Canadians target sales of Alaska salmon
Stealing a page from the playbook Alaska commercial salmon fishermen and some environmental groups used in an effort to kill net-pen salmon farming more than a decade ago, Canadian fishermen and environmentalists have launched a campaign to try to “demarket” Alaska salmon.
The Canadians’ chance of success this time look to be somewhere between zero and none.
The Alaska plan failed miserably despite having a lot more ammunition than the Canadians have today. Alaskans pitched the idea that farmed salmon were unhealthy, bad for the environment and, maybe worst of all, tasteless.
The Canadians now are focusing solely on the environmental issue with the argument that Alaska harvests of Canadian fish are decimating salmon runs in the province of British Columbia.
Because of this, the Canadians want the Marine Stewardship Council and Ocean Wise to drop their certifications of Alaska salmon as “sustainable,” a catchphrase for salmon caught in line with conservation principles that prevent the overharvest of the fish.
“…Fisheries that survive by taking another country’s endangered fish are about as far from sustainable as you can get,” according to Skeena Wild Conservation Trust and Watershed Watch Salmon Society, the two groups pushing a campaign they’ve labeled “Alaska’s Dirty Secret.”
The problem for the Canadians is that most of the salmon in question are not endangered, at least not yet. They are just being harvested at such numbers in Alaska that there is no harvest left to be had in Canada.
Canadian commercial fishermen simply find themselves in the same last-in-line position anglers on Alaska streams and rivers long endured. They are allowed to fish for salmon only after commercial fishermen elsewhere catch most of the fish and fishery managers decide that enough fish have escaped to allow for further harvests.
This problem in Alaska is why political battles over “escapement” have driven “fish wars” between commercial fishermen and non-commercial fishermen in the 49th state for decades.
Demarket’s dead end
Demarketing can work – just ask Bud Light – but it usually doesn’t. The emotional fires have to be hot for this sort of tactic to ignite. Bud Light threw a Molotov cocktail into America’s red-hot culture war and managed to end up torching itself.
Sustainability in fisheries is not a red-hot culture issue; it is at best a lukewarm issue in a world full of people with a million other things to worry about.
And the history of Alaska fish wars shows that commercial operations intercepting fish far from their spawning grounds have almost always won the day in these situations because it is hard to make a legitimate case they are overharvesting anything.
They are simply scooping up the allowable harvest and leaving crumbs, if that, for others.
Thus the Canadians appear unlikely to meet with even less success with their marketing scheme than did the Alaska commercial salmon fishermen and environmentalists who tried to launch a boycott of farmed salmon in the 1990s with the production of those farmed fish still trailing the catch of wild ones.
This despite the big-time financial help provided by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation which in 1999 started pouring tens of millions of dollars into efforts to demarket farmed salmon.
“…Between 2000 and 2010, Packard granted $ 68 million to support the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and promote MSC-certified products, and $ 17 million to ‘reform’ the aquaculture industry by ‘demarketing’ farmed fish, especially B.C farmed salmon,” Vivian Krause reported in Canada’s Financial Times in January 2011.
From the year 2000 on, Krause wrote, the Packard Foundation had funded 56 anti-farm salmon organizations to the tune of $815 million. Half of that, $407 million, had gone to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which Krause described as “the mothership of the sustainable seafood movement.”
Packard also helped fund the Washington, D.C.-based “Pure Salmon Campaign,” an Oceana partner, which pushed the idea that farmed salmon were chemically contaminated and unsafe to eat. The Monterey Bay and Pure campaigns reached their peak in 2010 when the Target chain of stores announced it was eliminating “all farmed salmon from its fresh, frozen, and smoked seafood offerings” and would sell only wild-caught Alaska salmon.”
The Target ban didn’t last long, and the Pure campaign not much longer. Oceana, according to its website, remains in opposition to “carnivorous, ocean-pen aquaculture (which) requires chemicals and feed, releases pollution, and risks fish escapes, as does ‘ranching’ – the capture and captive fattening of wild fish.”
The organization says these practices “threaten the ocean’s health,” but Oceana has directed little effort toward reducing salmon farming in recent years and even less to doing anything about ranching.
Alaska has powered the U.S. to the position of the world leader in salmon ranching while the Oceana office in Juneau, the state’s capital, has stayed focused on eliminating bottom trawling, “securing hard bycatch caps on salmon in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pollock (trawl) fleets, protecting the forage base of the Pacific by preventing new fisheries from opening on hundreds of species of small food fish, and stopping the expansion of offshore drilling in the U.S. Arctic,” according to its website.
Monterey Bay, meanwhile, has totally moved on. Its “Seafood Watch” list of “best choice” salmon for those sensitive to environmental issues is now led by a farmed salmon.
And “Pure Salmon” is so dead that when those two words are typed into Google they lead to “Pure Salmon…a global, land-based salmon aquaculture company using proven in-house recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) design and technology to sustainably produce fresher and fully traceable salmon, locally.”
The company is in the midst of building a salmon farm in Japan and is moving dirt around in Virginia where it has announced plans to build another large-scale, land-based farm.
RAS operations have been widely heralded as the face of the future for salmon farming, but they have encountered serious growing pains. Flordia-based Atlantic Sapphire, which in 2019 began work on the world’s biggest RAS farm, has been bleeding money ever since.
It is now producing fish, but losing money doing so.
At the start of the month, We Are Aquaculture reported that one of the company’s main supporters had given up on the project and sold off its shares at a loss of almost $50 million. And another massive farm once planned for Nevada looks to be on the rocks.
An evolving business
Smaller RAS operations such as Sustainable Blue in Canada and Superior Fresh in Wisconsin appear to be doing better. They have managed to successfully grow and market RAS salmon that are now sold in local markets near major metropolitan areas.
And Larry Albright at Fraser Valley Sustainable Seafood based in Vancouver, British Columbia says his land-based farm is now successfully raising and selling sockeye salmon, a first for an industry that has up to this time had no success with that species.
After years of experimentation, Albright – a former Simon Fraser University professor long involved in salmon research – claims to have figured out why “sockeye behave as they do in aquaculture (either in fresh or sea waters).
“Knowing ‘why’,” he says, “has allowed me to develop the ‘what’, “where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ of their profitable aquaculture. The systems applied to Atlantic, Chinook and coho do not work with sockeye for the culture of large fish.
“I think my system of culturing sockeye will gradually spread worldwide as I work with other farmers. Marketing fresh cultured sockeye from October through early June each year will have a distinct advantage over most Alaska sockeye. I think in my lifetime I will see 15-pound sockeye cultures. I think I am on track to get some 10-pound sockeye in about two years from now.”
Fraser Valley is currently selling sockeye of about three and a half pounds, which is short of the eight to 11 pounds considered prime market size for farmed salmon but only about a pound and a half shy of the weight of the average Bristol Bay sockeye.
Albright believes his discoveries could revolutionize a still-developing market for land-grown salmon of which there are now, according to the cataloging done by the Norwegian investment firm Norne, nearly 100 RAS or flow-through farms in operation or planned in the U.S., Canada, Norway, Russia, Germany, France, Chile, South Africa, Belgium, Denmark, Korea, Finland, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Iceland, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Singapore, Switzerland and China.
Some of them are sure to fail. Norne recommends only four as a “buy” – Andfjord Salmon and Gigante Salmon in Norway, Proximar Seafood in Japan, and Salmon Evolution with operations in both Norway and Korea.
The land-based salmon farming industry today appears to be where the personal computer business was at the start of the 1980s when there were about 300 companies manufacturing the machines.
“There were about 100 left by mid-1987,” an old CBC story now records. And today, with personal computers everywhere, the market is controlled by a mere 10 brands.
Not that the farmers who started raising salmon in net pens have anything to fear from RAS farmers yet.
Farmers already dominant
The net-pen farming of salmon that Alaska fishermen and environmentalists once tried to demarket today owns the global salmon business.
Statista, a data tracking website, reported that in 2021 farmed salmon accounted for 79.7 percent of global salmon production, and the farmers have been producing record profits.
While farmed salmon production dropped by 1.1 percent in 2022, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), reported that “exports from the main producers reached historic highs in value terms.”
Commercial salmon fishermen in Canada now face the same farm-related market pressures on prices as commercial salmon fishermen in Alaska but lack the volume of resources to try to counter low prices with higher harvests.
It is a predicament for them from which there is no easy out despite the fact U.S.-Canada salmon interceptions are regulated by treaty.
Theoretically, this is supposed to help protect Canadian and Pacific Northwest salmon from being overfished off Alaska’s coast and Pacific Northwest salmon from being overfished off Canada.
The treaty dates back to 1985, and a lot has changed since then.
Populations of Chinook salmon – the largest of the species and the fish Alaskans most often call kings – have plummeted. Populations of pink salmon, the smallest of the species, have skyrocketed with the help of industrial-scale ocean ranching driven by Alaska hatcheries and a state policy of managing the fish for maximum sustained yield not matter what affects that might have on other salmon species.
Wild chum salmon have faded in Alaska only to be replaced by hatchery chums thanks to an Alaska fish farming industry the prefers to call its business ranching. Meanwhile, Gulf of Alaska sockeye have been in a very slow but steady state of decline apparenlty due to that abundance of pinks, according to peer-reviewed research.
Since 1985, the treaty has been revised several times, the last in 2018. But the Canadians have not done a very good job of protecting their interests nor have the states of Washington and Oregon for that matter.
Part of this appears due to the influence of Seattle-based Alaska salmon processors and the steady efforts of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) and the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA) to promote Washington, Oregon and California as the biggest beneficiaries of Alaska fisheries.
But big business isn’t the only political element in play. There is also an unholy alliance between environmentalists and commercial salmon fishermen, some of whom are very green but most of whom, at the end of the day, are businessmen willing to do what businessmen do to make a profit, and that can be summarized in three words: whatever it takes.
Environmental organizations, however, believe they need the support of commercial fishermen if they are to achieve what they have charted as their biggest goals, the removal of dams from the Columbia River drainage in the Pacific Northwest and the death of the proposed Pebble Mine project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
Thus the biggest players among the many U.S. environmental organizations have shied away from raising questions about massive ocean-ranching programs in Alaska, Russia and Japan that a growing number of scientists now believe have altered the ecosystem of the North Pacific Ocean.
Canada’s bigger problem
A group of the leading researchers in the world of ocean-salmon science last year put before the North Pacific Anadromous Fisheries Commission (NPAFC), another treaty organization, this question:
“The numbers of Pacific salmon surviving to adulthood increased following the 1977 ocean
regime shift, peaking in 2018 when approximately 950 million pink, chum, and sockeye salmon returned from the ocean,” fisheries consultant Greg Ruggerone and colleagues James Irvine and Brendan Connors from Fisheries and Oceans Canada told the commission.
“This increase was likely the result of favorable ocean conditions combined with the release of large numbers of hatchery-origin juvenile salmon. Releases of hatchery salmon into the North Pacific reached approximately 5.5 billion juvenile salmon in 2019, a
sharp increase since the 1960s when approximately 0.6 billion hatchery salmon were released each year. Approximately 40 percent of the total salmon biomass in the Pacific during 1990 to 2015 was made up of hatchery salmon, especially chum and pink salmon.”
Alaska and Russia have been the big beneficiaries of this hatchery-fueled boom, but some stocks of salmon, primarily wild salmon from Alaska’s Cook Inlet south to Oregon, have paid the price.
Researchers, according to the report to the NPAFC, have “found that a 119 million (per year) increase in pink salmon abundance was historically associated with a 9 percent decline in sockeye productivity in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, and a 21 percent decline in British Columbia. This finding is consistent with a trophic cascade caused by abundant pink salmon and other studies indicating adverse effects of pink salmon on the growth, age-at maturation, survival, and abundance of sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, coho salmon, chum salmon, marine fishes, seabirds, and potentially southern resident killer whales.”
Canada’s Dirty Secret campaign is at the moment ironically focused on the “hundreds of thousands of British Columbia wild salmon…caught and killed” in interception fisheries when the Canadian loss to Alaska salmon hatcheries might be far greater.
Before ocean ranching gained a major foothold in the North Pacific Ocean, Canada’s Fraser River saw an average return of 10.7 million sockeye salmon from 1980 to 1997, according to Canadian government data. The runs have generally been declining since.
An average 21 percent decline in that 1980 to 1997 average would amount to a loss of 2.25 million salmon per year from the Fraser alone.
The Skeena River, another significant system, averaged sockeye returns of 2.9 million from 1970 through 2003, according to Canadian government data. They also then began falling.
An average 21 percent decline in that Skeena return would amount to the loss of another 609,000 thousand sockeye per year.
That’s a loss of about 3 million salmon not counting the documented decline in Chinook, and probable losses of chum and coho, which appear also to be affected by both the warming of the North Pacific and the boom in hatchery salmon, notably pink salmon which appear to enjoy a competitive advantage in warm waters.
The Canadians would appear to have legitimate reasons to complain about what Alaska fisheries are doing to them, but simply complaining usually does little good.
Unfortunately for the Canadians, they lack no good negotiating option other than to declare a nuclear fish war and send their commercial fishermen back to sea to have at it until Canadian runs are so depleted that Alaska intercept fisheries will have to be shut down because they have become truly unsustainable.
Such a tactic would be costly in the long run. Depressed fisheries can take a long time to rebuild, but they can be rebuilt and while doing so the Canadians would have a solid claim to every single salmon added as the price to be paid for those rebuilding efforts.