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. "

How to Choose Between Wild Salmon and Farmed Salmon

From these life histories devolve all variables relevant to the “OK?” question. How much does the fish cost? How easily can I get it? How do farmed and wild fish differ in taste, chemical load and nutrition value? What is the fish’s relation to local, regional and global environments and economies?

Over the last 20 years these questions have been asked in many different forums—papers in scholarly journals like Aquaculture and Fisheries Research; government reports; articles in Audubon, The Economist and EatingWell; at fish markets and dinner parties; in puzzled phone calls. Some of the answers change little. For instance, wild Atlantic salmon populations, despite millions spent on dam removal and habitat improvement, remain deeply in trouble. Every year only a few hundred return to the New England rivers that once had millions, and in Canada thousands swim where tens of millions once teemed. Pacific species are doing better, and in fact are increasing in some areas. They’re doing splendidly in Alaska, with record catches and population estimates.

As for taste: flavor varies more in wild fish than in farmed, for wild Pacific fish differ more in their life histories and physiology and fat content than do Atlantics, which are genetically more alike and which all eat similar diets heavy on fish oil. Young Pacific chum, for instance, generally aren’t as fatty and tasty as Atlantics, while sockeye and chinooks with long or arduous spawning runs offer extraordinary flavor.

The markets, meanwhile, remain steady. For nearly a decade, wild Pacific salmon, for instance, have cost about two to three times the $6 or $7 a pound that Atlantic costs. You can pay well north of $20 for wild Pacific, too, if you want your salmon overnighted from Alaska.

Toxins in Farmed Salmon vs. Wild Salmon »

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