“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates
Salmon farming is now well into that next 10, and if you’re an Alaska commercial fishermen or resident of an Alaska community still dependent on commercial fishing, you ought to be worried.
Because stories like this have become an almost weekly occurrence:
And when the news isn’t about another new salmon farm employing a clean, environmentally friendly, recirculating aquaculture system (RAS), there is a story about the other technology-driven changes in the fish farming business.
“Innovation and international synergies, keys to promoting the sustainable growth of the fishing industry,” Fish Info & Services (FIS) headlined late last month.
Most of what followed focused on salmon aquaculture and Norwegian salmon in particular.
“Invest in Norway,” which the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation has done, proudly proclaims the country of 5.5 million – fewer people than Minnesota, the 22nd largest state in the U.S. – is now “the world’s second-largest exporter of seafood.”
China is number one. But China became so by mining the world’s oceans for fish. This is not always popular.
Chinese fishermen have since begun to run into opposition in not only the South China Sea but off the coasts of Africa and South America as well.
“China’s economic predation is back, this time in some of the most ecologically sensitive waters in the world—in the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, in Peru, and soon, the waters off Chile,” Ryan Berg wrote at Foreign Policy last month. “In just one month, according to a report by Oceana, a marine conservation group, an armada of nearly 300 vessels spent an eye-popping 73,000 hours fishing off Galápagos.
“Far from a Chinese voyage of the HMS Beagle, the fleet is a brazen violation of norms around environmental protection and sustainable fishing (and sometimes sovereignty) and an attempt to plunder resources to meet growing Chinese demand. Chinese fishing could potentially wipe out vulnerable local communities that depend on the sea as a source of sustenance and livelihood.”
Norway faces no such global problem because its fishery boom is homegrown with farmed salmon leading the way. Norwegian salmon production and marketing is one of the great, capitalist success stories of the 21st Century.
“Norway was the first, and remains the largest Atlantic salmon farming nation, producing more than half of the world’s farmed salmon under strict guidelines, close monitoring and sustained commitment to development, which has enabled the country to become a world leader in aquaculture,” notes the Norwegian Seafood Council’s website, Salmon from Norway.
“Every day, 14 million meals with Norwegian salmon are served worldwide. Just a few hours after the Norwegian salmon are harvested, they are ready for export to over 100 markets.”
Biggest fish war
While Norway was building a salmon empire, Alaska was banning salmon farming in hopes of protecting the state’s commercial fishermen from competition.
That didn’t work. So the state and its commercial fishing partners turned to trying to sell the idea wild salmon are healthier, more environmentally friendly and taste better. That isn’t selling so well either.
Taste, unfortunately, is in the mouth of the beholder, and healthier is a subject open to debate on many fronts.
Wild-caught salmon have been generally considered healthier than their pen-raised cousins, but most of the comparisons between wild and farmed were made before RAS technology entered the picture in a big way.
Atlantic Sapphire, a Norwegian company that pioneered land-based salmon farming in Denmark before building a massive salmon farm in Florida, is now turning the healthier and environmentally friendlier argument on its head to pitch its farmed fish as the better choice.
“Inside the ‘Bluehouse’ (farms), the water is continuously purified to remain crystal clear by a state of the art filtration system,” the company claims. “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.”
It even goes even a step farther in claims about the company’s Florida “Bluehouse”:
“Our water source is naturally purified through limestone rock in a sustainable ancient artesian aquifer. The water is more than 20,000 years old and has never been exposed to man-made contamination such as microplastics.”
The salmon farmer pushback against wild fish promoters, who initiated the war of words over whose fish is “cleaner,” can only be expected to grow as an ever-increasing number of RAS farms come online.
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 salmon in 2018, noting their “Best Choice” rating from Seafood Watch, their “organic diet,” their high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, and an “amazing flavor.”
And it didn’t help Alaska wild salmon when the Washington Post conducted a blind taste-test won by a farmed salmon in 2013 or when Stiftung Warentest, the Consumer Reports of Germany, followed up with a 2018 testing leaning to farmed salmon.
This battle over taste will continue – and no real Alaska would dare argue farmed fish taste better than the real thing – but the weight of arms rests with the farmers. They can produce fish in more reliable numbers on a more reliable schedule, and their production is steadily increasing.
The last cowboys
The situation for wild fish is the opposite.
Wild fish harvesters and hatchery ranchers, or what Alaskans generally lump together as commercial fishermen, are hostage to the whims of nature on both the east and west shores of the Pacific Ocean.
The Russians are now bemoaning salmon harvests that barely topped 75 percent of their preseason forecast. They suggested a pool of warmer water forced fish westward in the North Pacific “as hotter waters negatively impacted the size of plankton and the content of oil in it,” Seafood Source News reported.
“That movement, in turn, increased the density of stocks, causing increased competition for feed. Less feed means lower survival rates, as well as lighter weight and smaller fish sizes.”
The latter conclusion would support the argument of some that the Pacific has a limited carrying capacity for salmon, a much-debated subject even though a recent study concluded ocean survival appears to be the limiting factor for salmon all along the West Coast.
Alaska’s Bristol Bay on the southern edge of the Bering Sea had another phenomenal season, but from there south to the Pacific Northwest was a bust. Canadian Greg Taylor described the situation in British Columbia, “culminating in this year’s return, is a slow-moving environmental disaster the likes of which Canada has not seen since the collapse of the East coast cod fishery almost thirty years ago. Unfortunately, the causes are similar: governments making short-term political choices to benefit industries in the face of scientific advice to the contrary.”
But for the bounty in the Bay, Alaskans might have been singing a similar tune.
The big drop in catch was not unexpected. Harvests have for years now been oscillating between massive returns in odd-numbered years, when the dominant strain of two-year-old pink salmon return to spawn, and even-numbered years, when the weaker and genetically distinct stock of two-year-old salmon come back.
But no matter the year, the shortest-lived of the Pacific salmon now makes up the bulk of Alaska harvests.
This year, “pink salmon accounted for approximately 21 percent of the value at $61.8 million, and 51 percent of the harvest at 59.4 million fish,” Fish and Game reported.
Commonly known as “humpies,” pinks are the state’s lowest value salmon, and harvest numbers are buoyed by production from private, non-profit hatcheries controlled by commercial fishermen.
With the Bay harvest of 40 million salmon – excluding the few pinks caught there – deducted from the statewide harvest for the year, the entire catch from around the Gulf of Alaska would fall to 76.8 million fish – more than 59.3 million of them, or about 77 percent, pinks.
Fish and Game reported an average weight for those fish of about three and a half pounds. That is not a great size for producing filets for the premium fresh and frozen markets dominated by farmed salmon raised to a standard size of about 8 pounds.
Thus 30 to 50 percent of the pinks go into cans, according to data from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). Canned salmon is a better selling product in Asia and Europe than the U.S., but ASMI saw opportunities in North America this year given the pandemic.
The marketing entity reported shifting some of its eductational focus to canned salmon “while consumers were stocking their pantries with canned products, including salmon, but didn’t know how to prepare it.”
How long a pandemic-driven interest in shelf-stable foods like canned salmon might last is an unknown. But that might be one of the lesser problems facing state salmon processors who have to wrestle with unpredictable supplies, stiff competition from farmed fish, difficulties in finding seasonal workers, and this year COVID-19.
“Dizzying swings in markets and consumer trends touched off by the coronavirus pandemic have forced the Alaska seafood industry to rethink its entire business model, from marketing to distribution to product mix,” Seafood Source reported on Wednesday, quoting one processor’s observation that ” we’re competing against really affordable farmed fish right now, and coming up with any options that helps us compete from a price standpoint is going to be a real struggle.”
That struggle appears destined to only get worse going forward.