As the Alaska commercial salmon fishery, once a mainstay of the 49th state economy, trundles along bound by decades-old rules designed to maximize inefficiency, the world keeps moving forward in the name of efficiency.
Researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research say they have now found ways to use CRISPR gene-editing to create sterile salmon, and believe they might be on the verge of being able to genetically modify salmon to help protect them from sea lice.
Farmed salmon escaping net pens to possibly breed with wild salmon, along with lice infestations, have been two of the biggest problems facing farmers, and a focal point for those critical of salmon farming.
In Scotland, salmon farmers have faced protests from environmentalists who think chemicals used to treat the fish to protect them from lice are polluting surrounding waters.
“There are better ways of managing this polluting industry without the chemicals, with more jobs and bigger benefits to the Scottish economy,” Dennis Archer of the Scottish Green Party told The Scotsman in the build-up to one such protest in 2019.
In Canada, where salmon returns have been going down for decades while they are going the opposite direction in Alaska, Alexandra Morton – a scientifically trained, long-time critic of open-net pen farms – has charged that young, wild fish swimming past farms on their way to sea are being attacked by lice and because of this their ocean survival suffers.
Earlier this year, she provided The Narwhal, a publication based in Victoria, British Columbia (B.C.), with government documents indicating that sea-lice counts at a Cermaq salmon farm “in Clayoquot Sound were roughly five times the legal limit during a critical window for out-migrating wild salmon.”
Escaping salmon, meanwhile, have been a concern almost everywhere salmon are farmed except in Alaska where the farmers, who prefer to call themselves “ranchers,” largely forego net-pens and turn their young fish loose into the ocean to grow.
They then hope the fish return.
Returns to date have largely been good, though there have been disappointments from time to time. Overall, however, Alaska salmon ranching has been hugely successful. Hatcheries have driven a bonanza in Prince William Sound southeast of Anchorage, the state’s largest city.
“Before the program was initiated in 1974, pink salmon catches were very low, averaging 3 million fish per year between 1951 and 1979,” a pair of state fisheries biologists observed at the turn of the century.
Harvests these days average about 45 million pinks per year, a 15-fold increase over the historic catch, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). And the catch hit a record high of 92.6 million in 2013.
No-net farming has drawn relatively little criticism compared to net-pen farming. The main criticism has come from those who fear the hatcheries are helping to drive an overabundance of smallish pink salmon, the shortest lived of the six salmon species, now taking over the North Pacific.
Fear of farmed fish
Net-pen farmers, on the other hand, have often run into firestorms of opposition despite the fact that on the West Coast at least, ecaping Atlantic salmon have shown little success in trying to breed with their Pacific cousins and none whatsoever at taking over wild salmon habitat to produce feral runs of their species.
The Norwegians, the world leaders in the production of farmed Atlantic salmon, can only wish they were so lucky. They are fighting a plague of Pacific pink salmon that began with an Eastern Russia stocking project on the Kola Peninsula in 1956.
By the 1960s, straying pinks were showing up in Norway, but it wasn’t until the late 2010s that the population began to explode apparently thanks to a warming ocean. Norway nows consider pinks a dangerous invasive species and has been trying to wipe them out.
Last year almost 112,000 were caught and killed, according to Newsendip, a French-based global newsgroup, but “biologist Rune Muladal from Naturtjenester (warns) there could be as many as 1 million pink salmons in 2023.”
There have been no reports of Atlantic salmon grabbing a foothold anywhere around Puget Sound in the wake of a high-profile escape of about a quarter-million of those fish there in 2017 after a poorly built salmon farm in the San Juan Islands broke apart.
The disaster at a Cooke Aquaculture farm killed the salmon farming business in Washington state. It is to be phased out by 2025 in the wake of a 2018 decision by the state government to follow the lead of Alaska, which banned net-pen farming at the start of the 1990s.
The Alaska ban was driven by wishful thinking wrapped up in the belief that the 49th state, then one of the world’s largest salmon producers, could best maintain market dominance by stopping the fish farming business.
The wishful thinking turned out to be wrong, and Alaska’s market share of salmon has been shrinking ever since.
The state looks on track to supply about 7 percent of the world’s supply of salmon this year. Norway – a smallish, Scandinavian country that drove the global bloom in farmed salmon – now annually outproduces Alaska, but the Norwegians are well aware of the criticisms environmentalists have levied against net-pen farms.
“Escapes and salmon lice are currently the two major sustainability challenges for salmon farming,” the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research admitted. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) put the issue more bluntly:
To date, attempts to solve those problems have largely focused on land-based farms using recirculated water to grow fish in sterile tanks where their waste is sometimes collected to fertilize neighboring greenhouses and on experimental “closed containment” farming systems.
But breakthroughs in the genetic manipulation of farmed salmon could shift more of a focus back on net pens. NTNU called gene manipulation a possible “game-changer in salmon farming” as was hybridization in traditional agriculture. This news technology could be poised to spark a tech war between the growing number of land-based farms employing recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) and traditional, open-ocean net pen farms.
Markets settle such battles by awarding bigger profits to whoever finds the most economically efficient way to produce the product. Alaska is, at this time, the world’s most inefficient producer of salmon.
Alaska production is highly seasonal. It requires the annual importation of large numbers of migrant workers to staff processing plants that sit idle in the winter. It is risky for processors in that harvests are unpredictable, leaving them to worry about hiring too many workers who then sit idle or hiring too few and being forced to turn away fishermen for lack of processing capacity.
But that’s not all.
The fish arrive at the processing plant in surges, which makes quality control difficult, and must be frozen or canned both because wild fish harbor parasites and because the flood of them is more than the fresh-fish market, which provides the premium price, can absorb. Freezing and canning are also energy-intensive operations which require yet more fuel.
All of these production costs end up reflected in the prices paid the state’s commercial fishermen for their catch.
Sockeye, the state’s most valuable catch, is expected to end the year with an average price in the lower end of a decade-long range of 80 cents to $1.78 per pound, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data.
Norwegian farmed salmon are now trading at about $4 per pound, but it’s hard to make direct comparisons between Norway’s farmers, who work year-round with nearby processors who might be part of the same company, and Alaska fishermen who are independent businessmen dealing with processors who run costly seasonal operations in the north.
The costs of those operations trickle through to consumers as well as reducing the earnings of fishermen.
Farmed Atlantic salmon filets were selling for $9.99 at the King Soopers in Denver on Friday. The Alaska competition – “wild-caught sockeye, previously frozen” – was $5 per pound more expensive despite the low prices paid Alaska fishermen for their catch.
Alaska sockeye hit its price peak at the $2.37 per pound paid fishermen in 1988, according to Fish and Game. The U.S. inflation calculator says $2.37 in 1988 equals $5.93 in value today. Alaska commercial fishermen will be lucky if the statewide price ever hits $2 again although there are bright spots where market niches have been established.
Copper River sockeye, which is marketed as if it were a fine wine, brought fishermen $2.56 per pound last year, according to Fish and Game data. But even that is a long way from the $5.93 per pound equivalent in the heyday of Alaska commercial salmon fishing.
Those days are simply over due to international competition. This is what competition does. It drives down prices. And Alaska has now a lot of competition in the salmon marketplace and ever more appears on the way in a world where it is never wise to bet against tech because tech is what drives the human species.