Another Shade of Gray: Aquaculture, Wild Salmon, and Why Some Things Aren’t Black and White

October 4, 2012 · 22 comments

So, I did it.

The dyed-in-the-wool locavore, organic-head, greenmeister, hater-of-all-things-mass-produced, factory farm-loathing, Big Agra-hating, Alice Waters-loving, Wendell Berry-quoting, EAT MORE KALE tee shirt-wearing, Oceana-supporting, cliche-on-two-legs typing these words just got back from an excursion with author, NYU Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Marion Nestle, chef/activist Peter Hoffman, journalist Kate Rockwood, and clinical nutritionist Stella Metsovas to northernmost Norway to visit a salmon farm, courtesy of The Norwegian Seafood Council. It was a very, very big salmon farm. The kind of salmon farm that, across twelve “pens” located off the coast of Skjervoy, “grows” millions of salmon a year; the Aurora Salmon “processing plant,” which we also visited (and where you could have eaten off the floor, it was that clean), puts out the equivalent of one million meals. Per day.

I would like very much to say that my trip confirmed what I, in my heart, already know. I would like very much to say that what I, in my heart, already know is also unimpeachably accurate. I would very much like to say that when I stand at my local fish market counter and shell out $29.99 a pound for wild salmon, that it has been caught and processed ethically (and is far easier on the environment compared to farmed fish, in ways too numerous to mention here), and so the decision between eating it or its farmed cousin from Norway is a no-brainer.

But I can’t; it’s not so easy.

When I go shopping for salmon, my decision will continue to be fraught, and mired in the memory of a remarkable day spent on a salmon barge in the Arctic Ocean, watching exactly how the strictly regulated Norwegian salmon farming industry works, in practice (at least at this particular farm): the fish are in pens that are 160 meters (524 feet) in diameter, and 300 feet deep, to the sea floor. Each pen is 97.5% water and 2.5% fish. Each pen, once it has been harvested, is released from use for 2-1/2 years, which supposedly prevents dead zones. The water is tested regularly for pathogens, and the fish — like hogs and cattle — vaccinated to prevent illness (we were all aghast at this fact. How do you vaccinate a fish? You anesthetize it first. With anesthesia. The image of a salmon counting backwards from ten with a tiny little mask over its gills like a pair of Bose headphones sticks in my craw). The fish are fed feed that looks, as Marion described it, like dog food. I bit into one pellet: it was fishy and oily because, according to information provided to us during a presentation by NIFES (National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research, based in Bergen) it contains a combination of rapeseed oil, soy oil, corn oil, linseed oil, and fish meal, which you need if you want a farmed fish that actually tastes like fish. Where does the fish meal come from? From wild fish, which, of course, pretty much kills the argument that farmed fish is the answer to the depletion and overfishing of our oceans. But that’s beside the point.

The processing plant was the cleanest factory I’ve ever seen, of any kind; in their “holding” pens, the fish looked happy. Not like The Incredible Mr. Limpet happy, but at least not apparently worried, or stressed. Their eyes were clear, which is what my paternal grandmother, who evidently knew fish, always said was how you judged if one was healthy or not. Of course, I’ll never know for sure if the fish I was looking at were calm and collected. And the fish we tasted — produced primarily for the high-end sushi and sashimi market in Japan — was extraordinarily delicate, mild in flavor, and exceptionally fatty, having lived its life on a diet of assorted oils. It was a gorgeous salmony pink color which, sadly, comes from the dye in its meal. (Bear in mind: this is very, very pricey farmed salmon. The stuff that you get at big box stores — we all know who they are — doesn’t even come close to it, qualitatively.)


So the plant was clean and the workers, happy. The fish were gorgeous, and their pens — which are outfitted with cameras that shoot from the bottom up so that their food intake and conditions can be closely monitored  — were apparently the fishy equivalent of the presidential suite at the Hassler. By comparison, Marion spoke of a trip she once took to Alaska paid for by the Alaskan Seafood Marketing Institute, where she witnessed everything from deplorable labor conditions to system waste to extended “holding” which impacts the fish’s freshness (and presumably, safety).

The salmon she was in Alaska to learn about was wild.

On the face of it — and assuming that what we saw is representative of all Norwegian salmon farms — the Norwegian farmed salmon industry is a very tightly run ship that results in an exemplary culinary product; they are proud of what they do, and rightly so.

So what was my sticking point? What can’t I get beyond, no matter how hard I try? The feed.

Rapeseed oil, which is derived from the same plant as Canola, is almost always genetically modified, and certainly would be, one could assume, when utilized in feed produced on such a massive industrial scale. Add to it corn oil, linseed oil, and soy oil, and you’ve got what sounds to me like a GMO shopping list underwritten by Monsanto.

During our initial meeting in Tromso with NIFES, I asked who, exactly, determines and regulates what goes in to the feed.

“The EU,” they answered, making the fact that Norway is not a member of the EU nor are the farms in international waters that much more disconcerting. “But it’s not scientific,” they added.

I’m sure not.

Without getting into issues of inefficiencies and longterm sustainability in wild fishing, and the problems surrounding escapes in fish farming and the overall impact of GMOs in feed across the board, the question I came away with is this: Is it always more ethical, more environmentally appropriate, and just plain healthier to eat wild salmon that’s been processed in squalor by Filipino women on 14 hour shifts … just because it’s wild and theoretically, environmentally, and morally superior? Is it more ethical, more environmentally appropriate, and just plain healthier to eat farmed salmon produced in a state-of-the-art facility by expert workers in “ideal” factory conditions, where the fish are kept in as healthful a state as they can possibly be, in water that’s crystal clear, but whose diet is manipulated with probable GMO oils in order to effect a more Omega 3-laden (and ostensibly healthier) product outcome?

Some years ago, I attended a discussion in New York, where one of the panelists was asked a pointed question about organics always being preferable to conventionally-produced food. I expected a simple answer: yes.

The answer was It depends. 

Are we talking about the industrial Cal-Organic? Or your local farmer’s market? Are we talking about gorgeous organic oranges that have arrived from overseas, where regulations about what can be called organic are not quite up to snuff? Or are we talking about a luscious, high-end, organic chocolate bar produced by child laborers on the Ivory Coast?

The answer is as murky as the deepest sea; all we can do is know our food, know our fish, know the quality of the environment it lives and dies in, what it eats, how it is processed and by whom, and in what conditions. Is this realistic? Can we ask this much of the average consumer on a supermarket line after a miserable day at the office? I don’t know.

And it’s why I’ll continue to stand at my local fish counter, staring at the words ORGANIC and WILD and FARMED, looking for the truth, and pondering which way to go.