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In August, an Atlantic salmon pen owned by Cooke Aquaculture broke open near Seattle, releasing hundreds of thousands of non-native fish into Puget Sound.

Wild Pacific salmon are not truly wild — up to 90 percent of Pacific Northwest salmon come from hatcheries

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Pollution, overfishing and dams were the main causes of the decline of the once abundant wild Atlantic salmon, above. (Photo: NOAA)
Pollution, overfishing and dams were the main causes of the decline of the once abundant wild Atlantic salmon, above. (Photo: NOAA)
“Can you tell me the difference between the wild-caught and the farm-raised?” I asked, pointing to the pale pink salmon fillets in the fish case.

The man in the white apron and plastic gloves gave me a look.

“I mean ocean-raised,” I said.

‘Ocean-raised’ sounds a lot like wild and free-swimming. It isn’t. It’s farmed in a net pen in the ocean.

The well-publicized salmon fish-farming practices of twenty years ago — antibiotic use, crowded fish pens, fish feces, algae blooms — still put some people off of Maine salmon, even though salmon farming has changed as much as cell phones have over the same time period.

Farming practices are only one thing to look at when choosing seafood, since wild fish stocks are being depleted and aquaculture, done well, provides great promise of providing protein to a hungry planet while conserving wild fish.

Most fish farms are not in the U.S. We import about 90 percent of our seafood, according to federal statistics. About half of that is farmed. There is a U.S. plan to grow more seafood here at home, with a goal to increase American ocean farms by 50 percent by 2020.

Some of those farms will likely be in Maine.

The two piles of Atlantic salmon looked exactly the same behind the glass. Except one cost two dollars more a pound. There was another pile of dark red wild Pacific Sockeye salmon fillets at the top of the fish case.

“The wild is $9.99 a pound, the Atlantic salmon is $10.99 and the Maine Atlantic salmon is $12.99,” the man in the apron said, stating the obvious, since all the fish were marked.

“Why the different prices for the Atlantic salmon?”

We all know salmon is good for us — high in heart-healthy, stroke-preventing, memory-preserving Omega 3 fatty acids, high in protein, relatively low in fat compared to a lot of meat (though high in fat compared to other fish) and delicious grilled and served with a homemade lemon-dill sauce and a crisp Sancerre. The American Heart Association recommends eating salmon or other similar fish twice a week. The Mayo Clinic adds that eating salmon regularly decreases the risk of sudden death.

True, mercury is a concern — it gets concentrated in fish largely as a result of air pollution that washes into the sea. Deep cold water fish, like halibut, are particularly problematic — but the benefits from salmon far outweigh the concerns over contaminants for most people, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But which fish? What’s good for us is not necessarily good for the planet.

The deep red Sockeye salmon is probably from Alaska. Some wild salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest are being over-fished, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which does a rigorous scientific assessment of the sustainability of commercial fisheries and provides guidelines through its Seafood Watch mobile app and its website, seafoodwatch.org.

And if that is not enough to digest, there is also this: Last year, the first genetically modified fish went on the market in the U.S. and Canada. It was Atlantic salmon. And it’s not labeled. The grocer or fish monger probably doesn’t know which farmed salmon are genetically modified any more than the consumer does.

Short of getting a degree in sustainable fisheries or nutrition, what’s a hungry, health-conscious, salmon-loving, environmentally conscientious diner to do?

Give up and order pizza?

“Why does the Maine salmon cost two dollars more?” I asked the man in the apron.

“It’s organic.”

“Organic?”

It can’t be.

‘Organic’ is not just an adjective.

It means the fish has been certified by an independent third-party group as having been grown under strict methods and received the organic stamp of approval.

The European Union has organic certification for seafood, including the KRAV and Naturland stamps of approval that I had just seen a few feet from the fish counter on packages of frozen farmed salmon from Norway.

The U.S. does not. There is no organic American-grown seafood. The USDA is working on an organic seafood certification process, but they don’t have one yet.

“Do you want something or are you just looking?” he asks, giving me the old stink eye.

Clearly, I was going to have to buy some salmon.

“Sure ... where does the other Atlantic salmon come from?”

“Canada.”

He picks up a large fillet of Maine ocean-raised.

“How about just a small piece?” I hold up my hand, indicating a pack-of-cards-sized piece.

He’s not biting.

“I can’t cut it that small.”

“Okay, just give me the smallest fillet.” I point one out. It looks firm and fresh.

As he wraps up my $10 slab of salmon, I turn my attention to the Canadian farm-raised cousin.

To be clear, these farmed Atlantic salmon from Maine and Canada are very closely related to the wild Salmo salar from the Gulf of Maine.

In Maine, it is not only the same species, the wild and farmed fish share the same genome. That means they share not only the same genetic make-up, but also the same geographical genetic markers that draw salmon from a certain river back to that same river to spawn several years later.

Ocean-going salmon are super-focused fish with a strong homing instinct that is part of their biological make-up. Even if a dam is in the way, or the water has become too warm to support a new generation of fish, wild salmon will batter their way upstream to the very stream they imprinted on as a small salmon before they went to sea.

Or at least try to.

The Pacific coast, particularly Alaska, still has relatively undeveloped and undammed cold, clear streams where several species of wild Pacific salmon return to spawn and the young fish can get established before heading for the ocean.

That used to be the case for the wild Atlantic salmon on the East Coast, too, but with 55 or so million people living in the Northeast, those days have long since been paved over.

The wild version of Salmo salar was listed by the federal government as an endangered species in 2000. Eight coldwater rivers in Maine are the last hope for the wild fish. The Ducktrap River in Lincolnville is one of them. In 2009, the Endangered Species listing was strengthened to include more Maine rivers. The result is that the fish is protected and its habitat is, too.

To confuse things further, there is also Atlantic land-locked salmon, a freshwater version of Salmo salar that is geographically isolated to fresh water only — it does not travel between salt and fresh. Landlocked salmon are a major sport fish in the U.S.

So, yes, geography matters. A lot. Right down to the native stream.

All of this means there is no wild Atlantic salmon for sale in the U.S.

The Maine Atlantic salmon fillet sitting on ice in the fish case can only be farm-raised. And because it’s in an area where Salmo salar is an endangered species, these salmon are being farmed under the strictest environmental regulations.

Each fish farm is planted with Atlantic salmon that share the same genome as the wild fish that migrate from nearby freshwater streams to the salty Gulf of Maine and back.

The farms off the coast of the Machias River are only stocked with salmon whose genome matches the wild sea-going Machias River population. Same with the Pleasant River population of wild and farmed. They aren’t clones, but they are geographically and genetically very closely related.

Among the tools used to make sure this is so is a rice-sized tracking device that is injected into young fish and read every time the fish swims near a monitor, much the same way an EZ Pass is scanned as motorists speed through the toll booths on I-95.

“We can track a fish from egg to flake,” Nell Halse, the communications director for Cooke Aquaculture told me when I tracked her down at the corporate offices in New Brunswick.

Cooke started salmon farming in New Brunswick in the mid-’80s. It’s still based there, not far from the Maine border, only now it’s a multibillion-dollar global seafood company that, among other things, farms Atlantic salmon in Maine, Atlantic Canada, the Pacific Northwest, Chile, and Scotland.

When all three major salmon farms in Maine shut down over a decade ago, Cooke bought them and leased more farm sites off the Maine coast north and east (or Down East) of Bar Harbor. Cooke was just ramping up their Maine business at the same time the Endangered Species wild Atlantic salmon recovery plan was gaining momentum. Since the beginning of their move to Maine, they have worked hand in hand with wild salmon recovery efforts in the state, sharing expertise and technology.


 



When all three major salmon farms in Maine shut down over a decade ago, Cooke bought them and leased more farm sites off the Maine coast north and east (or Down East) of Bar Harbor. Cooke was just ramping up their Maine business at the same time the Endangered Species wild Atlantic salmon recovery plan was gaining momentum. Since the beginning of their move to Maine, they have worked hand in hand with wild salmon recovery efforts in the state, sharing expertise and technology.

“The Maine brand brings a premium price,” said Halse. “People like the idea of Maine fish.”

There is more to it than that.

Maine “ocean-raised” salmon are highly regulated, in part because of the Endangered designation of the wild fish. Like livestock, the fish are vaccinated, but widespread use of antibiotics, pesticides, growth enhancers and other chemical treatments for the fish is illegal in Maine. The fish are tested by the Federal Drug Administration for chemical residue and contaminants, according to Maine Sea Grant at the University of Maine.

To date, none have been found.

Elsewhere in the world, Cooke can use several chemical methods to treat sea lice, a major pest in salmon farms.

Not in Maine. Here, there are only two options: an addition to the fish food and treating the fish with a hydrogen peroxide solution “bath,” wherein the fish are pumped aboard, doused, then pumped back out into their ocean pen.

As of this year, Cooke has a third option available. They just started using a new water-only method in Canada that they developed and patented.

It sounds like a spa. The salmon are pumped aboard for a warm water bath that knocks off the lice. The lice are disposed of ashore and the cleanly bathed salmon are released back to their coldwater pen.

As to genetically modified fish?

“We don’t grow, ship, catch or sell them anywhere in the world and have no intention of doing so,” said Halse.

Put it all together and it appears that Cooke gets a premium price for the Maine brand because of the Endangered Species Act. The only farmed Atlantic salmon in the world that is certified as sustainable by Seafood Watch is Maine ocean-raised.

The fish counter man hands me my wrapped Maine Atlantic salmon and looks past to the woman standing behind me.

I wasn’t finished. If I was going to have to buy fish, I might as well cook them both at the same time and compare.

“I’d like to get some Canadian Atlantic salmon, too,” I said.

In Canada, there are more chemical options to control sea lice. The fish was slightly pinker, too. Some feeds contain a pigment to mimic the effect of pink krill — a favorite wild salmon food that results in the deep red flesh of wild salmon.

The problem of sustainability is not just derived from potential diseases that farmed fish can introduce, or impacts from how those problems are treated. It also focuses on feed. When wild fish are used to make food pellets for salmon, that can have a negative impact on the marine environment, too.

It’s all a lot to digest before you even take a bite of dinner or, frankly, make it over to the produce section to buy some lemons.

As he is wrapping my Canadian $10.99-a-pound salmon, I briefly consider the wild Pacific Sockeye salmon. It arrived frozen, was defrosted, and now is resting on ice. It looks exhausted.

Many people think buying wild is the best choice, but about a third of wild fish species are over-fished and almost half of wild fish are being caught to capacity. That’s not sustainable, according to Seafood Watch.

Only two wild salmon are a sure bet for sustainability, according to Seafood Watch: wild salmon from Alaska and from New Zealand. In terms of nutrition, it doesn’t appear to matter if the wild salmon is frozen, canned, or fresh. Given the lackluster appearance of the Sockeye on ice, I would opt for canned or frozen.

When it comes to fresh, Cobscook Bay is a lot closer than New Zealand or Alaska. Cooke Aquaculture processes fresh salmon in Machiasport that is distributed directly to some retailers in the state. The Maine ocean-raised that had just been handed to me arrived in the fish case a few hours earlier.

Cooke also has an economic impact here at home. Cooke has 240 employees in Maine and contributes about $55 million to the state economy. If the fish lice problem is sorted out by using the spa barge, they could double production, according to Halse.

Farming Atlantic salmon in Maine is one thing. Farming Atlantic salmon where they are not a native species is another.

In August, a Cooke Aquaculture ocean pen full of Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound ripped open, releasing hundreds of thousands of fish. Cooke had acquired the fish farm a year earlier and knew the pen needed to be replaced. They planned to do it after the September harvest.

According to news reports, some of the thousands of escapees fled towards rivers, heading upstream. A fisherman who belongs to the local Native American tribe, the Lummi, caught one and raised the alarm, triggering a Lummi response to catch the non-native fish invading their sacred Pacific salmon river.

One of their fears was disease. Another was that the Atlantic salmon would interbreed with the local, geographically focused fish and thus throw off their patterns of returning to native streams. Or, if they didn’t interbreed, the farmed fish would take over the spawning habitat of the native salmon.

Halse at Cooke Aquaculture said the environmental impact was minimal.

“Atlantic salmon are well suited for farming all over the world,” she said, in response to a question of why they weren’t farming native Pacific salmon. “And there’s high market demand for Atlantic salmon.”

Halse told me that scientists had caught and dissected a thousand of the escaped Atlantic salmon from Puget Sound and cut them open.

“They hadn’t eaten. They don’t know how to forage for food,” she said. “They’re used to getting fed.”

“There were no successful attempts to interbreed, either,” said Halse.

The release brought international news coverage and a lawsuit from the Wild Fish Conservancy, scrutiny of the apparent lack of oversight by state and government officials, and concern from Canadian officials who are seeing the rogue salmon off their coast. To be clear, Atlantic salmon are raised off the Pacific coast of Canada, too, though some fisheries managers are pointing to the much better record there, based on a higher level of oversight.

The escaped non-native fish has made international news and put fish-farming back in the spotlight — and not in a good way.

Government scientists are unsure what the long-term impact of the release may be, according to a story in The New Yorker by E. Tommy Kim.

For their part, the Lummi weren’t as interested in getting paid for the 50,000 or so Atlantic salmon they recaptured, as much as they were upset over what they see as disrupting the natural order of a sacred salmon river, according to Kim.

But just when you think you understand the intricacies and have measured your fish, another statistic drags itself up from the bottom.

Those wild Pacific salmon are not exactly wild. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), about 80 to 90 percent of all salmon caught in the Pacific Northwest and 40 percent of the salmon caught in Alaska are from fish raised in hatcheries to a certain size before they are released. They are not wild fish, exactly. More like ranched.

Enough of the numbers. It was time to eat. I cruised by the canned salmon. Unlike the frozen fish, there is very little apparent certification on cans, but lots of marketing claims about sustainability. Still, to be sold in the U.S., seafood has to be labeled with place of origin. I looked for ‘Alaska’ and ‘New Zealand.’ I found both. I also found ‘Thailand,’ which was curious, since salmon is a coldwater fish.

Cooked up, I served up a piece of Maine Atlantic salmon, ocean-raised, and another of Canadian Atlantic salmon, refusing to tell my guests which was which.

One diner favored the Maine fish. It was leaner, and tasty. The other favored the Canadian salmon, saying it was more delicate.

As for me? I decided two things: first, the benefits of eating local and eating sustainably raised salmon outweighed any negative implications on health, and second, there can be a point where knowing a bit too much about your dinner is an effective conversation killer.

The wine, which I knew nothing about, was delicious.