2000s Archive

The Wild and the Farmed

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For the rest of their lives, the fish would be in the care of Sonny Sprague, a man who could be the Colonel Sanders of aquaculture, the public face of a multinational industry struggling to maintain its hometown image. Except for a stint in the military, Sprague has spent his entire life on Swans Island (year-round population 340). He is a man of well-developed midriff, and he doles out the vowels of his few words in the broadest of Down East accents.

Sprague’s aquaculture career exemplifies the vast transformation undergone by the industry. When he entered the business in 1993, he was just the sort of independent local operator that salmon farming was supposed to benefit. But big fish eat little fish, and by 2000, Sprague had sold out to Atlantic Salmon of Maine, which subsequently got taken over by Fjord Seafood ASA, a Norwegian conglomerate that has since merged with two of its competitors. Today, one third of the aquaculture industry is controlled by two huge multinational corporations, Fjord Cermaq and Nutreco.

We rode out on the Jamie Lynn, a converted lobster boat, for a closer look at the dozen net pens clustered in Tooth­acher Bay, home to 60,000 captive salm­on. In some of the pens, schools of little salmon darted about, a few sporadically leaping clear of the water as if to show off how sleek and silvery they had become since losing the large spots that are the mark of hatchlings. In other pens, torpedo-like shadows—gigantic things—drifted through the blue-green depths.

In the back of the boat, I noticed a sack of Corey Marine Feeds Salmon Grower labeled “pigmented.” One of Sprague’s associates explained that salmon fed a nonpigmented diet have whitish-gray meat. Synthetic carotenoids must be added to the food so their flesh turns the requisite shade of orange. Wild salmon get their color from krill and other small organisms in their natural diet. I scooped out a handful of Salmon Grower. It looked and smelled like the premium kibble I feed my cats.

Once a salmon has been in Sprague’s care for a year and a half, it is a portly specimen weighing about 11 pounds. The end comes quickly and cleanly. It is scooped aboard a barge, killed, bled, iced, and trucked to a processing plant where it is gutted and entombed in a salmon-size Styrofoam cooler for shipment to a distributor. This assembly-line system can get a farmed salmon from net pen to dinner plate in 24 hours.

Streamlined and cost-efficient, aquaculture is booming, having tripled its output in the past two decades. A third of the seafood we eat is now farmed, and by 2025 that proportion is predicted to hit 50 percent. When modern aquaculture came on the scene, it was hailed as a “Blue Revolution.” Commercial fishermen would be replaced by fish farmers, assuring a steady supply of high-quality seafood and taking pressure off wild populations that were (and are) being fished almost to ­extinction. There are now more than 200 aquatic species being farmed, and many have lived up to the early promise. Filter-feeding shellfish such as clams, oysters, and mussels siphon food particles found naturally in the oceans and actually cleanse the water in which they are reared. Catfish, tilapia, and carp (popular in China) are vegetarian—and an extremely efficient way to convert plant matter into meat.

But over the years, a growing body of research has begun to cast doubt on the soundness of farming carnivorous species such as salmon. Today, the salmon-farming industry finds itself awash in criticisms from environmentalists, biologists, and restaurateurs, all of whom contend that the price of farmed salmon goes far beyond flavorless salmon steaks. “If the consumer knew the true cost of $3.99-a-pound salmon steak, and what’s in it that she can’t see or taste, there is no way she would buy it,” says University of Alberta biology professor John Volpe, who has studied farmed salmon for eight years.

An article that appeared two years ago in the respected scientific journal Nature, incorporating the results of nearly 100 scientific studies, brought widespread attention to the environmental shortcomings of aquaculture. “A net pen is a factory farm in the water,” says Rebecca Goldburg, Environmental Defense’s resident expert on aquaculture and a coauthor of the Nature article. But while it’s illegal for land-based factory farmers to dump dung and dead animals directly into the nearest public waterway, salmon farmers can and do. Currents disperse much of the pollution, but some settles below the pens, creating a “dead zone,” an anoxic (oxygen-deprived) area where rotten manure, uneaten food, and decomposing salmon corpses form a layer on the bottom that has the color and texture of blancmange. A month after my visit to Atlantic Salmon of Maine’s farms, the state’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR) issued letters of concern to three aquaculture companies. One was Atlantic Salmon of Maine, for “bacterial mats, excessive feed, and anoxic conditions” under its pens in Toothacher Bay, conditions cited by the DMR as evidence of potential environmental problems.

The environmental effects of a salmon farm can extend far beyond the patch of seabed directly beneath it. For every pound that a salmon in a net pen gains, it devours commercial feed processed from two to five pounds of small open-ocean fish like anchovetta, herring, and jack mackerel. Put another way, salmon farming takes far more fish protein from the wild than it produces. As incredible as it sounds, to satisfy the appetites of the salmon in a one-acre farm, processors vacuum nearly everything bigger than a guppy from 40,000 to 50,000 acres of ocean. It’s no surprise that stocks of these oily little fish are now fully exploited worldwide, leaving the aquaculture industry scrambling to formulate substitutes for fish meal and oil. Slaughterhouse by-products like bonemeal and blood meal, and feather meal (made from waste at chicken-processing plants), have been introduced into fish chow. (Atlantic Salmon of Maine does not use such feed.)

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