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.
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.
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 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.