The no-guilt, delicious salmon of the future

Sustainable Atlantic salmon, grown in freshwater in inland farms, is a new viable alternative to the standard variety

Just beyond the balcony on the 22nd-floor penthouse, New York City's skyscrapers flickered, and the Yale Club's tablecloths flapped as white as the waiters' jackets in the night breeze. Yet the fresh air was not the star of this 2013 spring night, but rather, freshwater. Specifically, the kind used to produce the night’s supper — Atlantic salmon.

Served three ways — raw as tartare, roasted with skin on or cured as gravlax — this salmon had been farmed using a new technique, in freshwater on an inland salmon farm. The guests, members of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, hoped that more salmon farmed this way could help save endangered wild salmon.

“The flavor was great,” said the chef, Tom Valenti, noting that in terms of taste the pink fillets were to other farmed salmon what heirloom tomatoes are to winter beefsteaks. “But my angle, forgive the pun, has more to do with conservation.”

With an inland farm in British Columbia poised for the first time to start selling commercial quantities of freshwater-reared salmon this month, conservationists in North America are counting on chefs and shoppers to show the aquaculture industry that inland farming is a viable alternative. The standard practice of farming salmon in huge sea cages is toxic to the oceans, they say, and deadly to wild salmon. 

This salmon has the ability to tell a story on multiple levels – its sustainable impact, the nonuse of pesticides or chemicals. So for the average [consumer], it really resonates.

Guy Dean

vice president, Albion Fisheries

So how is the new technology working?

“All of the fish has been presold for the next year, and people are very excited,” said Guy Dean, vice president of Canada’s Albion Fisheries, a distributor of inland-raised salmon.

Albion sells this special salmon for around 20 percent more than salmon farmed offshore. The price point fills an important niche for a growing number of concerned consumers who are willing to pay more for safe salmon, Dean said, but who can’t afford to pay triple for sustainably caught wild Pacific salmon. People who tasted the inland-farmed salmon for market research reported that it was leaner, less fishy and more buttery than standard farmed salmon — similar to wild salmon, he said.

“This salmon has the ability to tell a story on multiple levels — its sustainable impact, the nonuse of pesticides or chemicals,” he said. “So for the average [consumer], it really resonates.”

A sea change in aquaculture

Salmon farmed in inland tanks, also known as closed-containment systems, have the advantage of growing in a controlled environment, said Sue Scott of the Atlantic Salmon Federation in New Brunswick. The federation has given money for research on an inland salmon farm run by the Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Farms like that eliminate escapes of farmed salmon into the ocean, a major threat to wild salmon genetics, Scott said. They also keep salmon food — small, wild-caught fish like anchovies that are a renewable but sensitive resource — from going to waste when portions wash through the nets and into the ocean, she said.

And inland salmon need not be rinsed with pesticides and other chemicals. At sea, inside net pens where fish are packed tightly together like kindergartners in a classroom, naturally occurring parasites and diseases can proliferate, the way common colds do with humans. Diseases and pests can spread to wild fish that swim past, she said. Inland farms, she said, are better protected from fish diseases.

“The Freshwater Institute is showing through their research that, operationally, it’s on par with the open net pen, and they’re taking care of their waste,” Scott said. “There’s a large niche market that wants to buy sustainable farmed Atlantic salmon, and that is a good start toward a transition that can take place over time.”

More than 99 percent of the freshwater used for inland salmon farms is filtered and reused, she said. And the salmon waste, which when dropped from net pens into the open ocean can trigger harmful algae blooms, is collected and recycled as compost.

Technician John Burton with a 13-pound fish.

“It keeps the disease out, it keeps the environment from being impacted,” said Steve Summerfelt, of the Freshwater Institute, who has spent two decades innovating technology to raise salmon inland. “And it hardly uses water.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California publishes a well-respected guide about the environmental effects of seafood. The guide recommends that consumers avoid salmon raised in offshore net pens, and spokeswoman Karrie Carnes underlined this. But Coho salmon — a species native to the Pacific Ocean — raised on inland farms? It was rated it a “best choice.” The decision on inland-farmed Atlantic salmon is eagerly anticipated.

The salmon raised inland at the farm in British Columbia that is poised to start selling come April is called Kuterra. Sprawling over the northern tip of Canada’s Vancouver Island, the farm uses land that belongs to the ’Namgis First Nation. The name is a combination of the ’Namgis word “ku,” meaning “salmon,” and “terra,” meaning land.

“What unifies us is a belief that there’s a more sustainable way to raise Atlantic salmon,” said Jackie Hildering, a spokeswoman for the Save Our Salmon conservation organization, which partnered on the farm with the ’Namgis First Nation. “However, this will not work for the environment if we don’t have the economics.”

Doubts from industry

Pamela Parker, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association, said the benefits of inland farms are overhyped, and that the environmental damage of offshore farms is overblown. The organization represents offshore farmers.

“To say that one is better than the other,” she said, “I think is a mistake.”

An inland salmon farm requires around three times the capital investment of an offshore farm, analysis shows. Many say that’s too high a price to enter an exploding industry. Salmon farming leapt from roughly 5,000 tons worldwide in 1980 to more than 2 million in 2012, according to United Nations statistics, because of booming worldwide demand. The vast majority is Atlantic salmon. Canada is one of the leading salmon exporters to the United States, the biggest salmon consumer in the world.

Offshore farmers are getting better at preventing salmon escapes, Parker said, and the farms have reduced wasted fish feed by installing cameras on the nets to monitor when salmon eat. Also, chemicals like hydrogen peroxide, used to cleanse salmon of diseases and parasites, are closely regulated by the Canadian government, and deemed safe. These methods curb transmission to wild fish.

“We manage our fish health so that we will not be responsible for any transference of parasites or disease,” she said.

Salmon farming leapt from roughly 5,000 tons worldwide in 1980 to more than 2 million in 2012 because of booming worldwide demand.

United Nations

Instead, she charges that by using water pumps powered by electricity generated in plants that burn fossil fuels, inland farms have a worse carbon footprint than the offshore farms.

A 2013 study by the Conservation Fund showed that an inland salmon farm’s carbon footprint depends on its location. In the northeastern United States, where most electricity is generated by burned coal, an inland farm would have a higher carbon footprint than an offshore farm, said Brian Vinci, of the Freshwater Institute, who co-authored the report. Not so in the Pacific Northwest, where much power comes from hydroelectric dams and the carbon footprint of an inland farm would be equal to that of an average offshore farm.

“If carbon footprint is something that we think is important, we need to think about where we put these farms,” Vinci said.

Like any burgeoning industry, inshore salmon farms have struggled with unforeseen challenges. At the ’Namgis First Nation farm, engineers scrambled after their growing salmon produced more heat and carbon dioxide than expected.

“It’s been a continual process of solving problems,” said Garry Ullstrom, CEO of Kuterra.

One of these problems turned catastrophic at another inland farm. Sustainable Blue, based in Nova Scotia, was poised to join Kuterra this spring in bringing Canada’s first inland-raised salmon to a wide market. But on March 15, the farm suffered a power outage so extreme that it knocked out the emergency alarms. About 12,000 salmon died, the entire first year’s crop, said CEO Kirk Havercroft. He estimates that the company won’t recover until August 2015.

“This is a setback,” Havercroft said. “But that’s all it is.”

The company learned, however, that minus the start-up costs, the production costs of raising salmon inland were roughly equal to those of raising them offshore. This echoed the results of a 2013 study sponsored by The Conservation Fund that showed that raising salmon inland was slightly cheaper than offshore farming. 

“There’s a will and a resolve and a determination here to make this a success,” Havercroft said. “This isn’t just a project. This is an industry.”

Threat to wild salmon

Powering much of the zeal for inland Atlantic salmon farms are urgent calls to save the wild ancestor of this bronze-and-gray-speckled fish. The Atlantic salmon — scientific name Salmo salar, Latin for “the leaper” — is treasured by anglers. It was abundant until the Industrial Revolution. Then the species was decimated by overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction, especially dams that choked off spawning streams.

Ironically, in the 1970s Atlantic salmon conservationists were among the first to back salmon farming in open sea net pens, believing it was better than gillnetting the last wild stocks. But Atlantic salmon brought into pens became domesticated after a few generations by being selectively bred to show different traits than their wild counterparts. Farmed salmon are genetically engineered to grow fast, scientists say. But wild salmon must balance their growth with the ability to elude predators, hunt food and navigate back to their native streams.

Scientists discovered the threat to wild salmon posed by domestic salmon in the 1990s, after aquaculture surged and scores of farmed salmon escaped, said Jonathan Carr, executive director of research and environment for the Atlantic Salmon Federation. After 22 years of monitoring salmon running up New Brunswick’s Magaguadavic River, only four times has the number of wild salmon exceeded the number of salmon escaped from farms, he said. In 2013 there were six wild Atlantic salmon and 91 escapees.

Operations manager Cathal Dinneen preparing for the first removal of solid waste from the site.

“If we’re finding 91 in this river,” he said, “just imagine how many there are in other rivers.”

The count of six wild salmon is particularly paltry compared with some years in the 1980s, before the propagation of salmon farms, when the Magaguadavic River saw the return of more than 1,000 wild salmon.

Industry representatives say that of the tens of thousands of farmed salmon that escape each year — some during storms, others because of human error — only about 1 percent are sexually mature and pose any risk of interbreeding. But scientists like Carr say that in many streams in eastern Canada, wild salmon number only in the single digits and that even one sexually mature farm fish could jeopardize the entire wild strain.

One of the genetic traits diluted in farmed salmon, Carr said, is the ability to navigate. Hence, many Atlantic salmon that are hybrids of farmed fish and wild fish have swum out to sea and never returned.

Salmon farmers are required by Canadian law to report any escapes. But of all the farmed salmon Carr and his partner biologists have found in rivers, a scant few had been reported.

He and others say government oversight of the industry is lax, and that Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has a “conflicted mandate” to both regulate and promote aquaculture.

A spokesman for the department said he could not comment.

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