ByMegan Winkler

May 20, 2014

Fresh fish is always touted as being good for us. Between the lean protein source and the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, salmon is a virtual super food. The problem is that traditional methods of salmon farming are dirty. I’m talking disgusting. Sea lice, algae blooms and alien species problems (yes, you read that right) are just three of the environmental issues involved in farmed salmon. Most of the salmon farms around the globe consist of open net farming in calm oceanic bays. Salmon live in salt water, but travel to fresh water regions to spawn, because they’re fancy like that. But in these farms, the salmon are all squished together into giant nets, where they—and other nasty organisms—grow until they’re harvested.

If you have any experience with lice, you know all about how quickly they spread. You send your kid off to school one day with a completely clean scalp and the next day she’s got a full head of itchy little bugs that you have to pick out (by hand) before she can go back to school. Yes, I’ve dealt with this insanely frustrating reality of public school.

Anyway, sea lice are just as gross as head lice, and as their land-based counterparts, sea lice occur naturally. Normally, this doesn’t cause a problem for aquatic life. The lice travel with the currents, attaching to fish when they encounter them and dying when they don’t. In a salmon farm, though, these little critters have ample hosts at their disposal and they flourish exponentially. You can guess what happens when a few of these little guys get adventurous and head to the surrounding waterways. That’s right, they infect nearby fish at an unnatural rate. Sea lice even kill off the young recently hatched salmon that have not yet developed their protective scales. Salmon is typically treated with medicines that, in turn, are consumed but us when we eat the fish. And we wonder why we are all developing antibiotic resistance.

Algae blooms are also a direct effect of salmon farming. Ever heard of akashiwo algae? How about “red tide?” Yeah, I know you’ve heard of that one. Salmon farming produces a disproportionate amount of algae—from all the salmon poo that feeds it—to produce harmful algae blooms that are toxic to humans and aquatic life alike. According to the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR), 260 tonnes (that’s close to 287 tons here in the US) of farmed Atlantic salmon died from algae blooms at one farm in Klentu, British Columbia, in 2007. That’s just the salmon massacre at one farm. What a waste!

As for the alien species that I mentioned earlier, they’re not as sci-fi as you might think. They are still a problem. Some farms opt to raise Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters. I realize this might not seem like a bad idea, but it is. Sometimes salmon transform into escape artists and are somehow able to hit the waves for freer waters. This is fine if the salmon is in its native ocean, but if we have stronger Atlantic salmon in the Pacific, this causes competition between the types of fish for food and breeding waters. Basically, this creates an environment for natural selection where it wouldn’t happen on its own. The native fish die out because the new, alien fish take over their territory.

But it’s not all dire. The Global Salmon Initiative is now taking steps to clean the industry up. Aquaculture—the farming of shellfish and sea fish—is a larger industry than the beef industry worldwide, if you can believe that. The organization, established by farmed salmon producers, understands that the growing global population needs to be fed and the salmon industry is a large part of that. They also understand the need to produce food in a sustainable manner in order to leave the world’s oceans in good shape for future generations. Through zone management strategies and generation-specific growing areas, the GSI is implementing methods to reduce sea lice growth. Instead of treating infested fish with medicine, cleaner fish are introduced to naturally eliminate the pests.

The GSI is also working towards revamping the feeding practices employed in salmon farms. Right now, feed consists of the finite sources of fishmeal and fish oil. This is the primary reason that the industry is un-sustainable. Working alongside the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, the GSI is developing sustainable methods of feed production. So for now, the industry is still a dirty one, but that’s changing. What’s also exciting is that other industries—namely shrimp, cocoa and palm oil producers—are stepping in to do the same to improve their own methods towards sustainability.

By Megan Winkler

Eco-nerd, solar power enthusiast, DIY diva and professional coffee drinker, Megan has written everything from courses in healthcare and psychology to interior design and cooking advice. She has a master’s degree in military history, owns two chainsaws, is a collector of strange trivia and a world renowned Pinterest pro. She is constantly looking for better ways to do things.