The salmon farming industry is a $10 billion-plus dollar industry, and about 70% of the salmon on the U.S. market is farm-raised. You may love salmon, and want to eat more of it, but you’ve heard a lot of bad things about farm-raised salmon and don’t want to pay for wild-caught salmon. Also, you may not even be sure if the wild-caught is worth it: the information out there is conflicting, with just as many sources telling you the farm-raised fish is poison--unhealthy for you and bad for the environment--as there are saying it’s as healthy as the wild-caught.
Is farm-raised salmon okay, or should you hold out for the wild stuff? Here’s what we found out.
How Salmon Is Raised
If you understand how salmon is raised, you can make better decisions about eating it. There are two main ways salmon are raised: sea farms and “ranching.” Both methods and conditions can vary greatly, particularly for farmed salmon.
“Aquaculture” is the official term for the practice of raising fish for human consumption (it also applies to other water creatures such as shrimp, scallops, and clams). For salmon, that usually means being hatched inland in man-made containers. When the fish are mature enough, they get moved to cages in the ocean, where they’re raised until harvesting. These “sea cages” can be huge, up to 350,000 square feet, and they can hold up to 90,000 salmon. Sea farms consist of dozens or even hundreds of these sea cages. The vast majority of them are owned by just a few large aquaculture companies.
The world’s largest producers of salmon farmed in sea cages are Norway, Chile, and Scotland. All of these salmon are Atlantic salmon, which are hardy and easy to raise in confinement. The labels “Atlantic,” “Scottish,” and “Norwegian” always mean the salmon is farm-raised.
Alaska has had a ban on farm-raised salmon since 1989. This is to protect their commercial fishing industry. However, they do allow a method of farming where the fish are hatched and then released into the ocean. When the salmon return to their birthplace to spawn, they are harvested. So when you see the term “Alaskan” or “wild caught” on a package or a menu, it’s possible that even these fish were hatched in confinement.
Problems With Sea Farms
All food production has its problems, and aquaculture is no exception. Farm-raised salmon have higher incidences of diseases and parasites than wild fish because of their dense populations. This means that the fish are given antibiotics and parasite medications, sometimes preventively. Although I found no sources that said these were issues for human consumption, it is unsettling, and may pose concerns yet to come to light.
The waste from salmon farming can also cause problems for the ocean ecosystem. Because of the high concentration of the waste, it can harm the coral reef and bottom-dwelling sea creatures. Much like the waste of cattle and chickens, this is a serious environmental issue.
And because the salmon’s diet consists of smaller fish, farm-raised salmon are given feed made primarily from these fish. The needs of salmon farming, as well as those of land animals like cattle and chicken, have brought the population of these small fish to a dangerously low level. The demise of these fish will mean serious problems for wild salmon and tuna, as well as a serious disruption to the marine ecosystem.
Farm-raised fish can also escape and breed with wild salmon. This is a concern because the farmed fish can spread diseases to the wild ones, and also because their offspring are sterile.
Another problem with salmon farming, and perhaps the one most important to consumers, is that it is nearly impossible to know exactly how the fish you see in the market were raised and harvested. Were the fish raised in a low-population density cage or crammed in with thousands of others? Were the fish treated preventively for sea lice whether it needed it or not? Did the fish have a continuous supply of fresh water, minimizing the accumulation of harmful contaminants in its flesh and fat? And finally, was the fish electrocuted, or killed humanely by an instantaneous blow to the head?
As with pretty much everything else in the food chain, there is no way to know these things unless you buy directly from a producer. And with fish, this is an even more complicated conundrum than with other farmed animals, because you can’t just choose organically and humanely raised fish like you can chicken or beef. The alternative to farmed fish is wild-caught fish--and wild-caught fish can’t possibly sustain the human population. In fact, most fish species eaten by humans have reached dangerously low population levels in the wild. For this reason, farm-raised salmon seems the most ethical choice for the environment, despite some of the serious problems with aquaculture.
Stricter Standards Are Coming!
Fortunately, aquaculture is moving towards more sustainable farming methods, particularly in Norway. In 2015, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council produced a list of stricter standards for salmon farming. These include a ban on the preventive use of antibiotics, maximum levels of fish-based feed, disclosure of any feed with genetically modified material, and a limit of no more than 300 escaped fish per breeding cycle. There are already some large producers adhering to these standards. Some are even starting to raise their own feed fish, and experimenting with other sources for high-protein feed.
Salmon raised by the stricter standards will be labeled as such. European markets are already selling them, and they should arrive in the United States soon (although the definite dates are unknown at this time).
There is also a movement towards offshore aquaculture, where sea cages are placed in deeper water. This reduces the amount of damage done by the fish waste products.
How Do I Know If I'm Buying Farm-Raised Salmon?
As stated above, sometimes it’s easy to tell what you're buying: all salmon labeled Atlantic, Norwegian, or Scottish are farm-raised. If you're not sure, ask your fishmonger; if he doesn't know, consider buying from a more responsible source.
According to Wikipedia, most salmon from Alaska, Japan, and Russia is wild-caught--although all three producers use fish hatcheries and ranching methods, so most of these salmon are no longer completely wild, either.
Also, beware when you eat out: if a menu says “wild” this doesn’t necessarily mean anything. “Wild” can mean to the salmon world what “all-natural” means to the packaged food industry: that is, not much at all. However, if the menu says “wild-caught Alaskan salmon,” this is indicative that the fish was indeed caught in the wild and not farm-raised--although it was most likely hatched in captivity.
Is Farm-Raised Salmon Genetically Modified?
No. Genetically modified salmon that grows much faster with less feed has been created, but it has not been approved for human consumption anywhere in the world.
Nutritional Value and Contaminants
All types of salmon are chock full of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.
Nutrition: Finally, let’s compare the nutritional value and contaminants of wild-caught salmon to farm-raised salmon. According to the highly trusted website, Authority Nutrition, the nutritional profiles of farm-raised and wild caught salmon differ quite a bit. Farm-raised salmon has a higher fat content (and therefore more calories), which makes sense given that farm-raised fish are more sedentary than wild ones. The fat of the farm-raised salmon also has a higher ratio of Omega-6 fatty acid to Omega 3 fatty acid (Omega 3 is the healthier one). Wild salmon has slightly more calcium and iron, and the rest of their nutritional profile is roughly the same.
And even though the farm-raised salmon has more Omega 6’s than the wild, it is still an excellent source for Omega 3 fatty acids. The protein level and amount of other nutrients is also very good compared to many other foods.
Contaminants: Farm-raised salmon tends to be higher in contaminants than wild-caught salmon. One study found that the level of PCB’s, a known carcinogen, is up to eight times higher in farm-raised salmon vs. wild caught salmon, depending on where and how the fish is raised.
Mercury levels seem to be about the same or maybe slightly higher in farm-raised salmon. Other trace minerals, such as cobalt, copper, and cadmium, have been found to be slightly higher in wild-caught salmon.
However, even though higher, the levels of contaminants in farm-raised salmon are still considered to be well below the dangerous threshold.
So, Should I Eat Farm-Raised Salmon or Not?
According to Authority Nutrition, salmon is a healthy food and you can (and should!) eat it regardless of its source. Pregnant women and children should abide by the standard guidelines for how much seafood they eat, but most other people can eat farm-raised salmon safely. Farm-raised salmon is an excellent source of protein, healthy fats, and many other vitamins and minerals that make it an extremely healthy choice regardless of its origin.
Fish is one of the most economical proteins to raise, requiring about a one-to-one ratio of feed-to-meat production--chickens require almost twice that, and cows require about eight times as much feed to produce a pound of meat. The world population is expected to have a billion more people by 2030, and the ocean’s fish supply is becoming too low to continue to catch wild fish safely. For these reasons, fish farming is probably not going anywhere soon. While farmed salmon doesn’t have quite the stunning nutritional profile of wild salmon, it is still very nutritious and delicious. And with the standards of fish farming getting stricter, farmed fish seems to be a good choice that is only going to get better.
Bonus: Hungry for Salmon? Check Out These Recipe Links!
If this article got you hungry for salmon, here are a few of our favorite salmon recipes. You can prepare salmon quickly in a number of ways. It pairs well with many flavors, from dill to citrus to sesame. Grilled salmon with just salt and pepper is a simple and elegant meal. You can also bake it, pan fry it, poach it, sous vide it, or even microwave it with good results.
The key to great salmon, as with all fish, is not overcooking it. According to this article at SeriousEats.com, medium rare salmon ranges from 110F-125F. If you go above that, it is likely to get dry regardless of your cooking method. You can use an instant read thermometer inserted into the center of the cut, or you can press it with your finger: you want it to be slightly soft to the touch. If it’s firm, then it’s definitely done and quite possibly overdone. (Remember, when you take it off the heat, it will continue to cook for several minutes!)
Teriyaki Salmon with Sriracha Cream Sauce
From Damn Delicious (I have never had a bad recipe from this site), this recipe is healthy, flavorful, and the sriracha cream sauce is good enough to eat with a spoon. Teriyaki is a great flavor with salmon, adding both umami and citrus notes, and the sriracha adds an additional Asian bite.
Honey-Mustard Glazed Salmon Steaks
If you like honey-mustard, then this is a great recipe for you. It is best grilled. It's from Food & Wine, so you know it has to be good!
Salmon with Creamy Dill Sauce
Salmon and dill are a classic pairing, and this is one of the best recipes I’ve tried. The sauce is simple to prepare and complements the salmon perfectly.
Salmon Sous Vide
Although this is more of a method than a recipe, it’s a worthy inclusion. And as a sous vide fanatic, I would have felt remiss had I not included this. If you're not familiar with sous vide cooking, it is a French term that means "under pressure." Sous vide involves vacuum sealing food in plastic bags and cooking it in a water bath set to a constant temperature via an immersion circulator. The advantage of this method is that you can control the temperature of the food very precisely. You can also hold food at a constant temperature for a very long time without burning it or drying it out. It is a method used throughout the food service industry, including high-end restaurants, and it is gaining popularity with home cooks.
I was skeptical about sous vide salmon, but I finally tried it, and I became a convert immediately. If cooked to the right temperature (110F-125F), the texture gets silky and almost custard-like. You may think custardy salmon sounds unappetizing, but you may change your mind if you give it a try.