Background, a swirling school of anchovies. Center, Skretting salmon pellets.  (Anchovy photo, Magnus Manskes/wikimedia; Pellet photo courtesy Skretting)
Background, a swirling school of anchovies. Center, Skretting salmon pellets. (Anchovy photo, Magnus Manskes/wikimedia; Pellet photo courtesy Skretting)
Wild salmon eat mostly wild fish, pink krill and plankton, but that’s not on the menu for the salmon that will be grown inside buildings at two new midcoast aquaculture facilities that are on the drawing board in Belfast and Bucksport.

When salmon aquaculture started in the 1980s, salmon was a luxury meal on the weekend. Now, it is the fastest growing food production system in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

There is big money to be made, too. Shareholders in salmon aquaculture saw returns of 45 to 60 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to the Financial Times, as demand went up and algae blooms, mass mortalities of salmon, and invasions of sea lice hit the sea-pen industry, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Those returns have weakened in 2018 as more salmon farms started up, but financial returns still look strong ahead, according to the FAO.

With those kinds of returns, investment has followed and technology, too, that may be sophisticated enough to reduce the environmental impact of large indoor, onshore salmon aquaculture facilities.

Often referred to as an RAS — a recirculating aquaculture system — the proposed indoor aquaculture facility in Belfast will produce 66 million pounds a year. That is small compared to just up the road in Bucksport where a competitor will produce 110 million pounds a year. A proposed RAS in Florida will produce 198 million pounds of Atlantic salmon, or about five percent of fresh salmon consumed in America each year, according to Seafood Source.

Local impacts of a large-scale aquaculture facility are one concern, but on the global scale, growing salmon in a contained RAS system has many supporters in the environmental community.

The Bucksport facility is headed up by a board member of The Nature Conservancy, for example, and Seafood Watch gives a cautious thumbs up to RAS because it produces protein efficiently and can do so with lower environmental impacts than sea pens.

For one thing, RAS is designed to use water and energy efficiently.

There is also research indicating that onshore, indoor RAS salmon farms have a lower carbon footprint and are cost competitive with ocean-pen farming, as a 2016 paper from SINTEF, Norway’s largest research institute for energy and climate technology, indicates.

But there is a big unanswered question.

It is perhaps the most important question in terms of sustainability of salmon aquaculture, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.

The IUCN is made up of government and civil-society organizations.

What are the salmon going to eat?

Even though the percentage of wild forage fish used in feed has dropped from 90 percent in the 1980s to roughly 20 percent today (it varies depending on the growth stage of the salmon), the forage fish are under pressure from over-fishing.

The challenge is feeding salmon nutritionally rich food that is affordable and environmentally sustainable, according to the IUCN.

Because salmon aren’t the only thing that eats forage fish. Everything eats those big schools of fatty little fish, from penguins to puffins, striped bass to swordfish, whales to dolphins. Krill, half a notch lower on the food chain, are what give wild salmon that rich red color. They are in the spotlight, too, along with the herring, menhaden, capelin and other forage fish that give salmon its Omega-3 health boost and rich taste.

I asked Erik Heim, CEO of the Nordic Aquafarms project in Belfast, if his fish food was going to be sustainable.

I was, of course, referring to the fate of the fatty little forage fish.

But Heim directed his answer to two other concerns: whether the feed would be genetically modified and whether it would be certified as organic.

Heim said the feed would be non-GMO (genetically modified organism) and perhaps organic.

“We are definitely going to make sure the feed is non-GMO and we are looking into organic-certified fish feed,” said Heim. “It costs more, and we want to make sure it makes economic sense to do that.”

“Not much of the salmon feed in the industry is organic,” said Heim. “The big feed suppliers in Norway generally are not.”

“GMO feed is not really an issue, there,” he said. “There is no GMO source in Europe, so it doesn’t really come up. There is more in the U.S. and it’s a different dialogue here in the U.S. because of that.”

Actually, it will come up.

And it will come up because of those fatty little forage fish.

I asked Erik Heim the question again, a bit differently.

“What about sustainability when it comes to using wild fish in the feed?” I asked.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch updated its sustainability standards in 2016 to ding salmon aquaculture producers who were relying too heavily on forage fish in their feed. They even dinged them if they didn’t supply the data about forage fish or if the data wasn’t very useful. The Best Choice stamp from Seafood Watch can bring a premium price for salmon on the fresh fish market since sustainability matters to many salmon consumers. Salmon aquaculture generally also still has a public relations problem related to practices that were common decades ago when heavy antiobiotics and mismanaged waste led headlines.

Public perception matters a lot to salmon producers like Nordic Aquafarms who are building their brand on being green.

“The sustainable sourcing issues are an interesting challenge that’s important to solve,” he said. “We don’t want to empty the ocean to feed our fish.”

“The feed industry is moving forward on sustainability,” he said. “There is some research work going on right now using commercial insect production as a sustainable feed source.”

And will Nordic Aquafarms plan to use sustainable feed? I asked.

“I don’t think the industry is there, yet,” said Heim.

Enter the big weird world of aquafeed.

The world where the byproducts of rubber, beer, gluten and chewing gum have a role in the mix of what goes into the little pellets fed to salmon.

The world where ethical questions such as “Is it okay to feed a carnivorous fish a vegetarian diet and still call it a salmon?” are part of the conversation led by the IUCN.

A 2016 IUCN policy paper on the sustainability of fish feed in aquaculture reveals what is under way in order to make aquafeed for salmon without the forage fish. Or, at least, with fewer of them.

It’s complicated, particularly compared to the short food chain of salmon swimming free.

Aquafeed now is made up of a mix of forage fish, vegetable oil, poultry parts, soybeans, blood meal and the appropriate mix of nutrients for the life stage of the salmon.

Here’s what’s coming.

Beyond rubber and beer is the new world of precisely snipping and slicing small parts of the genome to get an organism to perform differently, a biomolecular technology known in the popular press as CRISPR.

CRISPR slices genes that are already part of an organism to enhance its natural capabilities or reduce disease. CRISPR doesn’t introduce foreign DNA so, technically, CRISPR does not produce a genetically modified organism (GMO).

Here’s how it could work for salmon, according to the IUCN, and analysis by Professor Ashild Krogdahl, who does veterinary medicine research at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo and who I?called to ask about sustainability and the fatty little fishes.

She spoke generally about how CRISPR could work to modify a plant like false flax to produce more Omega-3 or modify a salmon to accept a plant form of Omega-3.

“Really, the conversation about GMO or non-GMO is changing over here right now because of CRISPR,” said Krogdahl, referring to the European Union. The EU generally does not allow GMO feed.

“Before, the genome would be bombed with changes and it wasn’t clear what changes would happen. It could have a large impact. It did in agriculture, with the GMO crops resistant to Round-Up, for example.”

What Krogdahl is referring to is corn, soy and other common food and cattle feed crops that were genetically altered so that the weedkiller wouldn’t kill them when farmers used it to control weeds. That hasn’t worked so well. Some of the weeds became resistant to the weedkiller, requiring additional spraying of Round-Up, which is linked with cancer risk. The key pesticide in Round-Up now permeates everything from crackers to granola, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration documents released to The Guardian.

“CRISPR is precise,” said Krogdahl.

And, notably, the US Department of Agriculture decided earlier this year that CRISPR-modified organisms will not be considered as GMOs.

I asked Krogdahl about the unintended consequences of altering false flax, a flowering plant commonly native to the Mediterranean. Could it have a tangle of ecological and as-yet-unresearched repercussions?

“Here, most people are concerned about the impacts on human health and on animals,” she said. “Not so much the environment. CRISPR can address the health questions.”

“The questions about how it could affect other plants, for example, will still be there,” she said.

Could the aquafeed be organic and non-GMO certified (with CRISPR enhancements) and still be detrimental to wild fish stocks?

“Look, the ocean is exploited to the full limit,” she said. “And fish is the most efficient food production system on the planet for protein. It is the best utilization, not quite one to one.”

Before taking that bite of wild Pacific salmon or popping a morning fish oil pill, it’s worth a look at what the full limit means.

The UN?estimates that over 31 percent of fisheries are overfished and over 58 percent are being fished at full capacity, globally. And if a consumer’s default mechanism is to buy wild Alaskan salmon, this is worth considering: the wild catch is way down and there is now far more farmed salmon on the market than wild fish.

Thinking you will avoid it all by just taking a fish oil pill? Nope, you’re not off the hook there, either. Not all are sustainably sourced.

The little fatty fish meal component in salmon aquafeed is likely to continue to be essential, said Krogdahl, but be a smaller percentage of the overall mix.

“I think it can drop to 10 percent soon,” she said. “Five percent is possible.”

“We can and should be fishing for the small fish that aren’t used for human consumption and use them for animal feed,” said Krogdahl. “What else will we use it for?”

It was a rhetorical question.

I didn’t answer it.

Meanwhile, Krogdahl’s institute is researching the use of fly larvae for protein, something that is now in the beginning commercial stages in Holland.

“Salmon eat flies, so closer to the real thing,” she said.

Nordic Aquafarms will not decide on a feed until 2019, but is looking at Skretting as a possible supplier. Skretting is one of the largest feed suppliers in the world and already supplies Maine farms with non-GMO feed. Heim uses Skretting feed in the Danish facility where he grows King Fish, a sushi fish.

Calls to Skretting’s Vancouver, British Columbia, offices to inquire about feed for Atlantic salmon went unanswered.

The company advertises a sustainable approach, and Skretting has signed on to three of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which were established in 2015, including #14: Life Below Water, which is about using the oceans and its marine resources sustainably.

Skretting asks its suppliers to sign on to their codes of conduct for sustainability and to allow auditors to review how their operations are conducted in order to check on environmental impacts.

“Skretting will do tailor-made feeds,” said Heim. “That’s attractive to us, but it’s two years before we have fish. It’s early in the process to decide which feed to use.”

Maybe it’s not too early, considering that the three salmon RAS facilities now being planned will produce nearly 10 percent of all farmed salmon consumed in the country.

If a salmon facility has to be big to be an environmentally sustainable project that investors want to back, as Heim presented last month, then now seems exactly the time that all three aquaculture companies could get together and demand sustainably sourced salmon food in a bold move that could change the aquafeed industry forever.

In fact, Skretting is asking for just that kind of corporate activism to push forward sustainable practices in aquafeed.

And that goes back to consumer pressure, which the salmon industry is keenly aware can make an industry, or topple it.

For consumers, it’s never been easier to determine seafood sustainability, even as biomolecular work moves forward. Thanks to modern technology, finding out whether the seafood you are buying is sustainable is as easy as checking the Seafood Watch app on a smartphone.