Salmon kings


Winning fishman 2019/Seafood from Norway

While Alaska was trumpeting a 2019 Alaska salmon harvest worth $657.6 million, Norwegian salmon farmers were the ones truly raking in the cash.

The Norwegian Seafood Council is reporting NOK $107.3 billion ($12.1 billion) in seafood exports last year. And about $8.2 billion of that was farmed salmon, meaning the salmon harvest from the smallish Scandinavian country was worth more than 12 times the salmon catch in the four-times larger U.S. state.

Worse news for Alaska is that Norwegian production just seems to keep growing.

‘Export volume increased by 6 percent, and export value increased by 7 percent…from 2018,” the council reported.

Supply and demand influence prices in commodity markets, and as a general rule an increasing supply holds down price.  That’s not good news for Alaska commercial fishermen in a market where farmed salmon already benchmark the price.

Norway is both the world’s largest producer of salmon and the world’s largest producer of farmed salmon. The Norwegian council appeared to be almost gleefully patting itself on the back as the seafood supplier to the world.

The 2.7 million metric tons of seafood exported from Norway last year “corresponds to 36 million meals every day throughout the year, or 25,000 meals per minute,” wrote Chris Guldberg, the council’s director of communications and public affairs.

Former leader

Alaska exports somewhat more than a million tonnes of seafood per year, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, about a third that of Norway.

Norway’s production of salmon has moved it into the market-dominant position Alaska occupied in the 1980s before the Alaska Legislature voted to ban salmon farming in favor of salmon ranching.

Ranching is the pen-free version of salmon farming. Instead of hatching eggs and raising young fish in pens until they reach eating size, ranchers hatch eggs, raise young fish until they are big enough to go to sea, dump them in the ocean by the hundreds of millions, and hope enough return as adults to ensure the hatcheries remain economically viable.

When Alaska banned salmon farming in 1989, Alaska lawmakers understood that competition from net-pen farmers was a potential threat to the state’s wild-capture operations. Allowing farmers to get started in Alaska, they reasoned, would only encourage the growth of the farming model and further increase competition.

No one foresaw that the farmers would in a matter of years take over the market and leave Alaska struggling to compete by claiming that “wild” salmon are tastier and/or healthier than “farmed” salmon.

That sales tactic appeared to be working for a time, but seems to have now faded. One of the biggest food retailers in the country – Target – banned farmed salmon from its store in 2010, but brought it back in 2017. 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which runs a dining advisory service called “Seafood Watch,” once helped lead the push against farmed fish in favor of wild fish. It has now switched sides.  Today, six of the eight “best choice” salmon on its Watch list are farmed; the other two choices are wild salmon caught in lift nets. 

Lifts nets are a highly selective way of harvesting salmon that eliminates interspecies bycatch. Alaska has no lift net fisheries, although a fisherman who runs a lift net operation in the Lower 48 says there is no reason they wouldn’t work in Alaska waters.

No Alaska salmon are listed among Seafood Watch’s favored salmon, which along with Norwegian farmed fish suggests those from New Zealand, the Faroe Islands, Chile Scotland’s Orkney Islands, British Columbia, Canada, and several U.S. states. But Alaska salmon are recommended on a second, “eco-certifications” page which lists salmon approved by as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.


When the Alaska salmon farming ban kicked in a year after the Legislature’s vote, global, farmed salmon production by all nations was 271,000 tonnes.

The Norwegians last year reported exporting 1.1 million tonnes – four times the entire global production of 30 years ago.

On the way to this production level of more than 1 million, Norway pioneered the salmon sushi market in Japan. Salmon sushi is now the most popular sushi in that country.

“Behind salmon’s rise to popularity is the lesser-known story of a carefully executed Norwegian marketing campaign: Project Japan,” The Japan Times reported in 2018. 

Before the Norwegians, reporter Oeystein Sollesnes wrote, the Japanese didn’t eat salmon:

“Raw salmon that is. The Japanese have eaten salmon for hundreds of years, but locally caught Pacific salmon (like all wild Pacific salmon) contains parasites and must be cooked or cured for its lean meat to be edible. Farmed Atlantic salmon, on the other hand, is fatty and parasite-free.”

Today that same Norwegian salmon is making inroads in China. Alaska salmon processors have also been trying to enter the Chinese market but have been hampered by the China-U.S. trade war, sometimes lower grade products, and smaller marketing budgets.

“2019 was the year where Norwegian salmon made its comeback in the Chinese market,” the Norwegian Seafood Council reported. “Throughout the year, market access has bettered terms for Norwegian players with interest in the Chinese market. We expect the positive trend to continue for 2020.”

Where this ends is hard to say.

Aker Biomarine, a company now associated with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, says that Norway wants “to grow aquaculture to a five- or six-fold increase by 2050.”

Aker and its Qrill subsidiaries are in the marine-feed business that they have spun into a line of human and canine supplements they suggest can improve athletic performance.

Correction: This is an edited version of an earlier story, which failed to note the “eco-certification” category of salmon which includes Alaska salmon on the Seafood Watch website.





20 replies »

    • ‘Alaska salmon’ does appear to be a football. At the public level, the game appears to be to guess what the game is. And thus, how to score, what the score is, and who’s ahead.

      By managing the fishery the way it is, Alaska maintains a larger & stronger claim on and interest in the natural base that supports its harvest. The wild ocean waters.

      Either we maintain that claim, or the Russians will.

      #2, salmon farming supports a more-dispersed, more-rural/local socio-economic model, which of course purveyors of Urban Man deplore. That works great for Norway, but on the American West Coast, nuh-uh … and explains why the biz has also been pooh-poohed in Washington state and British Columbia.

  1. Certainly the value of the various species comes into play here. Folks must be willing to pay a lot more for a farmed Atlantic fillet than a canned wild-caught Alaska pink. The SE AK Chinook fishery probably is of greater value (per metric ton) than the highest-priced Norwegian farmed Atlantic fillet, but that’s a guess. And there’s not that many of them.

    • there’s not many of them and getting to be less year by year. i think the highest price being paid at the moment is for some damn Kiwi farmed salmon. markets are weird.

  2. Steve Stine – Russia hasn’t been communist for something like 20 years now. They practice good old fashioned “crony capitalism” just like us. And by the way, Russia has had king crab for as long as Alaska has.

  3. They are banning net pens in Washington and they are soon to be banned in BC. Norwegian salmon are bathed frequently in hydrogen peroxide , dyed to get their red color, and are ruining the bottoms of the ocean under their pens. Ecological disasters. The wild salmon are all but gone in their areas. Get the people off the stream beds and ban the kill and release practices of the sport fishermen. Plenty of fish get up the streams and by the sonars. The fish shouldn’t have to be stressed on the way to their spawning grounds. Power boats off the rivers!

    • actually, Phil, some of them are treated with pyrethroid, a pretty common agriculture chemical, to kill lice, though that is going out of favor because there are better ways. to get the red color, they are fed krill supplements (ask the Iditarod about that). and where properly sited, they’re not killing the bottom of anything.

      the Washington and BC production didn’t amount to diddly to begin with, and it will be far surpassed by the production from the land-based RAS salmon farms coming online in the states. the production from Atlantic Sapphire’s Florida farm alone will exceed that of all the operations you mention.

      it’s good you appear to want to protect wild salmon, though you left the bears and eagles off the list. shouldn’t we shoot most of them, too, to keep them from stressing the fish?

      but wanting to protect wild salmon isn’t the issue anyway. how Alaska deals with the economics of salmon production is the issue. the farmers just keep producing more and doing it in cleaner ways. that’s going to affect prices.

      at a minimum, Alaska needs to find ways to make its fisheries operate more efficiently.

  4. Well it looks like the verdict is in:
    “No Alaska salmon are listed on the Seafood Watch guide to sustainable salmon…”
    I guess this explains the imbalance B/W over produced “hatchery” fish and lack of returning “natural” runs throughout south central Alaska.
    Who would have thought dumping 1 Billion young hatchery salmon (a year) into the AK Ecosystem was not “sustainable”?

    • Steve, not to be a rube but, are you confusing “sustainable” with “overabundance, record numbers”, etc..? I get it is a “talking point” to the left and people love to use it to feel good but, what we are really talking about here is the publics perception between “wild” and farm raised and the ins-and-outs that go along with it. Also, throw in public access and walla, Costco for example. Alaska had a “sustainable” salmon year. Boy, that felt good. 🙂

      • Bryan,
        You know, “sustainable” like Easter Island…
        As for Costco, I recently heard a story on the radio they are selling Russian king crab for $9.99/lb in Washington.
        Heard they are twice as big as the average Alaskan king crab…turns out with Climate Change they introduced them into northern waters that normally did not have crab species.
        Turns out they flourished.
        Funny thing “globalism” is…we undercut American prices with “communist” products.
        What would Ronald Reagan think about that?

      • Steve,

        Your misunderstanding of virtually everything in your last post is simply astounding. You’ve really reached a new level, and not in a good way…at all.

        Russia hasn’t been communist since 1991, when The Soviet Union collapsed. Reagan was still alive when that happened. In 1983 he said “I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose—last pages even now are being written,” At a speech in front of the Berlin Wall in 1987 Reagan said “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”. When Reagan was in the communist Soviet Union in 1988 he was asked by reporter while at the Kremlin about his infamous “evil empire” speech Reagan’s response was “I was talking about another time, another era.”

        I could go on and on with Reagan quotes. There is no need to pretend that we don’t know what Reagan thought about communism, and we sure as hell don’t need to pretend that Russia is still a communist nation.

        Inform yourself Steve it’s easy, and thanks to Reagan even an entire country of former Soviet Communists can do so.

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