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Reinventing salmon

Wildtype

Coming soon to a restaurant near you, freshly brewed salmon.

Or, more accurately, coming as soon as the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decides to call it.

San Francisco-based Wildtype has said it is ready to go to market with its vat-grown “sushi-grade” salmon as soon as the FDA comes up with an acceptable name for the artificial fish “grown” – or brewed like beer – from salmon cells.

Options for naming the product range from “bio-crafted salmon” to “cell-based seafood” to “cultivated seafood” to “cellular agriculture” and more. Maybe if Sen. Lisa Murkowski gets involved it can be hung with the label Frankenlabfish. 

Sp forget those controversial net-pen-farming methods that have helped the Norwegians dominate world markets for high-quality salmon filets, or the free-range-farming methods of Alaska that see about a billion hatchery-raised salmon dumped in the ocean each year in hopes 50 million to 100 million will return to be “wild caught.”

Wildtype plans to end run the whole process by going mad scientist and growing fish in laboratories.

“It’s salmon for people who want a clean conscience and a clean planet,” the company website proclaims. 

Wildtype last year claimed a breakthrough in figuring out how to economically produce the product, but the short-term market effects are not expected to amount to much.

Wildtype’s anticipated production for 2023 is expected to be only enough to supply a “handful of markets,” the industry website Intrafish reports. 

And, at least for now, the company appears to be targeting high-end markets flush with well-meaning urban environmentalist and animal-rights-oriented vegetarians:

“Our sushigrade salmon offers a choice beyond wild and farmed fish,” the company says. “The chance to eat the foods we love without sacrificing our food ideals.”

Taste matters

Taste testers gave the first shot at lab-raised salmon low grades in 2019, but both the taste and texture are reported to have improved significantly since then.

Business Insider reporter Anna Keeve has written that the current version of the product “stunningly similar” to wild or pen-raised salmon. She said it “looks, feels, and smells (like) a cut of real salmon that came from an actual fish. It tastes nearly indistinguishable too.”

Keeve’s expertise as a salmon-taste tester is hard to determiner. Here MuckRack bio describes her as a “freelance writer/journalist +comms/media expert focused on plant-based/vegan biz + tech & web3. *Blog: Life’s Alternate Route (for veg-life musings+portfolio)”

Whether the market will agree with her on how “salmon” invented by lab rats tastes, only time will tell. But it’s seldom wise to bet against tech. It wasn’t that long ago the internet was a costly and rather primitive affair.

As Dr. Kimberly Young, a psychiatrist who studies internet addiction has recorded, the internet in 1994 “cost $2.95 ($5.83 in today’s inflated economy) per hour to log in. Applications such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Second Life did not exist. Modem speeds ranged from 14.4 to 28.8 Mbps,” and few individuals were connected. Internet connections were largely limited to businesses and schools.

Today, in almost any urban or suburban area and lot of rural ones, you can connect to the internet from a smartphone in the palm of your hand at an average speed of around 27 Mbps. Information is now flying through the air at an average speed near the highest speed it ever moved on wires, and the volume of information has exploded.

In 1994, the New York Times estimated there were about 3 million computers connected to the internet worldwide with about half of those in the U.S. The story ran under a headline that read “Doubts Raised on Number of Internet Users.” 

Today the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 92 percent of the country’s 123 million households have at least one computer and 85 percent of those computers are capable of connecting to the internet, and Statista estimates there are another 300 million internet-capable smartphones in the U.S. alone.

The typewriter – the once dominant means for composing documents – has been relegated to a new status as a collector’s item or novelty. The last IBM Selectric typewriter, once considered the state of the art, was manufactured in 1986 just as computers were starting to take over offices, according to the company. 

Those typewriters are now considered a “collectible.”

Commodities

Alaska wild salmon are, thankfully, not a manufactured product subject to being obliterated by new technology, but they are a commodity like potatoes, wheat or pork bellies. And the value of commodities is governed by the law of supply and demand as modified by quality.

Alaska once owned the market for salmon. Thinking it could hold onto a monopoly, it banned net-pen salmon farming in 1990 when global salmon prices were high and opened the door for Norwegian net-pen farmers. Norwegian success in farming salmon inspired copycats around the world, and today about 75 percent of the salmon eaten in the world is net-pen farmed.

Alaska and Russia via to produce the other quarter. The hefty farmed fish are nearly all sold as high-value filets. The Russia and Alaska catches are dominated by smallish pink salmon that largely go into cans or become fish meal for use in dog food or, in some cases, shrimp food. 

Shrimp are America’s favorite seafood. The average American now eats about five pounds per year, according to the latest National  Fisheries Institute data which reports salmon consumption at about 2.8 pounds per year.

Thanks to market competition that has driven market prices for salmon down over the years, annual U.S. consumption of salmon has been creeping upward – which is good news for Alaska fishermen still catching high-value Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon. The bad news is the ever greater market penetration of the salmon farmers, who can more reliably deliver product.

Intrafish reported farmed salmon consumption of 1.6 kilos (or about three and a half pounds) per person in 2019 which was ironically higher than the NOAA report for the average consumption of all salmon.

There will always be a market for Alaska salmon, given that the relatively low production costs associated with free-range farming (ie. hatchery production). And the cost of production could be further lowered by more efficient harvest methods.

But the competition for Alaska salmon is now coming from ever more directions: net-pen farmed fish; an increasing number of land-farmed fish raised in clean, recirculated, chemical-free water; and now vat-grown salmon.

The still high price of the latter should keep its role to a minimum in the short term, but if the history of other agricultural technology is any indication, the cost will steadily come down. Tech has been a big player in American agriculture since the late 1800s when a bushel of wheat was worth close to $35 in 2018 dollars.

By that same year, a bushel of wheat was down to about $6.

This would appear to be the rocky road facing Alaska commercial fishing industry despite the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s rosy propaganda promoting its success in boosting state salmon harvests by supporting a huge increase in pink salmon production while the numbers of Alaska Chinook, the state fish, continue to nosedive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 replies »

  1. Craig, I just don’t understand your constant predictions for the demise of the commercial salmon fisheries of Alaska. I share with you, concerns over the release of pink salmon, which may (or may not), have detrimental effects on chinook, sockeye, coho and chum returns.
    From my many years of reading your writings, I have come to think of you as a real alaskan, and someone that keeps me informed on alaskan issues, much like Maria and Jackie have done for decades.
    You certainly are aware that , for the most part, salmon limited entry permits are hold by individual Alaskans,(I do realize that unfortunately, many b.b. permits are now being held by outsiders,and steps are being made to correct this situation,).
    As Alaskans, we should all work together to promote this industry which is based on an entirely renewable resource,and employs alaskans, many of which that reside in areas that little or no employment is available.

    • I couldn’t agree more that we should do what we can to ensure fish provide jobs in Alaska and contribute to the Alaska economy, but that can’t be done unless we pay attention to market realities.

      At this time, we’re largely letting Outside-based processors dictate our salmon management policies. Producing big runs of low-value humpies they can grind up to sell for dog food or fish meal or put into cans the government will buy to give to school-lunch programs while making better money off their farmed fish might be good for them, but I’m not sure it’s good for the state.

      And you have to wonder what the sale of low-priced, “wild-caught” humpy filets at Walmart – a product that appears to get pretty low marks for quality across the board – does for the reputation of Alaska’s wild salmon in the long run.

  2. At about this point in the game, the late, great Dandy Don Meredith would be breaking into a round of “Turn out the lights.” Cheers –

    • It’s an interesting situation. Commercial fishing in Alaska is never going to go away given that the fish basically raise themselves for free, but it’s already fading economic importance to the state will continue to fade. It would likely benefit from shifting the way the industry works to focus on high-value salmon and marketing them like fine wine (see Copper River reds and kings), but there is a lack of capital to support such a shift and an entrenched processing industry that would largely oppose it.

      All of the major processors are now heavily involved in farming salmon, and it would appear they value Alaska “wild caught” as their “economy” product, the salmon for Walmart rather than Trader Joes.

      Great Value Frozen Wild Caught Pink is something of a bargain today at Walmart at $6.46 per pound – https://www.walmart.com/ip/Great-Value-Frozen-Wild-Caught-Skin-On-Pink-Salmon-Fillets-2-lb/21656993 – but it is interesting to see that Walmart has removed customer reviews. The product was scoring 2.1 out of 5 stars: https://www.mashed.com/216381/why-you-should-never-buy-fish-from-walmart/

      Reviewers describing the fish as “disgusting” doesn’t help sales or the reputation of Alaska wild-caught salmon.

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