The Wild Salmon Debate

By David Dobbs, March/April 2008

A fresh look at farmed vs. wild.

"This is such a thorough, informative, and valuable--not to mention very well-written--article. Thank you! It is just what I was looking for to get the facts on this matter. Thank you and bless you, David Dobbs. "

The Bottom Line on Choosing Wild Salmon vs Farmed Salmon

Maybe this is not so bad. This is only one river basin, and the salmon are pinks, which, being low-fat and lacking that salmony taste, mostly get smoked, salted or canned. And the pink-salmon populations in other rivers will be unaffected, at least as long as no one builds salmon farms in their river mouths. Yet the either-or nature of this disaster deeply disturbs me. It could hardly be more clear: we must either close those farms or kiss those runs of wild salmon goodbye.

I’m increasingly convinced that the larger issue of farmed versus wild salmon poses a similar choice. The withering array of injuries that salmon farms inflict on wild salmon forces a sort of long-range consumer decision. This is not like deciding whether you want free-range versus conventional chicken for tonight’s dinner; that’s a decision with limited echo. To decide that you may as well eat farmed Atlantic tonight, however, is to decide, in a very real sense, that you may as well eat farmed salmon, and farmed salmon only, forever. You may feel differently. But that just doesn’t sit well with me. For now, anyway, I’ve eaten my last farmed salmon.

The promising part—there is hope here—is that forsaking farmed salmon for wild might actually press the salmon aquaculture industry to change. The technology exists now to raise farmed salmon in floating, solid-sided tanks—a container more floating aquarium than net—that avoid almost all the drawbacks of net pens. The fish can’t escape; pests can’t enter or escape; water can be filtered and cleaned of waste.

This low-impact solution would realize aquaculture’s true potential, just as good catfish operations do. Companies in British Columbia, Iceland and Norway are testing prototypes. The catch is that even if they work, they’ll be costly, producing fish pricier than other farmed fish (though possibly cheaper than wild), and it’s not clear whether consumers will pay the premium. Yet investors might find the necessary courage if enough consumers stop buying conventionally farmed salmon.

The consumers, of course: that would be you and me. Holding out for lower-impact farmed salmon—and eating only wild salmon in the meantime—is a sacrifice of sorts. It means eating fresh salmon seasonally and paying more for it when you do. It means eating fish that, because they come from various places and live varying lives, will be less consistent in flavor than farmed salmon are; sometimes they’ll taste better, sometimes not. But in the realm of things, that set of trade-offs sounds pretty good to me. I’d even say it sounds OK.

David Dobbs writes on science, culture and the environment for The New York Times Magazine, Audubon and other publications.

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