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Alaska’s little white lie

23 May

The dichotomy in action.

The state of Alaska, through the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), claims that all the salmon caught by fishermen in Alaska are wild. Sustainable seafood ecolabels such as MSC and guides such as Seachoice perpetuate this claim and further claim that current fishing methods are sustainable.

Is the salmon in our supermarkets as wild as we are led to believe, or is Alaska telling a little white lie to encourage the farmed vs. wild dichotomy?

Looking around the internet at sites that protest salmon farming you are often confronted with the recommendation to “eat wild.” Where am I supposed to get this wild salmon? For most people in B.C., local salmon is not that easy to obtain, except for a month or two in summer. During the rest of the year, most of the salmon sold in large B.C. supermarkets is from Alaska. Most salmon with a Seachoice or MSC label is from Alaska. MSC recently certified B.C. pink and sockeye fisheries, and will certify chum fisheries this year,  but the Seachoice guide still lists B.C. salmon as having “some concerns” while Alaska salmon are green lights all the way.

Chum Opening at Hidden Falls Hatchery – An example of Alaska’s so called “sustainable” fisheries.

Alaska hauls in huge amounts of fish every year. How are they able to sustain such large catches year after year? “Careful management” is the reason given on the MSC website and the Seachoice website. Depending on how you look at it, “Careful management” has three parts: 1. Hatchery programs, 2. catch limits, 3. a prohibition on finfish farming.

Salmon aquaculture protesters hold Alaska in high esteem for their aquaculture policies (prohibitions) and ASMI use this to their advantage when talking about this legislation.

Alaska salmon are wild; there are no salmon farms in Alaska. In order to protect Alaska’s wild fisheries from potential problems, salmon farming was prohibited by the Alaska legislature in 1990 (Alaska Statute 16.40.210).

All Alaska salmon live in their natural habitat in the cold, clean waters of the North Pacific Ocean. Here they grow to adulthood at their natural pace, eating only their natural foods like shrimp, herring, squid, zooplankton, and other marine life. They swim free on the high seas and then return to their natal streams on their own schedule. This is why Alaska’s salmon fisheries are seasonal, rather than year-round. Alaska salmon are wild; there are no salmon farms in Alaska. In order to protect Alaska’s wild fisheries from potential problems, salmon farming was prohibited by the Alaska legislature in 1990 (Alaska Statute 16.40.210).

Here is the statute:

Alaska Statutes – Section 16.40.210.: Finfish farming prohibited.

a) A person may not grow or cultivate finfish in captivity or under positive control for commercial purposes.
(b) This section does not restrict
(1) the fishery rehabilitation, enhancement, or development activities of the department;
(2) the ability of a nonprofit corporation that holds a salmon hatchery permit under AS 16.10.400 to sell salmon returning from the natural water of the state, as authorized under AS 16.10.450, or surplus salmon eggs, as authorized under AS 16.10.420 and 16.10.450;
(3) rearing and sale of ornamental finfish for aquariums or ornamental ponds provided that the fish are not reared in or released into water of the state.
(c) In this section “ornamental finfish” means fish commonly known as “tropical fish,” “aquarium fish,” or “goldfish,” that are imported, cultured, or sold in the state customarily for viewing in aquaria or for raising in artificial systems, and not customarily used for sport fishing or human consumption purposes.

For those not fluent in legalese here is an explanation from an FAQ on the government of Alaska’s site:

Can I raise fish?
No. Alaska statute 16.40.210 prohibits finfish farming. However, Alaska does allow nonprofit ocean ranching. Finfish farming is defined as growing or cultivating finfish in captivity. Ocean ranching, on the other hand, involves releasing young fish into public waters and being available for harvest by fishermen upon their return to Alaskan waters as adults.

So, as with most things in life, it comes down to money. As long as you are not making a profit from your finfish aquaculture facility you can grow fish.

Is there finfish aquaculture in Alaska? Yes. Eggs are harvested from wild fish and grown in closed containment hatcheries. When they hatch they are fed commercial fish feed, then, when they are too big for closed containment facilities, they are put into ocean or lake net pens where they are fed pellets, leave their excrement on the ocean floor, deal with sea lice and receive vaccinations to ensure that the spread of disease is very low. However, because the fish are released into the ocean to return when they are mature, these operations are labeled “hatcheries” or “salmon enhancement programs” instead of fish farms.

In Alaska the hatcheries are run by public non-profit (PNP) organizations paid for by fishermen and the government of Alaska. Because these fish are raised for a few years then released into the ocean to live out their last year or so, any fish caught by a fisherman (regardless of where it started its life) is considered a wild fish:

5 AAC 39.222(f)(43) Policy for the management of sustainable salmon fisheries. “wild salmon stock” means a stock of salmon that originates in a specific location under natural conditions; “wild salmon stock” may include an enhanced or rehabilitated stock if its productivity is augmented by supplemental means, such as lake fertilization or rehabilitative stocking; “wild salmon stock” does not include an introduced stock, except that some introduced salmon stocks may come to be considered “wild” if the stock is self-sustaining for a long period of time.

It cannot be said that Alaska has no finfish aquaculture, only that the fish are not harvested from a site for profit. They are instead released to be caught later by fishermen, who then sell them for a profit.

The Wally Noerenberg hatchery (above) on Esther Island in Prince William Sound is one of the largest such facilities in Alaska, releasing 175 million pink and chum salmon in 2006. The fish farm pens adjacent to the hatchery are used to hold the fish prior to release.

PNPs don’t deny the term aquaculture. In fact, many of them use the word aquaculture in their corporate titles: Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association.

What is aquaculture? According to Wikipedia:

Aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, molluscs and aquatic plants.[1][2] Aquaculture involves cultivating freshwater and saltwater populations under controlled conditions, and can be contrasted with commercial fishing, which is the harvesting of wild fish.

The aquaculture of salmon is the farming and harvesting of salmon under controlled conditions. Farmed salmon can be contrasted with wild salmon captured using commercial fishing techniques. However, the concept of “wild” salmon as used by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute includes stock enhancement fish produced in hatcheries that have historically been considered ocean ranching. The percentage of the Alaska salmon harvest resulting from ocean ranching depends upon the species of salmon and location, [3] however it is all marketed as “wild Alaska salmon”.

Consumers are constantly being advised to “eat wild salmon” but how wild should the fish be? Is Alaska’s definition of any fish caught by a fisherman close enough or do we need to be more exacting in our definition and follow the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council’s definition?

“Salmon are considered “wild” if they have spent their entire life cycle in the wild and originate from parents that were also produced by natural spawning and continuously lived in the wild.”

Is it fair to market Alaskan salmon as truly wild? Many people say no:
The Truth about Alaskan Salmon  :The term ‘wild’ is false – up to 50% of ‘wild’ salmon in Alaska have been hatched in a plastic tray, fed pellets and then released from captivity to mix with real naturally wild salmon. Of course there’s plenty of salmon in Alaska – Alaska releases about two billion (yeah, billion-not to be confused with the word million) cultured salmon into Pacific waters every year. By cultured, we mean hatchery raised, pellet fed, vaccinated little salmon.  Heck, they probably have names!

Fair Questions: In its early years, the commercial fishing industry also made mistakes.  Back in the 1950s, over-fishing got so bad that the U.S. president declared Alaska a federal disaster area.  Since then, stocks have been re-built with hatchery fish. Today, about one third of Alaskan “wild” salmon is actually born in a bucket. It is sometimes said that Alaska banned salmon farming because of environmental concerns. While that may have been part of the reason, the fact is, its too cold for fish farming in most of Alaska.

blogfish: Alaska hates farmed salmon…until Alaska produces them and re-brands them “wild.” It’s a little-known fact that many of Alaska’s so-called “wild” salmon start their lives in a fish farm before being allowed to escape into the ocean. Do you think I’m kidding? Read this just released by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation:

Pink salmon in the Prince William Sound (Alaska) are a modern, man-made marvel. Hatcheries operated by the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation and the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VFDA) are responsible for virtually all of the pink salmon harvested in Prince William Sound.

A man-made marvel? These so-called “wild” Alaska salmon start their lives in fish farms before escaping into the ocean and being caught as “wild.”

Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, Alaska

Salmon ranching is not unique to Alaska. Canada (B.C.), Japan and Russia all have “wild” salmon being reared in net pens but each country has different size programs.

Salmon farming in B.C. has been vilified by a handful of very vocal people who are good at getting their opinions into the media. Alaskan salmon ranching has some opponents, or at least people who would like the industry to be more transparent, but it does not face the same scrutiny and negative publicity directed at salmon farming.

As with most issues relating to the ocean, the source of salmon for our dinner plates is not a simple choice of wild or farmed. Wild Alaskan salmon is not all truly wild and farmed salmon is not the enemy of the ocean.

Alaskan salmon is plentiful and flavourful; the same is true for farmed salmon, which is available fresh and affordable all year round. Discounting one source of salmon because of marketing campaigns instead of doing careful research means that you could be missing out on a great product.

Many people have examined and protested the issues of salmon farming in B.C. and around the world but there seems to be some silence surrounding Alaska and it’s hatchery programs.  There is some controversy about how effective hatcheries are at helping wild populations of salmon and some of the potential negative impacts of hatcheries.

Part 2: Hatchery Fish are not Wild
Part 3: Profits First!

 
3 Comments

Posted by on May 23, 2012 in Series

 

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3 responses to “Alaska’s little white lie

  1. Bob Hart

    May 24, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Well researched document. Thanks for the information. I like salmon period and never got sucked into wild vs farmed. Nuances like this is probably why-as long as aquaculture and fisheries is regulated by state or province, I am comfortable buying that product.

     
  2. Barbra & Jack Donachy

    May 25, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Thanks for publishing this, June. Upon moving to Alaska three years ago, we were surprised and dismayed to learn that claims that Alaskan salmon are “wild” are (no mere white lies here) simply untrue in many cases. And instead of “careful management” of wild stocks, what many Alaskans have in fact settled for are hatchery propagated, ranched fish. Someone whose income is derived from this system made an analogy with turkeys and opined that whether the bird is free-ranged or truly wild, on Thanksgiving Day, no one cares. Well, WE care!

     
  3. Nick

    December 20, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    I like your style of debunking, but I feel the need as a former employee of an ocean ranching organization in AK and a salmonid biologist for a tribal natural resources agency, to speak up. I gotta protest the protest against the protestors, so to speak. Your entire document hinges on a very important (misleading?) misconception that you may have about ocean ranching. Allow me to quote, “However, because the fish are released into the ocean to return when they are mature, these operations are labeled “hatcheries” or “salmon enhancement programs”. This is categorically false. The 90+% of ocean ranched salmon in AK are pink and chum salmon, these fish are reared, not raised mind you, in saltwater net pens for 2-3 months out of their 2 year life cycle, in the case of chum it is 2-3 months out of a 3-6 year cycle; a miniscule amount of time. They are not raised to MATURITY, as I’m not aware of any species of salmonid that can be considered mature as a fry, the lifestage at which these salmon are released. MOST IMPORTANTLY: All Alaskan salmon that are reared by a PNP hatchery gain 98% of their biomass in the ocean. They are not wild origin, they are not farmed, they are hatchery origin wild salmon, a very common designation for salmon that is completely reasonable to market as wild.

     
 
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