The last cowboys

FISHGlobe’s self-contained salmon farm, the latest in Norwegian technology

News analysis

Alaska is expected to see another near-record salmon season this year with the Alaska Department Fish and Game forecasting a harvest of more than 190 million of the fish or somewhere in the range of 190,000 to 200,000 tonnes by the common, international measure.

Once a harvest of this size – more than twice the annual average for the entire 100 years of the 20th century – would have been a market rattling event, but today it is barely noteworthy.

Norway, a country less than a quarter the size of Alaska, is on pace to bring 1.2 million tonnes of salmon to market this year, and the technologists in that country are talking about the potential to grow their production to 3 million tonnes per year by 2030.

Over the course of the first three months of the year, Norway has already sold 297,200 tonnes, according to Fish Farmer Magazine. That is about a third again as much as the expected Alaska catch for the entire summer.

None of this bodes well for the economic future of hydrocarbon-powered, 49th state fisheries designed to maximize inefficiencies in a world where salmon farmers are increasingly maximizing efficiency.

Alaska’s cowboys of the seas appear destined to be penned in by the world’s farmers in a replay of the story of cattle in the American West.

Booming business

Norway is but one country heavily involved in the salmon farming business today.  Chile, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Canada are all significant producers with lesser production in Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, France, Ireland and Finland.

Meanwhile, land-based, recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) farms are threatening to lead to an explosion in salmon aquaculture almost everywhere.

The Emirate of Dubai, one of the seven entities that comprise the United Arab Emirates in the Arabian Desert at the southern end of the Persian Gulf, is already farming salmon on land as are a number of companies in the U.S. from the U.S. state of Florida north to Wisconsin.

A Swedish company is today in the midst of developing a land-based farm slated to produce 100,000 tonnes of high-quality Alaska salmon per year, Salmon Business reports.

That’s near the same volume as the record Bristol Bay sockeye harvest of near 106,000 tonnes in 2018. All from one salmon farm slated to cover less than 350 acres in an industrial park near Sotenäs, a waterfront town about a two and half hour drive south of Oslo.

There are reasons the investment firm AGR Partners early in the last decade labeled salmon farming “one of agriculture’s great success stories.

“The increasing efficiency and availability of farmed Atlantic salmon production,” the firm added, “brought down the real price of salmon by over 70 percent from the early 1980’s (when commercial salmon farming began) to 2002.”

Prices began climbing after that date, but remain below the 1980’s price in real terms, and there is no sign that will change, given the farmers’ constant focus on efficiency. RAS operators today are talking about the possibility of reducing operating costs with energy savings of 15 to 20 percent. 

Open water farmers, meanwhile, are experimenting with closed-containment systems that both lower operating costs and minimize waste.

“The business concept is to offer a solution to the salmon farmers that make farming more profitable, more sustainable and with higher fish welfare,” says FISHGlobe, a Norwegian company which bills its fully contained farm as a potential game-changer for the aquaculture business. 

An unstoppable force?

To truly understand the threat these farmers pose to the future of one of Alaska’s oldest and still largest industries you really need to drive across the Great Plains of America and witness humankind’s ability to reshape the planet to produce food.

The American Heartland has essentially become one massive farm.

From the Montana-Canada border in the north to the Texas-Mexico border in the south, more than 80 percent of flyover country is now in use for farming, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

“The grid-like pattern that spreads across the encompassing flatlands (between Omaha and Lincoln) is typical of the Great Plains region and of Nebraska in particular, where 91 percent of the total land area is covered by farms and ranches,” the Earth Observatory of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reported after staring down at the planet from the International Space Station.

This is the legacy of the only species of planetary life ever to break through the natural barrier to population growth – food.

It should be added that it took us long enough.

For a couple of million years, the research indicates, the population of the ancestors of today’s humans remained limited to less than 10 million hunter-gatherers surviving in the rough,  junglesqe “harmony” with nature much like all the other animals.

They were few in number because wild lands would only support a few. On a global scale, 10 million people seems an almost unbelievably tiny number considering the world is home to about 7.7 billion hungry mouths at present. 

Almost 40 million people today call Tokyo home. The number is near 30 million in New Delhi, Shanghai, São Paulo, Mexico City and Cairo. New York City, the largest community in the U.S., is home to near 20 million, almost twice the number of people who once occupied the entire planet.

What sparked this population explosion was the Neolithic Revolution, now often called the first agriculture revolution, that began a cultural shift from a population of hunter-gatherers to one of farmers.

“The Neolithic Revolution started around 10,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent, a boomerang-shaped region of the Middle East where humans first took up farming,” the History website records. “Shortly after, Stone Age humans in other parts of the world also began to practice agriculture. Civilizations and cities grew out of the innovations….”

The so-called “subsistence lifestyle,” much romanticized in Alaska, might have been a wonderful way to live, but it was also a very hard way. People died young, and starvation was a regular form of death.

Primitive agriculture changed that dynamic and over the centuries man’s tampering with nature to produce ever more food (and everything else) became increasingly sophisticated. After generations and generations of this, the drive to search for ever-better technology to “improve” on nature might well be genetically bred into humans.

The Alaska experiment

The net-pen salmon farmers of Norway who led the revolution that boosted farmed salmon production from almost nothing in 1980 to the level of today were not alone in tampering with salmon in the 20th century.

Alaska started its own program to farm the sea in 1971. The only real difference between it and other farming operations was a decision to free-range the fish rather than pen them up in the marine version of feedlots.

By the 1980s, Alaska was deep into what it calls the “salmon ranching” business, and though then state-owned hatcheries were later turned over to private, nonprofit corporations run by commercial fishermen, the production of farmed fish in Alaska remains large.

About a third of this summer’s harvest is expected to be comprised of hatchery fish, primarily pink salmon in Prince Willam Sound and around Kodiak Island.

Hatchery production and intensive fisheries management helped boost Alaska’s annual salmon harvests from an average of 56.2 million per year in the 1970s to an average of near 180 million per year for the past decade. 

But there are indications that the ability to manipulate nature in this way to produce more fish is near its limit.

The shrinking size of Alaska salmon and the falling numbers of the longer-lived salmon species returning to streams around the Gulf of Alaska are seen by some as a sign the pasture for the free-ranged salmon of the eastern North Pacific is near or past its carrying capacity.

“Intriguingly, the shared acceleration of size declines post-2000 occurred during a period of unusually high (though variable) pink salmon abundance in Alaska, suggesting high pink salmon abundances could be accelerating or exacerbating size declines,” a national team of scientists wrote in a peer-revied study published in Nature Communications late last summer “Our results provide further evidence that wild and hatchery-enhanced pink salmon abundance in the North Pacific has reached such high levels that they appear to be exerting an influence on ecosystem structure and function.”

The study suggested Alaska might be paying for the increased numbers of pinks – the smallest and least valuable of Alaska salmon – with losses in the size and numbers of big, more valuable Chinook (king), sockeye (red) and coho (silver) salmon.

Those are the fish that compete most directly with farmed salmon in the market. Most pinks have historically been canned, although there appears to be a growing market for frozen pink salmon filets at a price point below that of sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon.

Alaskans tend to turn their noses up at the flavor of the mild-tasting salmon they usually call humpies because of the humpbacked shape of the backs of male spawners, but other Americans do not appear as biased against the flesh of the smaller, paler cousins of the salmon more popular in-state.

Big wild flavor

It’s all about taste, which is where Alaska commercial fishing interests once thought the market would be won.

“It is a reasonable hypothesis that in addition to superior taste and abundant nutritional value of Alaska wild salmon, the ‘harvested in Alaska’ mark” will attract Chinese consumers and generate the same sort of price premiums Norwegian salmon enjoy, the University of Alaska’s Sea Grant program concluded back in 2010.

By then, however, the “taste’s better” idea was already dying.

“Farmed or Wild? Both Types Of Salmon Are Good And Good For You,” University of California scientists concluded that same year. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they also suggested farmed fish might be environmentally friendlier.

“…Wild salmon have a feed-conversion ratio (FCR) around 10:1,” they reported. “Farmed salmon need the same well-balanced diet to live and grow. They are fed a combination of fishmeal, fish oil and other land-based protein sources. The FCR is around 1:1.”

Farmers have come under fire for increasing the harvest of baitfish to be ground into fish meal to feed salmon. But if their operations convert those baitfish to salmon flesh 10 times more efficiently than wild or ranched salmon, the farmers might be environmentally friendlier than Alaska’s hatcheries or nature.

The farmers have also responded to this criticism by turning increasingly to plants and insects for feed, a move that has caught the attention of big agriculture in the U.S. Minnesota-based Cargill, a privately held global food corporation that generates more revenue than any other U.S. company, now operates 38 aquaculture feed facilities in 20 countries and has announced it is looking to expand those operations.

“I think people are going to continue to consume animal protein,” the company’s chief executive officer, Dave MacLennan, told Bloomberg in February.  “We believe they’re going to consume more fish over time. We’re making investments in fish feed and in fish processing. That is a key part of our future strategy.”

Already a big, competitive, market-dominating business able to control production to maximize profits and brush aside competition from wild fish, salmon farming looks destined to become even bigger.

That should not come as a surprise. They have a huge market advantage in that they can supply fresh salmon – the most profitable fish – to supermarkets year-round.

You can buy it fresh today for $7.99 per pound at most Meijer supermarkets in the Midwest. Meijer is one of the most popular supermarket chains in Illinois, Michigan and the surrounding area.

The only “wild-caught” alternative it offers is frozen pink salmon at $1 per pound less. Though humpies are tastier than they are given credit for by Alaskans, they are not exactly known for their world-class flavor and texture.

And when it comes to taste, University of Washington professor of fisheries economic Chris Anderson, who has been running blind taste tests of salmon on his students for three years, says what appears to matter most is how dead fish are treated.

He noted his students had a tendency to judge salmon as much on texture as on taste, and “how the fish is handled before and during freezing makes a big difference in the texture,” he told the website Today’s Farmed Fish. “Often fish can be caught, frozen whole, thawed, then processed and frozen a second time, which effects the cell structure (texture).”\

Needless to say, it is easier to handle fish at a farm than bouncing around in a boat in the sometimes rough waters of Alaska, and then there is the matter of delivery time to processing plants.

From a quality control standpoint, farmers hold big advantages over commercial fishermen and processors in Alaska.

“The blind tasting lets us talk about how the very fish from some of the fisheries we’ve studied actually taste,” Anderson said. “This is important because what matters most to the consumer is how the fish tastes.

“Most people are surprised in spite of themselves to learn they prefer the farmed fish,” he added, especially students who “consider themselves informed seafood consumers and frankly, often say they avoid farmed fish because of arguments against aquaculture….”

Alaskans might scoff at the idea farmed fish taste as good as wild fish. They all know wild salmon taste better. But what matters isn’t what Alaskans think but how markets function.

The farmers now control the market, and they are gaining more control every day. The implications are already trickling down on  the state.

Seattle-based OBI Seafoods – formed when Ocean Beauty Seafoods and Icicle Seafoods merged last May in an effort to gain economies of scale – has announced it will not open its Excursion Inlet plant in Southeast this summer.

The company blamed a shortage of fish, but the move looked to be aimed as much at fortifying the supply chain for its Petersburg plant about 125 miles south of Excursion Inlet.

“All of our Southeast salmon will be processed using our Petersburg facility as our Southeast hub for this season. This allows us to centralize our operation, right-size our production, and provide additional flexibility on product forms to maximize market demand,” OBI spokeswoman  Julianne Curry told Seafood Source. 

Southeast-based Trident said it would also keep shuttered its Wrangell plant about 30 miles south of Petersburg. It blamed a forecast weak run of chum salmon, but how few salmon is too few is an economic decision based on profit margins.

The narrow profit margins in the commercial salmon processing business in Alaska have had companies disappearing, consolidating or merging for years now.

The state is down to a fraction of the 117 salmon processing plants the Alaska Humanities Forum reported operating here in 1917.

Wild Alaska salmon will remain a marketable commodity for decades given the costs of producing the fish are minimal, but the economic footprint of what was once the state’s most important industry is destined to shrink because the world is changing.

And it is changing fast.




17 replies »

  1. Farmed fish “are fed a variety of land based proteins”. That about says it all. With chemicals, fish farmers can make their product look & even taste like the real thing, but it’s not. You are eating the marine version of a feedlot pig, chicken or cow loaded with antibiotics & chemicals. There will always be a demand & premium price for the healthy wild caught salmon.

    • FfF,
      Not much of a premium for wild caught sockeye anymore.Let me know when dock price approaches $2/lb again, like it was in ’89.
      I’ll get a crew license and take the summer off.
      Reread the part about ~$8lb fresh on the shelf in the Midwest.If your lucky its available for ~$7/lb in Anch.,and of course only for a few months (fresh).
      Theres always a few small operators in various fisheries who sell direct to public, thereby capturing the complete price potential, but then your trading time for $’s.
      Thats what the fleets are up against,only thing that keeps us on the map is that we are midpoint on “The Great Circle Route”.Farmed salmon controls 70% of the markets,so your increasingly selling to a niche market.
      A good monopoly has among other things barriers to entry, and the ability to command the prices paid. Thats not really the case anymore for salmon.
      Nevertheless,heres to good prices and always coming back to the dock…

    • FFF-
      Thinking that if you read up on the RAS it will be clear that they can have much less in the way of contaminants than do wild fish. Land based proteins can be plant or animal based. How those feeds are sourced is the key. And with RAS, in many cases, you are dealing with pure well water, not ocean water with measurable radiation, mercury, microplastics, fuel and other contaminants. I was just reading the “on order” prices for the Copper River fish next week. I only wish those would hold for the wild fisheries but that is not going to happen. For Bristol Bay it looks like last years prices.
      And how “healthy” are the PWS fish? From our sportfishing observations over the last 20 plus years the average size has shrunk 20-30%. Think we all have a pretty good idea as to why that is.

      • Bob and FFF , I agree with FFF . Wild fish are going to be eating primarily their natural food stuffs . The particular food an animal eats directly effects its nutritional value. Soley Grass fed cows are healthier to be eaten by humans than typical feed lot cows . There has been prooven to be a huge difference regarding milk quality. Same goes for red salmon. Their diet improves the nutritional value. Without massive qrill harvesting to feed the salmon its hard to get equal food quality from red salmon. Granted the Scandinavians do extreme ocean harvesting to feed their salmon. That’s different than land based foods or even insects the reds might not normally eat . Sure you can Finnish a cow on a corn diet to make his meat tastier and do similar with a fish but it’s unlikely to create nutrient equality / antioxidants and other unidentified nutritional value that comes from living wild and eating naturally. What you eat directly and permanently effects your body chemistry. Carbon analysis can determine a creatures diet thousands of years post death . As to wild salmon size shrinkage over time . You portend its from lack of ocean food . That’s unlikely unless a correlation with lack of body fat was found. The greater likelihood is due to survival genetics. Nets are greatly reducing the size of salmon entering the breeding pool . Currently it pays to squeeze between a nets mesh . We’ve been mass netting salmon in targeted timelines with their breeding for significant time now . Multi generations . Odds are this will effect genetics. Slowly breeding for smaller salmon who can escape nets . Granted I could be wrong but Its unknown either way . Both are supposition but historical proof of farming and genetic breeding programs directly effects the species attributes. So odds weight on my supposition as more likely. Also if you add in the possibility of farm fish interbreeding its hard to say what’s going on . If oceans were less productive then your statement of to little food might be plausible but currently there is little proof of inadequate ocean productivity as to food sources and it would have to correlate with body fat and protein quantity and a reduction in specific prey species. Imo

      • Eating their natural food and whatever humans dump or spill in the ocean, Dread. It’s an assumption that what the fish are eating in the ocean is healthy, and there is this thing about assumptions.

        Size selectivity, meanwhile, doesn’t explain the declines in size of Chinook which are either not selectively harvested for size (troll fisheries) or selectively harvested only for the smallest sizes (if you believe UCI setnetters claims they mainly catch jacks).

        Were the latter the case, size selectivity would be making kings larger, not smaller.

        There is evidence of inadequate ocean productivity in the form of major bird dies off, although that evidence doesn’t correlate so well with the salmon shrinkage given that size declines appear to start at age two and older.

        Finally, size and body fat are not necessarily linked in the way you suggest. We are dealing with a species that has survived for millions of years dependent on a unique lifestyle split between the ocean and freshwater. That lifestyle requires the accumulation of a certain amount of fat to survive instream in order to successfully spawn.

        Evolutionary pressures would favor fish that apportion more calories to accumulation of the necessary fat than to increased body size when food stressed given that the little fatty is going to last longer without food than the giant beanpole when push comes to spawn.

        And, of course, dead fish don’t spawn.

      • DPR,
        That’s an interesting observation regarding net size. I would add that it has been noted reds in Bristol Bay are spending less time in river and thus returning younger than in previous years. On the Kenai the reds have also seemingly shifted to where more fish return later in the season, historically the commercial catch drops off in August and nowadays that is when escapement is not only met, but the largest numbers of fish enter the river on any given day.

      • DPR,
        You can wheel off into the weeds all you want, but consider this, farmed salmon worldwide controls 70% of market share.Its not alaskans that we are selling to, its the world.
        Adapt or die, thats how things work.At what point do you realize that there may be a problem with the way we’ve been doing things.
        Skate where the puck is going to be…

      • Mr Medred thanks for humoring me with a thoughtful reply!! what you said makes possible sense . Especially regarding kings . Not as much regarding reds or species that continue to have significant openings for commercial , sport and subsistence harvest via gill net . Yes its debatable the health of the foodchain ingredients , very concerning and supposition is involved. Also a very viable question is if ocean can support the massive competition of pink influx . ( a foolish unbalanced self defeating endeavor imo ) Having seen first hand the kings being bycatch both as a fisherman and as part time buyer from the independent boats(buying large numbers of kings caught with reds probably accidentally)( not the boats in a contract to sell fish to specific buyers ) I would say its a mistake to take the commercial fishermen at their public word . Their private word is as good or better than any one . If i was to guess from my extensive knowledge from hunting if i was an open ocean fish harvester I would know where kings congregate and the best method of catch especially if i was a poor country fishing in international waters. Or a capitalist from a country with technology that would assist my hunt. Also Maybe troll fisherman do to good of a job . Being as they are pretty valued. ( I obviously could be wrong but if that was my job , I would get good at targeting species and how to catch them especially in unregulated waters ). I would think that unregulated harvest would confuse the issue of whats the problem with king stocks and size for the scientists and managers though I could be wrong. To add supporting correlation to my original supposition of nets changing the genetics of salmon -Trophy land mammals in Alaska per Boone and crocket records are seeing fewer large antlered, horned , or skulled trophys taken and found than earlier years . ( yes its partly an issue of trophy age) Yes correlation is not causation and there could be many reasons but its also possible if you kill off the largest most desired breeding stock it will slowly change the odds of finding large animals or fish . Targeted size or shape could possibly effect the outcome. Granted they are not being linebred so it would take a long time to change the gene pool but theoretically it slowly would. Where as scientists in a lab, stock breeders, ect manage to do it in a few generations. You make many viable points and clearly I would need much more in depth study to make any definitive sense of the situation. Your statements clearly have significant supporting evidence and probably closer to a truthful picture.

      • JDave Mc, im in agreement with you . Not sure where you found the argument? My opinion is farmed salmon should be opened in Alaska post haste . My family 35 years ago researched fish farming and sought a permit to do so in cook inlet . Then the laws changed. My family skated where the puck was supposed to be and the game was canceled. It sucked for us snd it sucked for the state . Heres my second strong opinion.current Commercial fishermen should not be demolished or demonized . Alaska should encourage them in tandem with opening alaska to fish farming asap . Im also for more ocean studies to understand what is effecting salmon stocks .

    • “Land-based proteins” are not “chemicals.” They are food, like the various kinds of insects (a natural fish food) now being grown to feed farmed fish.

      Here’s the big problem I see going forward: RAS farms can a.) guarantee a lack of chemicals and antibiotics; and b.) probably at some point qualify for an “organic” label given that their fish can be fed guaranteed “organic” feed.

      “Organic salmon” are already being sold in Canada.

      Wild fish can’t, and never will, qualify as organic because there is no telling what they have been eating. The RAS operators have already begun hammering away at the potential microplastics in wild fish. They are clearly aiming for the premium market.

      Take a look at Superior Fresh in Wisconsin which is pounding the organic and chemical-free drums plus “locally grown,” the in-thing in food sales.

      Superior Fresh is pretty much the microbrew beer model which significantly changed the beer business. To continue that analogy, our humpies are sort of the Bud Ligh. A lot can still be sold, but not at a premium price.

      That said, I agree with you that there is a niche there for premium-priced wild salmon, but it’s going to be about “terroir” and personality. Some fishermen running small processing operations are already marketing on image and exclusivity as much as on taste.

      It’s basically the premium wine model. There are sure to be more opportunities there, but how many fishermen are equipped to run that kind of business or cooperative enough to pull together with a small group of other fishermen to run such a business?

      And then, of course, they need to be sure of a certain base level of supply, which is an issue around the GOA with pink harvests seemingly putting some downward pressure on the size and number of sockeye and coho.

      Not to mention competition in the space, like the Wagu beef of salmon:

      “Harold W.from Tucson, AZ03/21/21”

      As the UW prof noted, at the end of the days it’s all largely about taste, which depends in part on the fish and in part on how the fish are handled and in Alaska we sometimes fall down on the latter.

      • Articles like this one drive the commercial
        fishing sectors in PWS and UCI crazy. It is the last thing they want to read. Because it is factual and leads to the inescapable conclusion that their “ wild stock “ fisheries are in danger of becoming irrelevant. And further that the hatchery fish they depend on or hope will eventually
        bail them out, especially in the case of PWS, will likely be one of the causes of the lack of abundance and size of wild stocks. But this information will once again be ignored.
        The last person who issued such warnings or publicly wrote about the dire future of Alaska’s wild stock fisheries was attacked relentlessly after being appointed to the BOF. Keep an eye on your 6 Craig. Those that disagree with your articles will show no mercy given the chance.

    • Not necessarily chemicals – there are plant based proteins replacing the need of fish meal/oil, which reduce pressure on feeder fish…and if you read the whole thing, it also says the farmers are already converting food to their stocks, 10x better/faster than natural.

  2. Sorry if my first comment may have sounded critical — I enjoyed reading your article and information in the linked sources. Its of information — and much to learn.

  3. Craig,

    looks like you might have a typo at the end of the 5th paragraph with the word inefficiency — Which should likely be efficiency.

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