The Wild Salmon Debate

By David Dobbs, March/April 2008

A fresh look at farmed vs. wild.

"Great article. Salmon is perhaps my favorite food. I'd love to see an update to this article. Did this prediction hold true, "the several river populations of pink salmon that must run the Broughton gauntlet could be 99 percent extinct by...

About 10 years ago my friend Charles Johnson, the Vermont state naturalist, called me with a question about salmon. I was surprised and flattered to have Charles ask me about anything natural, for Charles holds an encyclopedic knowledge about the natural world and a deep but nonpedantic environmental ethic. Usually I call him. When I was writing a book about New England’s forests, I called Charles, and he made bog ecology, which is as complicated as calculus, seem as plain as pancakes. And when a woman I’d fallen in love with told me she had always wanted to see moose, I called Charles and asked him where to find moose. “Victory Bog,” he said. At Victory Bog my love and I found moose, and three years later we married.

Now Charles was calling me. “Got a question,” he said. “We’ve got some people over for dinner”—from the background came a rowdy banter—“and we were having this discussion. We’re wondering is it OK to eat salmon?”

This explained the call. As Charles knew, I am an avid salmon angler, and I had just written a book called The Great Gulf, about decimated ocean fisheries, and several articles about salmon. This made me a sort of salmon-expert-for-the-day. Charles, meanwhile, was as confused as most eco-conscious people are about the shifting fates and statuses of the world’s saltwater fish.

“How do you mean ‘OK’?” I asked.

“Well, you know—ecologically,” said Charles. “Are salmon fisheries sustainable?”

“Depends,” I said. “What kind of salmon?”


“I was afraid of that,” I said. “Atlantics are lovely fish. But any Atlantic salmon you buy in a store came from a farm.”

“Oh,” said Charles. “Is farmed salmon not so good?”

“Did you already eat this fish?” I asked.

He laughed. “That bad, huh?”

A little while later, when I had explained it all, he said, “I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know this.”

I assured him—this was 10 years ago—that few people did. “Probably even most state naturalists don’t know this.”

“Maybe,” he said. “I better go. Dessert’s ready. And I gotta hide a salmon carcass.

“But do me a favor, will you?” he asked. “Don’t tell anybody about this.”

Now, 10 years later, many people, both foodies and greenies, still struggle to answer Charles Johnson’s question: Is it OK to eat farmed salmon?

Is It OK to Eat Farmed Salmon? »

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