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. "

Is It OK to Eat Farmed Salmon?

If the answer seems elusive, it’s partly because things change—ecosystems change, the fishing and aquaculture industries change (or not), and we learn more about how those industries affect fish populations, ecology and economies. But the answer is slippery mainly because it depends so heavily on what the meaning of the word “OK” is. OK is personal. The most satisfying answer comes from what you might call your own Is-That-Food-OK Algorithm—a weighting of variables that will be as simple or complex as the criteria you bring to it.

For some, taste trumps all. Others give weight to price or health or local economic or environmental impact. There are plenty of good reasons to eat salmon: It tastes good. It’s easy, fast and aesthetically pleasing to prepare. It’s incredibly healthy; no common fish delivers more of the omega-3 fatty acids that help keep arteries clear and hearts strong. The past decade has shown that these fatty acids may also strengthen the immune system and eyesight, and even improve mental health. These pluses have helped inspire Americans to more than triple their consumption of fresh and frozen salmon in the last 15 years, from 50,000 metric tons in 1990 to 180,000 in 2004. The only fish we eat more of are shrimp and canned tuna.

But the main reason we’re eating more salmon is because a burgeoning worldwide salmon-farming industry has almost quadrupled the supply of salmon in the last two decades, making farmed salmon obtainable almost anywhere, anytime, for under $8 a pound. These farmed salmon make up about 80 percent of the huge increase in U.S. consumption since the late ’80s. The “Is Farmed Salmon OK?” question therefore relies at least partly on the impact of that expanding salmon aquaculture industry.

How does one sort this out? We’re talking about food here, and values, so I won’t presume to tell you how to weigh things. But I do know that the variables in the salmon equation have changed since Charles Johnson phoned me a decade ago. In particular, we know a lot more now than we did then about salmon’s health benefits—and a lot more about how salmon farms affect the environment and wild fisheries. Time to recalibrate the algorithm.

How Is Wild Salmon Different from Farmed Salmon? »

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