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. "

Toxins in Farmed Salmon vs. Wild Salmon

Availability is similarly plain. While you can get Atlantics anywhere year-round, wild fish availability is more exacting. For starters, wild salmon are seasonal, with the huge majority of fresh fish available between May and October, when fishermen can capitalize on the predictable concentration of fish as they move toward the coast to spawn. A few online sites offer it later in the season, and many offer frozen throughout the winter months. But in general, eating a fresh wild salmon means eating it in summer or fall.

In most big stores you can confirm the fish is wild—and where it’s from— from the country-of-origin labels (or COOL) now required for all fish. The label, either on the package or on hand for whole fish, will tell you its origin and whether the fish is farmed or wild.

Small fish and specialty shops, however, aren’t required to carry COOL labels, so in those cases it’s caveat emptor. A depressing New York Times story in 2005 found that for six of the eight fish and specialty shops visited, salmon sold as wild were actually farmed, according to a lab that the Times paid to analyze the fish for tell-tale levels of the commercially grown carotenoids added to pinken the meat. Such substitution seems most likely during the off-season, when “wild” salmon, though rare on fishing boats, seems uncannily abundant in stores. Then, in particular, insist on a label or ask your local shop specifically where the “wild” fish came from and phone the supposed source to confirm.

Though I’m chemophobic, I’m ready to declare the health concerns about farmed salmon too insignificant to fret about, or at least too close to fight about. Farmed salmon hold about 2 to 10 times the levels of PCBs, DDT, dioxins, pesticides, mercury and other suspected carcinogens that most wild salmon do, apparently because the rich meal they eat contains bits of oily fish in which these contaminants tend to concentrate. Yet the levels of those chemicals are still so low, as Harvard Medical School nutrition specialist George Blackburn, M.D., Ph.D., noted in a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “that it’s not going to cause harm.” Meanwhile, numerous studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce heart attack risk; in one study, consuming 700 mg of omega-3 fatty acids a day (the equivalent of eating 10 ounces of salmon once a week) cut mortality in Italians with coronary artery disease by 20 percent.

Keep in mind, the generally higher levels of mercury often found in farmed salmon should swing the scale toward wild fish if you’re pregnant, nursing, young or particularly brain-protective. That aside, however, the tremendous omega-3 benefits—reduced heart attack risk, better immunological, neurological and even psychological health—easily outweigh the tenuous risks.

The Environmental Effect of Farmed Salmon »

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