “Superior Fresh Atlantic salmon and steelhead are fed an organic diet rich in fishmeal and fish oil harvested from sustainable fisheries and organically-produced grains.”
- “The Omega-3 levels in our fish are substantially higher than the other farmed and wild salmon. ” Omega-3s have been linked to all sorts of health benefits.
- “Conventional farming techniques use large amounts of water that often end up emptying into our precious streams and rivers.” Superior Fresh recirculates 99 percent of its water, using the fish waste that is filtered out to fertilize the lettuce in its companion greenhouse, and the wastewater to “help irrigate alfalfa and restored prairie on our family farm.”
- Locally farmed fish taste better because they are fresh. They also eliminate the “tremendous climate footprint” of fish shipped in from far away. “And by raising salmon here, we reduce the strain on wild fish populations.”
- And last, but not least, the fish are “contaminant free. The ocean is undergoing an environmental crisis, and sea life is bearing the brunt of the problem. Superior Fresh fish are raised in closed-systems that control what the fish eats, never uses antibiotics or pesticides, and excludes pollutants that can occur in river and ocean environments. Thus, with Superior Fresh, you are guaranteed the safest and healthiest salmon!”
None of this is good news for Alaska where salmon fishing has been a key part of the economy for more than a century.
“Superior Fresh’s primary market stretches across the upper Midwest from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Chicago, Illinois, and its salmon is sold in retailers such as Festival Foods and Metcalfe’s,” Seafood Source reported. “But the company is seeking to extend its footprint following an expansion of its fish house from 40,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet…Starting in the second quarter of 2021, Superior Fresh will be harvesting 25,000 pounds of fresh Atlantic salmon weekly, allowing it to expand throughout the Midwest.”
That production is tiny by Alaska standards, but the big danger is that Superior Fresh illustrates proof of concept for a viable, on-land, salmon farming business. That could be a game-changer along the line of microbrewed beer.
“And craft beer continues to capture a larger portion of the overall $111 billion-plus U.S. beer industry, increasing its share to 23.4 percent in 2017, or $26.01 billion,” USA Today reported last year. “This year, it’s expected to increase slightly to 24 or 25 percent….
“Craft beer’s continued growth comes from consumers looking to spend local and connect with the people making the beer they drink where they produce it.”
Superior Fresh is trying to tap into that same market of consumers looking to spend local and connect with the people making the product. The company isn’t going to kill the Alaska salmon business. Neither are Atlantic Sapphire and other U.S.-based RAS operations working on Alaska-size production facilities.
But the cumulative impact is almost certain to constrain the price paid for Alaska salmon if not drive it down, and there is no telling how big the ripple effect of that might be.