Sometimes we need to step back and look at the big picture, put things in context and re-evaluate what we think we know.
When we look at the global picture of aquaculture production, it’s quite interesting. If it wasn’t for aquaculture, we would have wiped out wild fisheries decades ago. But as it stands today, (or at least as of 2012, the most recent year for which complete data is available), aquaculture produces nearly 67 million metric tonnes of seafood.
That is enough to feed every single person on this planet two meals of seafood every week for one year.
Aquaculture CAN feed the world.
But in North America, “aquaculture” sometimes gets used as a dirty word, and people have been primed to think bad thoughts when they hear “fish farming.”
And the worst associations are with salmon farms.
Salmon farms are not perfect, true. They do have environmental effects, just like any human food-producing or harvesting activity. Let’s not pretend that harvesting up to 80% of a wild salmon run before it can spawn doesn’t have environmental effects.
I’m not trying to blame-shift or suggest we shouldn’t be critical.
What I’m trying to say is that the negative effects of salmon farming you’ve heard about have been grossly exaggerated.
Let’s look at global aquaculture production:
Most of the world’s aquaculture production is freshwater fish. Nearly 40% of that is carp, mainly in China. In North America, aquaculture is dominated by US catfish farms which produce around 136,000 tonnes annually.
Diadromous fishes, which are fish with a freshwater and saltwater phase, make up only a small part of global production at 7%.
And farmed Atlantic salmon, the most talked-about and scrutinized form of aquaculture in the world, make up only 3% of the world’s global aquaculture production.
Why does farmed Atlantic salmon get all the attention?
Don’t people have concerns about the 37 million tonnes of freshwater fish being farmed each year consuming our precious freshwater resources, or leaching waste and antibiotics into our watersheds?
Not that I think this is a problem — most freshwater aquaculture farmers are responsible and careful, just like most saltwater salmon farmers. But why aren’t we talking about the elephant in the room? Why aren’t the biggest forms of aquaculture with the biggest potential to impact our environment getting at least the same amount of scrutiny as salmon farming?
One possibility — salmon farming really IS evil
One possible explanation is that farmed salmon deserves all the hate, and that it is the dirtiest, riskiest and most polluting form of farming imaginable. That’s what our commenting visitors will likely say, and it’s the refrain we’ve heard from Alexandra Morton and other activists who have dedicated their lives to opposing farmed salmon (but not, oddly enough, to presenting any useful or constructive feedback to help make salmon farming better).
I’ve looked long and hard for evidence to support this extreme position. I’ve never found it. I’ve found evidence that shows salmon farms do have impacts and do pose potential risks to wild fish, but I have not found evidence that shows these impacts and potential risks are any worse than the impacts already caused by myriad human activities in the ocean.
In fact, I believe that if we were to farm more and fish less, that wild salmon would thrive like they did before the post-WWII boom in technology allowed us to catch more fish than ever before.
I am always open to changing my mind if new evidence comes to light. But I haven’t seen anything convincing, just failed predictions, speculation, and flawed mathematical models.
Another possibility — the negative sell
What makes the most sense to me is that salmon farming has been the victim of a long-standing demarketing campaign.
Demarketing is the negative sell, promoting your product by criticizing your competition. It’s the core of the long-standing Coke versus Pepsi ads, and the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” ads.
This sales technique is as old as the barter system. “No, you don’t want Hannu’s cows. They have parasites. Mine are clean and healthy!” It’s easy and effective.
The problem is, the salmon farming industry had no idea how to fight back. Instead of mounting their own ad campaigns, like Pepsi and Microsoft, they spent very little on self-promotion during the past decade, allowing negative public sentiment to fester and grow.
Today, it’s commonly accepted that wild salmon is somehow better than farmed salmon.
This means different things for different people. Some think it’s more nutritious, some think it tastes better, some think it’s more environmentally friendly. Ask them why, though, and they rarely have a solid answer.
That’s because there isn’t really any evidence for those beliefs, other than personal preference and feelings.
Follow the money
Who has benefited the most from negative views of farmed salmon?
That’s easy enough to figure out. Starting in the mid to late 1990s, when farmed salmon production increased from a small amount to more than half of all global salmon production, salmon prices sank to a historic low because there was so much fish on the market.
Ex-vessel prices for wild salmon in Alaska and BC dropped to all-time lows. Many fishermen got out of the business.
Those fishermen who remained adapted and changed, and began marketing their salmon like never before. They marketed it as a special, niche product associated with wildness and emotion and nature and before long prices had greatly improved.
And some of those people are more than happy to lob a few stink grenades at farmed salmon every now and then to make themselves look good.
Salmon farmers suck at promoting themselves
But while wild fishermen successfully adapted to new market conditions, salmon farmers didn’t defend their reputation because they didn’t have to — demand for farmed salmon has continued to grow, regardless of criticism, so salmon farmers kept quietly growing their fish.
There’s a new challenge on the horizon, however. The same groups who were paid to condemn farmed salmon in favour of wild salmon are now being paid to condemn farmed salmon in favour of promoting land-based experiments. Salmon farms are once again being used as the strawman in promotions for products that haven’t even been proven to work.
That’s right. None of these land-based salmon farms have been proven to work on a scale that is economically and environmentally sustainable. Sure, you’ll hear a lot about projects in the works, or how they’re going to change the world. But look deeper for their actual harvest numbers. How much fish are these “successful” systems actually producing?
My friend over at The Truth About Alaska Salmon recently did a great blog series about land-based, closed-containment salmon farms, which showed that the reality of these projects is a whole lot different than the hype.
But facts are boring, it’s emotion and exciting stories and controversy that gets our attention.
That’s why people remember Pepsi versus Coke and Mac versus PC, because there’s a Gallant and a Goofus.
Salmon farmers need to stop letting their critics paint them as Goofus and start getting out there and promoting themselves.
Full circle — let’s start looking at the big picture
Bringing it back to my original point, the debate over salmon farming is only a tiny part of the whole. Aquaculture — including salmon farming — is here to stay, regardless of what a few critics say.
If we are really concerned about making sure that aquaculture has minimal environmental impacts, let’s stop focusing purely on the salmon farming scapegoat and look at things in context. There’s room for improvement in all aquaculture, and salmon farmers have led the way in positive change.
This needs to be acknowledged, and if we really want to help our planet, we need to change the discussion to a debate about farmed versus wild, to a discussion about how we can do both in a way that ensures a sustainable seafood supply for future generations of people, and for the ocean ecosystem.