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Alaskan salmon: Product of China

The package of salmon burgers sure looks appealing. I came across one similar during my last visit to Costco.

Front and centre is a delicious-looking burger, with lots of eco-labels on it to make us feel better about what we’re buying (for more info on eco-lables visit our posting on the subject: The Gospel of Seafood). If we’re lucky the package will have an old-timey picture of a fishing boat on it somewhere, or perhaps a white-bearded grizzled smiling man in a rainslicker. Yellow, of course.

The package goes out of its way to make sure we know that it is made from “ALASKAN” salmon, even mentioning it twice with the added notation that it is also “WILD.” It’s very well presented, and inside the package is a delicious and wholesome product, no doubt about that part.

But there’s some context missing.

These salmon burgers have travelled an awfully long way.

For some of our readers, Alaska is a long way away, but we’re talking even farther.

These burgers come from fish which are so well-travelled they should carry passports.

These burgers come from fish which were caught in Alaska and frozen at sea. The fish (packaged as head-on, gutted whole fish) were then shipped to a factory in China.

There, the fish were thawed, and cut into fillets. Chinese workers pulled out the pin bones by hand from the thawed fillets. The fillets were turned into salmon burgers, then re-frozen and repackaged.

They were then put in a box and sent all the way back across the Pacific Ocean to the USA and Canada to our grocery stores.

Alaskan pink salmon is frozen at sea, and shipped to China where it is thawed. Workers in the Chinese factory pull out the pin bones by hand, fillet the fish and then convert it into value-added products to be re-frozen and shipped back to the USA.

This has been going on since 2003, when Alaskan seafood producers realized they needed to do something different to increase their profits. As discussed in our posting Profits First!, farmed salmon had flooded the market in the 1990s, driving down the price of all salmon and making it available fresh all year round. Many North Americans made salmon a more regular part of their diet because of farmed salmon. However, this meant Alaskan fishermen saw a big drop in their profits, especially after the booming 1980s, when the Alaskan fishery was worth $800 million (ex-vessel value, the price fishermen get for their fish). Fishermen saw an all-time high for ex-vessel prices in 1988 that has never been matched since.

In order to compete after struggling through the 1990s, Alaskan seafood producers decided to increase their presence in the value-added market. To keep their costs low, they decided to outsource to China. It worked so well that today most of the big-name Alaskan seafood products you find in the frozen food section were processed in China. See the list on page 15 of this document for specifics.

“Something that would cost us $1 per pound labor here, they get it done for 20 cents in China.” — Charles Bundrant, founder of Trident Seafoods, 2005.

Thousands of American processing jobs were lost. But Alaskan seafood producers survived. And American consumers generally had no idea the salmon burgers they were eating had traveled 8,000 miles to China and back, because seafood wasn’t included in Country of Origin Labelling requirements until 2009.

Today, you might see tiny print on that bag of salmon burgers which states the country of origin as USA in big, bold letters, but also includes much smaller letters declaring it “processed in China.”

It’s another one of Alaska’s little white lies about salmon.

To see more pictures of how frozen fish are packaged, shipped, thawed, processed and re-frozen to ship back to the USA, and to Europe, take a look at this presentation. The pictures begin on page 22.

“The tide for the Alaska salmon industry has turned, and the Chinese are the reason.” — Peter Redmayne, Seafood Business magazine 2006.

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Posted by on July 9, 2012 in Opinion

 

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Profits first!

This is part three in a three part series on Alaskan salmon ranching. Click link to view part 1: Alaska’s Little White Lie and part 2: Hatchery Fish Are Not Wild.

Fishermen don’t catch fish out of the goodness of their hearts. They do not gently whisper to each fish, “you’re sustainable,” as they yard them into their holds. They endure long unpleasant days at sea and hard work for the paycheque that comes at the docks. That has not changed since people started catching fish, and the history of fishing in the Pacific Ocean is no different.

And not surprisingly, the roots of the wild versus farmed salmon dichotomy are firmly and deeply financial. To understand it, we need to look at the history.

Alaska: Turning point 1972

Commercial fishing in Alaska began in earnest at the end of the 19th century. Catches grew rapidly with the expansion of cannery capacity through 1920. This intensity led to overfishing. Low stocks led President Eisenhower to declare Alaska a federal disaster area in 1953. This state of emergency, labeled a severe hardship to salmon industry, was declared for 3 consecutive years.

View of men unloading salmon from fishing boat at cannery in Bristol Bay, Alaska. 1950’s

Alaska achieved statehood in 1959. Written into the state constitution is a policy of sustainable yield which applies to the use of all replenishable resources. The new constitution, as well as a new federal interest in financially supporting commercial fishing in the north, led to a recovery in the stocks and a decade of productive harvests.

But in the 60’s, B.C. and Alaska fishermen were competing with fishing boats from the USSR, Japan and even Poland. The development of new fishing technologies and the foreign fishing fleets competing for fish in the North Pacific led to overfishing and a record low catch in 1972 in Alaska and low catches elsewhere in the world.

Since the 1970s, the situation has improved. Stricter permits, the creation of the 200 mile economic exclusion zone and the creation of private non profit hatcheries (salmon ranching) has led to the extremely high salmon catches experienced today in Alaska.

But high salmon catches do not mean people are acting to protect salmon stocks for the environment’s sake. Fisheries, like all industries, are concerned with profits. The state of emergency in the 50’s was not a call to protect the environment; protecting the jobs of fishermen was more important. The same is true for the decline in the 70’s. In Alaska, the only desire to replenish the salmon stocks using large scale hatcheries was so that there were more available to catch, can and sell.

“It [The hatchery program] was intended to supplement, not supplant, wild stock production.”

The problems with hatcheries, such as loss of genetic diversity, were a concern to some in the 70’s but the priority was jobs, not the environment.

“Governor, I’m sure the proper ‘genetics’ of salmon are important. However, I’ll wager that if our fishermen have to make a choice between salmon with the wrong ‘genetics’ or no salmon at all they’ll not worry that much about the salmon’s parents or where he came from,” state Rep. Oral Freeman of Ketchikan wrote to Gov. Jay Hammond in 1975.”

It was around this time that the largest oil field in North America was found in northern Alaska and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was built.This meant that Alaska had more government money to fund projects such as hatcheries which were government-run at first and only later were run as public non profit enterprises.

Commercial fishermen in areas with large hatchery programs have benefited greatly, however, fishermen from other areas of Alaska may have been harmed due to the depressed prices from the larger volumes of fish that are available.

“Many hatcheries are not viable without continuing state subsidies.The Alaska salmon hatchery programme is neither obviously an economic success nor obviously an economic failure.

B.C.: Aquaculture becomes attractive

From California to B.C. salmon harvests were nowhere near as high as in Alaska and hatcheries were having a limited effect. In the 1970s, inspired by the success in other parts of the world, people started looking at aquaculture to provide coastal communities with other options to replace the slowly, but surely, declining commercial fisheries.Salmonids (Rainbow trout, Salmo gairdneri, and Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar) were being cultured in seawater in Scandinavia, the British Isles and Japan as early as 1969.

“Losses of salmon stocks from damming, logging, pollution, etc., coupled with the rising demand for salmon as food, have led to extensive investment in artificial propagation to augment the natural runs. During the last 100 years, salmon hatcheries on the Pacific coast of the United States have evolved into expensive systems under constant economic scrutiny. In many areas rising capital costs and the limited fresh water will prevent much new construction or expansion of salmon hatcheries. Therefore, to expand the present levels of production we must seek new, economical methods of salmon culture.

Aquaculture on the west coast started in Washington but quickly expanded into B.C.

Alaska turns to marketing in 1981 after health scare

ASMI – Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

The desire to create a wholesome image and worldwide markets for Alaska’s seafood products spawned the creation of ASMI in 1981.

This wholesome image was needed after problems arose in 1980 and 1981 when there were reported cases of botulism infection and one death due to botulism in Belgium. The source of the spores was linked to Alaskan canned salmon. At this time canning salmon was the best way to ship the product worldwide. Flattened cans were shipped to the cannery and were reformed in a machine before the salmon was placed inside and sealed. It is believed that a defect may have been caused in the plant by the can reforming equipment. This may have caused tears in the edges of the can which allowed botulism spores to enter the can. There was a large recall of the product and there were many economic repercussions from this incident.

ASMI started its career when it launched a canned salmon recovery program. Since that time ASMI has evolved into a very powerful marketing group.

“The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is a marketing organization with the mission of increasing the economic value of the Alaska seafood resource… ASMI is playing a key role in the repositioning of Alaska’s seafood industry as a competitive market-driven food production industry. Its work to boost the value of Alaska’s seafood product portfolio is accomplished through partnerships with retail grocers, foodservice distributors, restaurant chains, foodservice operators, universities, culinary schools, and the media.”

Interestingly, the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association was established shortly afterwards in 1984.

The BC Salmon Farmers Association is a forum for communication and cooperation within the salmon farming sector, and the focal point for liaison between the industry and government. We also provide information to the public and stakeholders about salmon farming, and coordinate industry-wide activities such as a Code of Practice, research, and community events. Our members include both farmed salmon producers, and many of the companies who provide services and supplies to them.”

Here is a case-in-point in the farmed vs wild dichotomy. The BCSFA is painted with a negative brush because it represents “industry” yet the ASMI is applauded by some because it supposedly represents wild seafood interests. But the truth is, both groups represent industries and are equally concerned with the economics surrounding those industries.

90’s – Farmed Salmon makes a splash

Wild salmon dominated the market in the 80’s and experienced record high prices in 1988. At this point farmed salmon entered the market in large volumes.

Commercial salmon farming began in Norway, Washington, Scotland, and British Columbia in the 1970s, but  was not a factor in world markets until the mid-1980s, when production reached 50,000 tons. By 1990, farm production had quintupled to more than 250,000 tons. In 1999, world farm salmon production for the first time surpassed salmon fishery production.”

With the increase in production came a decrease in the market value of salmon, and an end to the “good old days” of the 1980s, when Alaskan fishermen received nearly 1.5 billion (in 2011 dollars) for their harvest.

Fresh salmon available year-round forces market changes

Once farmed salmon became a commodity available year-round to customers, people changed the way they purchase, store and eat salmon. In general, people gradually started eating more salmon year-round. This presented a challenge for fishermen, who have only a short window of time to catch, process and sell salmon.

Generalizations about effects of farmed salmon on “wild” salmon prices risk being overly simplistic and  misleading.

The most important factor driving change in world salmon prices has been rapid and sustained growth in world farmed salmon and salmon trout production. This has fundamentally transformed world salmon markets—not only because of the dramatic growth in total supply, but also because of the changes that it has represented in the kinds of salmon products which are available, the timing of production, market quality standards and organization of the industry.”

Some wild salmon products sell for lower prices than farmed salmon, while others command price premiums.

Many other factors besides farmed salmon have also affected wild salmon prices. These include:
• Increasing concentration in the retail and food service industries
• Increased world pink and chum salmon harvests
• Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of Russian wild salmon as a significant competitor to North American wild salmon in the Japanese frozen market and world canned salmon and salmon roe markets
• Declining consumer demand for canned salmon
• The end of the Japanese “bubble” economy of the 1980s and a stubborn economic recession in Japan, historically the most valuable market for North American fresh and frozen wild salmon.”

“They [countries that support aquaculture] recognized significant market growth potential and that wild salmon fisheries could not adequately supply the market with uniform fresh salmon of consistently high quality year round. As a result, farmed salmon created a market in the United States and Europe that wild salmon could not supply.

As a fresh product, farmed salmon received a price premium compared to most frozen wild salmon.”

Turn of the new century

Alaska, where the economy is crucially dependent on fisheries, struggled to adapt to new market realities.

Salmon price changes have also severely impacted incomes in Alaska… At current levels of production, each 10 cent per pound decline in salmon prices translates to $66 million in lost income for Alaskan fishermen.”

2002 was a particularly bad year for the market price of salmon.

“Back in 2002, the government of Alaska requested that the BC government keep the moratorium on fish farms until the safety of Alaska’s own wild salmon stocks can be guaranteed. The request reads as follows:

FURTHER RESOLVED that the Alaska State Legislature requests the United States Department of State, while negotiating trade agreements with Canada and in the arena of the Pacific Salmon Commission negotiations on the Pacific Salmon Treaty, to consider the numerous negative effects that farmed salmon from British Columbia have on the economy, environment, and fishing industry of Alaska.”

Notice that “economy” comes before “environment” in this official request. Profits are important for any industry, whether that be wild salmon fisheries or salmon aquaculture. In both cases ignoring the environmental impacts would be detrimental to their products and their bottom lines. The truth is that “wild” salmon coming from “pristine” Alaskan waters are part of a billion dollar a year industry that has a vested interest in the market as much as any multinational corporation.

Large profit losses were felt in Alaska due to the decline in the value of salmon. This directly affected coastal communities and those employed in the fishing industry. It is understandable that there are some bad feelings from Alaska toward salmon farming. In 2002 one angry fisherman wrote an email to the ASMI stating his grievances. The email he wrote is not available but the response letter from the ASMI Director Ray Riutta does comment on the question of “Why ASMI Doesn’t Bash Farmed Fish?”:

“As to attacking farm salmon directly, there is more to the issue than
you may realize.  And ASMI does a lot more behind the scenes then you
are probably aware of.  Why don’t we come out and conduct a frontal
assault on farmed?  Well, it is pretty simple.  Two reasons: the first
is the most practical and it is that most of the large retail food
chains that sell our salmon also sell farmed salmon. It would be nice if
all they sold was our fish, but that is not the way it is so we have to
deal with the reality of the market place. In order for them to sell
“fresh” salmon fillets year round they have little choice.  In many
cases farmed is by far the larger of the two product lines they sell in
terms of volume and profit margin.  They do not expect their wholesaler
(that’s us) to be openly attacking other products they sell.  If we do
we face loosing the accounts which are worth literally millions of
dollars to our industry and would further depress the already low price
you receive for you fish.

The second is a fundamental marketing rule and that is direct attack ads
by people with similar products generally do not work.  They only
confuse the public and end up with both sides loosing market share.
They are seen as self-serving and lack credibility with the general
public.  In our case, it is far more credible to leave the attack to
third parties, such as environmental groups and newspaper columnists,
then it is for us to come out and do it ourselves. We can then leverage
that information with a marketing campaign pointing out the positive
aspects of our fish using the bad things about farmed fish as our points
of difference.  And that is exactly what we are doing.  In addition, we
are helping the people that sell our products or use them in restaurants
understand the differences in wild and farmed fish, which includes
showing them the material that is being generated by the
environmentalists and the media. We also have been working with a number
of environmental groups and media for several years now pointing out the
purity and sustainability of our salmon, which helps them make their
points about the difference in wild verses farmed fish.

We do intend to be aggressive in taking advantage of the current trend
against farmed and in favor of wild salmon at every opportunity, but we
are going to do it in a positive way.  By that I mean we will emphasize
the many good things (purity, health benefits, environmentally friendly,
sustainable runs, small family businesses) about our fish and leave it
to others to emphasize the bad things about farmed fish.  This is a
position that is strongly endorsed by our board, half of whom are
harvesters, like you, and is constantly reviewed to be sure it is the
best way to conduct our business.”

Most of the “bad things ” about farmed fish have been given wide attention through exaggerations and lies told by environmentalists (often through the media) included levels of PCB’s in farmed salmon, sea lice issues, and most recently disease issues.

And Alaskan seafood companies have repeated these claims verbatim, bashing farmed salmon in their promotional material. Because if environmentalists say it, it must be true, right?

Alaskan seafood companies have also been aggressive in passing this information along to media and other sources, “working behind the scenes” to ensure farmed salmon is associated with “bad things” in people’s minds.

For an example, take a look at the comprehensive study of the money trail and the lies behind the 2004 Hites study about PCBs. Read Research on Contaminants in Farmed Salmon:Science or Marketing? by Vivian Krause. For papers regarding sea lice and other issues related to salmon farming visit the BC Salmon Farmers Association. For an in depth look at the recent salmon disease stories being told by environmentalists visit Salmon Farm Science.

Everybody loses

What marketers bashing farmed salmon need to remember is that when farmed salmon are portrayed negatively in the media the value of all salmon diminishes.

“The salmon industry was hurt by negative publicity following publication in the scientific press earlier this year of studies alleging certain health risks associated with farmed salmon. This general perception affected both our retail and food service salmon sales, even though the majority of salmon sold by High Liner is wild pacific salmon.”

It is important to realize that the competition is not fresh Alaskan vs. fresh farmed salmon. It is frozen and canned versus fresh.

Alaskan salmon is still mostly sold canned or frozen or in some other value-added product such as salmon burgers. Fresh farmed salmon is a great product for restaurants and supermarkets. Niche markets for wild salmon and frozen and value-added markets (where wild salmon can compete on lower cost production) is where Alaska will profit the most in the growing diversified market place.

ASMI has been very successful promoting their frozen product with the “Cook It Frozen!” campaign. Marketing such as this and value added products are how Alaska can continue to profit from wild salmon harvests instead of encouraging a negative campaign through environmental groups.

Like many industries, in order to save money and increase profits, Alaskan salmon is being shipped to China to be processed before being returned to the US and sold as a “made in the USA” product. For a closer look at this topic see our post Alaskan salmon: Product of China.

The Future: SUV of the seafood aisle

An excerpt from “Why farm salmon outcompete fishery salmon” written by academics from Stanford University in California makes an interesting point about the place of wild (fishery) salmon in the market.

“Just as US automakers may never be able to outcompete Japanese manufacturers in the small car sector, fishery salmon will probably never be able to outcompete farm salmon on consistency and availability. However, fishery salmon should be able to thrive as the sport utility vehicle of the seafood aisle: a different, though more expensive and slightly less reliable product.

In the document Alaska Seafood Market Changes and Challenges Gunnar Knapp makes some interesting points about the implications aquaculture have for wild seafood markets and he has some great advice about how the two industries should work together.

Aquaculture has far-reaching implications for wild seafood markets.
• Aquaculture competes with wild production
– Aquaculture expands supply which tends to lower prices
– Aquaculture creates new standards for quality, consistency and availability
• Aquaculture expands demand for fish
– Aquaculture makes fish more widely available
– Aquaculture introduces consumers to fish species
– Aquaculture creates new products
– Aquaculture invests in marketing
– By expanding total demand, aquaculture can expand demand for wild fish as
a “natural” alternative to farmed fish—if wild fish is marketed effectively.
• Aquaculture changes seafood market dynamics
– As wild production becomes a smaller part of total supply, prices don’t
increase as much when wild catches fall
– Aquaculture creates price cycles similar to those for meat and poultry
– Over time, fish prices trend downwards as farming costs fall allowing farmed
production to expand.
– Large scale aquaculture production creates new distribution channels for
seafood
– Aquaculture changes the balance of economic and political power in the
seafood Industry

“Part of the opportunity to increase demand for Alaska salmon is to get more consumers to eat SALMON.
• The more salmon consumers there are, the more wild salmon consumers there will be.
• We should be seriously considering working together with salmon farmers for generic promotion of all salmon.”

Sadly this advice was given in 2003 and to date has not been followed. These two industries are spread between many different countries; it is unlikely that we can expect cooperation in the future.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2012 in Opinion, Series

 

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Going Green Good for Pattison’s Pocket Book

A common protest against salmon farms is that they are owned by multinational corporations. It seems that to these protesters big industry = bad. But when a large industry matches your world view it is ok and it doesn’t matter how much money they make or how many nations they are involved in because they agree with your beliefs. Two examples of this: the “wild” Alaskan fishery (marketing coordinated by ASMI) and Jim Pattison Group (which owns companies across Canada and the US). I have talked at length about the billion dollar Alaskan industry but what is going on with Jim Pattison Group (JPG)?

June 28, 2012: Overwaitea Food Group, which is owned by JPG,  achieved a “green” ranking in Greenpeace‘s seafood sustainability report by discontinuing “red-listed” items such as net-pen farmed salmon. Carmen Churcott, vice-president, OFG, stated in the OFG press release: “At the end of the day, we want people to feel confident that we’re doing everything we can to provide seafood today that also ensures that seafood will be available for future generations.”

That sounds like a nice sentiment. A question arises though… where will that seafood come from? They point out that they are sourcing land-raised coho and are able to sell it at all their stores. That is great for fresh salmon but what about frozen and canned salmon? They will sell Canfisco products of course!

In 1984 JPG acquired the Canadian Fishing Company which is also known as Gold Seal.

Is the elimination of net-pen raised salmon a choice for the sustainability of the environment or the sustainability of a multinational corporation who has a huge stake in the diminishing returns of the Alaskan “wild” fishery?

Not all grocery stores are jumping on the Greenpeace band wagon. Sobeys disagrees with Greenpeace. David Smith, Sobeys’ vice-president of sustainability, has said  “We don’t follow the herd.” Sobeys and its parent company Empire Company do not have any direct links to seafood production and seem to be able to make a more informed decision than the JPG.

Thankfully not all supermarkets give in to pressure from protest groups or take the easy way out of competition between seafood products. There are many stores across Canada that offer Canadians the ability to choose what they think is best for their families.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2012 in News, Opinion

 

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Hatchery fish are not wild

This is part two in a three part series on Alaskan salmon ranching. Click link to view part 1: Alaska’s Little White Lie.

Salmon aquaculture in Alaska can be described multiple ways: salmon ranching, salmon enhancement and salmon hatcheries. Because they don’t grow the fish to full size for market and because of the stigma they and others have attached to salmon farming, Alaska works hard to distance itself from any association with the aquaculture industry by claiming that 100% of its fish is wild.

The Pacific Ocean, like all the other oceans in the world, has been heavily fished for centuries. In the past century, all the world’s oceans have been fished nearly to the limit thanks to the advent of highly industrialized fisheries. In the ‘70s this was clearly felt by both the U.S. and Canada and both countries expanded their hatchery programs to make up for some of the lost fish.

Over time the two countries went in different directions. Alaska focused on industrial scale hatcheries to supplement the commercial fishing industry. B.C. focused on a mix of smaller, government funded, hatcheries to enhance specific wild stocks and to supplement commercial fisheries, and also allowed private salmon farming companies.

Hatcheries have played an important role in conservation. They have contributed to the conservation of salmon populations and also to the conservation and restoration of watersheds crucial for salmon habitat.  They have also contributed to the increase in knowledge about the salmon life cycle and how human impact on the land affects salmon populations. Without hatcheries, our wild salmon would be in a far worse state.

However they were not enough to stop the general decline in wild salmon productivity which was inevitable once we started catching up to 80 per cent of them, every year.

That is why people started trying to farm salmon instead of catch them.

As salmon from salmon farms started making waves in the market, Alaska started its campaign against B.C. farmed salmon. The history of hatcheries is closely tied to economics. However, for this article I am focusing on the risks and benefits of hatchery production. I will take a closer look at the money trail behind hatcheries and the wild vs. farmed debate another time.

Here is an overview of the history of hatcheries:

“The artificial propagation of fish has been around a very long time, but the use of hatcheries to increase the abundance of salmon on a large scale is relatively new, within the last 160 years. Modern hatchery programs for salmon have their roots in a discovery made by two French fishermen in 1841. The fishermen, Messieurs Gehin and Remy, observed salmon spawning for several nights, then developed a procedure for stripping eggs from female salmon and fertilizing them. They also devised apparatus for incubating and hatching the eggs. In the late 19th century, the belief that humans should control the reproduction of economically important fishes and, that in doing so they would increase the abundance of salmon had strong intuitive appeal. The basis for that belief was found in agriculture.

Early proponents of artificial propagation of fishes compared hatcheries to farms. The comparison with farms gave hatcheries instant success by analogy. Agriculture had increased the production of important human foods so it was natural to conclude that fish farms (hatcheries) would increase the production of fishes. This success through association with agriculture was unfortunate because it removed the incentive to actually determine the performance of hatcheries. Thirty-five years after the two French fishermen made their discovery, hatcheries were propagating Pacific salmon and the U. S. Fish Commission was proclaiming that artificial propagation would make salmon so abundant that there would be no need to regulate harvest or protect habitat. Such hyperbole had no basis in science, but those who wanted to maintain high harvest rates or alter the habitat in salmon rivers accepted it as fact.

As a consequence, hatcheries were constructed and used as a substitute for habitat protection and harvest regulation. It is now generally recognized that accepting hatcheries in lieu of habitat and rational harvest was not an effective tradeoff. Artificial propagation was not able to maintain the abundance of salmon. However, as wild populations declined with the loss of habitat and under the pressure of excessive harvest, the small number of adults that hatcheries were able to produce became a larger and larger part of the total run. Salmon of hatchery origin are now the dominant type of fish in many watersheds [in the Pacific Northwest].

…Hatcheries are here to stay. Whether or not the original goal of hatcheries was valid, we did trade habitat for artificial propagation and in many rivers that habitat will not be restored to even a fraction of its original productivity. In many of those systems, natural salmon production will need to be augmented with hatcheries.”

Risks

Sockeye salmon at a Columbia River hatchery

For years the debate over hatcheries has raged. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Those who are cautious about hatcheries generally agree about the risks involved.

In May 2012 the Wild Salmon Center’s program State of the Salmon: Knowledge across Borders uploaded a collection of more than 20 studies by leading university scientists and government fishery researchers in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Russia and Japan. The collective evidence from these studies suggests that salmon raised in man-made hatcheries can harm wild salmon through competition for food and habitat. The research volume was published in the May issue of Environmental Biology of Fishes.

From their press release:

“The genetic effects of mixing hatchery fish with wild population have been well-documented,” says journal editor David Noakes from Oregon State University. “But until now the ecological effects were largely hypothetical. Now we know the problems are real and warrant more attention from fisheries managers.”

…says Pete Rand, “…What we’re seeing here in example after example is growing scientific evidence that hatchery fish can actually edge out wild populations.”

Losing wild fish would mean losing the genetic diversity that has allowed salmon to survive for centuries. Unlike hatchery fish, wild salmon population have a range of highly specialized adaptation to the natural environment. These adaptations not only help them return to their home streams to spawn, but also increase their ability to withstand environmental changes like increase in ocean temperature and extreme variations in stream flows. Hatchery fish, as the name implies, are hatched from eggs fertilized in a controlled environment and raised in captivity until they are big enough to release into the natural environment. They lack the genetic diversity of wild fish that provides insurance against fisheries collapse.

“…These studies suggest that even more caution is needed to make sure hatchery programs keep wild salmon safe, and don’t inadvertently hurt the long term potential of salmon runs,” says Rand.

… The increasing global demand for salmon has resulted in calls to further expand hatchery production, especially in Russia and Alaska. In a 2010 open letter to Alaska hatcheries, seafood processors proposed increasing pink salmon hatchery returns by 25%-115% over the next five years. Similarly, Russian hatchery managers stated in 2010 that Russia is planning to build 23 new hatcheries that would increase the country’s hatchery production by 66% or 680 million fish.

…says Rand “…The prospect of additional increase in hatchery production is worrisome for the long-term survival of wild salmon.”

The press release also notes that one of the new studies indicates that chum salmon from Asian hatcheries,  mostly from Japan, have caused declines in wild chum salmon populations in Alaska. Genetic data is showing that the fish share the same feeding ground in the open waters of the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean. The abundance of adult chum salmon from hatcheries is now much greater than wild chum salmon so the authors are not surprised to see evidence of completion in the North Pacific.

It is also noted that competition will get tougher as ocean conditions change. The current patterns are able to support large populations of salmon but as these patterns shift, food availability for salmon could drop making it even harder for wild salmon populations to survive.

These recent findings echo older sources. Other risks are also worth noting:

Oregon business council:

Catastrophic Loss. Because hatcheries raise fish in large numbers that are restricted to relatively small space they are vulnerable to catastrophic losses of biological (e.g. disease) or mechanical (e.g. pump failure) origin.

Loss of Diversity. To reduce cost hatcheries, like factories, employ economies of scale. This leads to reliance on a few large stocks instead of a diversity of stocks of various sizes. This is equivalent to “placing all our eggs in one basket” and increases the risk of major disruptions in production during adverse environmental conditions.

Cost. The economic cost of replacing most or all natural salmon production with hatcheries would be prohibitive.

Loss of Genetic Diversity. In agriculture, where we do have a reliance on artificial production of crops, we maintain at great expense seed banks that attempt to collect and preserve the genetic diversity of important food crops. Those seed banks have proven to be absolutely necessary to maintain production. There is no equivalent seed banks for salmon genetic diversity except in the thousands of populations that still inhabit rivers across the landscape. Heavy reliance on hatcheries could erode the genetic diversity of salmon and threaten their long term productivity.

Evaluating Alaska’s Ocean-Ranching Salmon Hatcheries:

Hatchery fish are different than wild fish:

“Given the controlled environmental conditions in a hatchery, it is not surprising that fish reared under these conditions are markedly different than their wild counterparts in behavior, morphology, survival, and reproductive ability.

…Many studies have indicated that the hatchery-rearing environment can influence the behavior of salmon. Levels of aggression and antagonistic behavior appear to differ between domesticated and wild populations.

…Hatchery strains are typically more surface oriented than are wild fish. Most of the innate surface orientation of hatchery fish is likely an adaptive response to the practice of introducing food at the surface of the water (Flagg et al. 2000).

…Either inadvertently or intentionally, hatcheries often develop strains that spawn at different times than their ancestral stock. The most common practice is to select for early run timing by spawning a disproportionate higher percentage of the early returning fish. An advantage of a temporal separation from a management perspective is to separate stocks in a fishery and minimize interbreeding. A disadvantage is that if interbreeding does take place, the progeny of domestic strains and wild-domestic crosses may emerge prior to peak abundance of natural aquatic food sources and thus suffer higher mortality rates.

…Competition for resources between hatchery and wild salmon stocks has become a significant concern.

…Based on a review of the literature and discussions with biologists, geneticists, and fishery managers, it is widely believed that extensive ocean ranching may pose a threat to the ocean’s carrying capacity and the protection of salmon biodiversity.”

Do Salmon Hatchery ‘Sources’ Lead to In-River ‘Sinks’ in Conservation?:

“The cross breeding of wild and hatchery fish may diminish fitness in the wild. This creates a challenge in managing the stocks – the hatchery may be functioning as a critical conservation tool that itself may erode the natural population.”

The Great Salmon Run:

“Some critics question whether the Alaska salmon hatchery program may adversely affect Alaska’s natural wild salmon runs. One concern relates to the potential for competition for food between hatchery salmon and natural wild salmon, both for juvenile fish in near shore waters as well as in the open ocean. Another set of issues relate to the management of commercial fisheries in which fishermen are catching mixed stocks of hatchery and natural wild salmon. If large returns of hatchery fish are mixed with depleted runs of natural wild fish, there is the likelihood for over-harvests of natural wild fish runs. Finally, an issue which may grow in importance over time is the effect of Alaska’s salmon hatchery program on the “wild” image of Alaska salmon fisheries.

…In British Columbia, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans launched a Salmonid Enhancement Program (SEP) in 1977… A 2000 review concluded that it was difficult to say whether the SEP had produced any net gain of salmon, and that there was evidence to suggest that it had contributed to a net loss of wild salmon abundance, partly because of competition of juvenile hatchery fish with wild juvenile fish, and partly because of unsustainably high harvest rates on co-migrating wild salmon (Pacific Fisheries Research Council 2000).

…Overall, hatcheries add another dimension of complexity and ambiguity to the environmental, economic and social issues related to wild and farmed salmon. Once thought of as a way to restore and enhance natural wild salmon runs, hatchery salmon are now recognized as potentially harmful to natural wild salmon runs because of genetic interactions and competition for food and habitat in freshwater and marine environments. Particularly in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, there is an active debate among scientists, commercial fishermen and the public as to the appropriate role and scale of salmon hatcheries.”

Wild Salmon center:

  • Hatchery-bred salmon are inefficient in foraging, and more aggressive, yet they tend to congregate during migration, and approach (rather than flee) potential predators;
  • Hatchery-bred salmon have a higher number of eggs when reproducing, yet their breeding success is lower;
  • Hatchery-bred salmon are less variable in shape and size when juveniles, and duller in color;
  • Hatchery-bred salmon have higher survival rates during the egg-smolt stages, but lower survival from smolting to adulthood.

“On the basis of these distinctions, the Wild Salmon Center is concerned about the future genetic interactions between hatchery and wild salmon populations; especially the risk that the fitness of wild salmon populations will be degraded by long-term interbreeding between these populations.”

Benefits

Despite the risks involved in hatcheries there are benefits such as the restoration of lost populations. In Washington streams where the fish returns were extremely low (0-12 fish returning) a brood program was started in 1977. In 1999 it saw returns of 800 adults[1]. In B.C., on the Sunshine Coast, Chapman Creek had a record of 40-80 Coho returning before enhancement. In 1999 between 1500-2000 Coho returned to Chapman Creek; this provided an economic benefit to the Sunshine Coast through the recreational fishery[2].

School kids on a hatchery tour at Quatse River Hatchery near Port Hardy B.C.

Another benefit to hatcheries is their educational value. Elementary schools can visit hatcheries to learn about conservation and the salmon life cycle. Some schools even have small hatchery programs where eggs are brought to the school for class to study and are hatched in an aquarium for all the school to see. Those fish are then released (under guidance) into local streams or rivers.

Hatcheries also bring attention to habitat degradation and the importance of enhancement and restoration of spawning grounds. If there had been no major enhancement projects, other uses of water and watersheds would have had a much higher priority. There would have been a lower public awareness of habitat needs and without hatcheries there would have been a greater acceptance of the “writing off” of stocks. Awareness brought about by a focus on hatcheries allowed for governments to restrict development along rivers in order to protect fish. Development would have taken over the watersheds in the urban and developed areas in Washington  and B.C., such as the Georgia Basin area and the Fraser River, had the hatchery programs not been started.[3]

Hatchery salmon are not wild

Alaska has spent a lot of time and money promoting “wild” Alaskan salmon. In a brochure on the Alaskan government’s website the government defends the practices of their hatcheries by stating: “Alaska’s current hatchery program has enhanced and supplemented wild stock production for over 30 years, without detecting adverse impacts on wild salmon, which are at record levels of production.”

This statement assumes that hatchery fish are wild; wild salmon are at record levels of production; therefore hatchery programs have no adverse impacts on wild salmon.

But assuming hatchery fish are wild is a big mistake.

While the paper Evaluating Alaska’s Ocean-Ranching Salmon Hatcheries states many of the risks with hatcheries, it does point out that:

“It may be easy to identify risks that hatcheries pose for natural populations; it is not so easy to predict whether deleterious effects have occurred or, if they have, how serious the consequences will be.

Not all hatchery fish are identified by fin clipping because it would be too time-consuming and expensive. This makes it very difficult to observe a returning population and truly understand the effects hatchery fish have had on the wild population. We just don’t know which returning fish are from a hatchery, and which are truly wild. Hatchery fish are not monitored after they leave the river systems so it is also hard to know exactly what interactions and competition happen in the ocean.

Some of the studies published in the May edition of Environmental Biology of Fishes would agree to some extent that impacts are not easy to see but they are cautious because genetic changes have been proven and the evidence is mounting to support the other risk factors.

From the Heard 2011 abstract:

“Although some interactions between hatchery salmon and wild salmon are unavoidable including increasing concerns over straying of hatchery fish into wild salmon streams, obvious adverse impacts from hatcheries on production of wild salmon populations in this region are not readily evident.”

From the Grant 2011 abstract:

“However, virtually nothing is known about the effects of hatchery fish on wild populations in Alaska.

… Possible effects of these interactions can be inferred from studies of salmonids in other areas, from studies of other animals, and from theory. Numerous studies show a complex relationship between the genetic architecture of a population and its environment.

… Studies of salmonids in other areas show that hatchery practices can lead to the loss of genetic diversity, to shifts in adult run timing and earlier maturity, to increases in parasite load, to increases in straying, to altered levels of boldness and dominance, to shifts in juvenile out-migration timing, and to changes in growth. Controlled experiments across generations show, and theory predicts, that the loss of adaptive fitness in hatchery salmon, relative to fitness in wild salmon, can occur on a remarkably short time scale.”

From the Environmental Biology of Fishes introduction:

“Unintended effects of hatcheries are much more difficult and costly to assess than evaluating the benefits of hatchery production to provide harvest opportunities.”

Science is never “done”

It is apparent that more study needs to be done with regard to the direct effect hatchery salmon have on wild populations. However the risks that have been stated are real and are worth considering when looking at the fitness of wild populations.

To sum up

All human actions impact the environment, including hatcheries. Hatchery programs have important benefits, but they also carry risks of impacting truly wild stocks. Calling hatchery fish wild is dishonest and misleading, and their risks as well as benefits need to be considered, not cloaked in marketing and conveniently ignored.

The Great Salmon Run summarizes the issue of hatchery vs. wild vs. farmed salmon quite well:

Recognize that the choices are not between wild and farmed salmon. It is essential to move away from the simplistic perspective that policy makers and consumers face a choice between wild salmon and farmed salmon. Salmon farming is a major world industry which is here to stay. Wild salmon is incapable of supplying the much larger domestic and world salmon market which has been created by farmed salmon. Natural wild salmon, hatchery salmon, and salmon farming all offer potential economic opportunities and benefits to consumers. All also have inherent risks. The real issues are how to take responsible advantage of the potential economic opportunities and benefits to consumers from both wild and farmed salmon.”


[1] http://www.sfu.ca/cstudies/science/resources/1273782663.pdf An Overview of Washington Hatcheries. Lee Blankenship, Hatchery Review Group, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

[2] http://www.sfu.ca/cstudies/science/resources/1273782663.pdf A Brief History of Chapman Creek Hatchery: Bob Anstead, Chapman Creek Hatchery, Sunshine Coast Salmonid Enhancement Society

[3] http://www.sfu.ca/cstudies/science/resources/1273782663.pdf Salmonid Enhancement Program (SEP) in British Columbia: Al Wood, Allen Wood Consulting

Part 3: Profits First!

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2012 in Opinion, Series

 

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Alaska’s little white lie

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!

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in Series

 

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Hypocrites

Monterey Bay Aquarium, creators of the Seafood Watch program are proving themselves to be hypocrites. This is the program that has attempted to simplify how consumers choose seafood that doesn’t harm the environment. The problem is that the aquarium its self buys and serves red listed seafood to the aquarium residents. They also have an “open” system where the waste water from the aquarium is flushed, unfiltered, into the Monterey Bay. Diseases and medications get washed out to sea with all the other effluence.

Instead of finding ways to clean up their act they are asking for an exemption to the Ocean Plan prohibition against waste discharge.

The Seafood Watch program is the basis for most of the seafood buying guides in North America. If this is how they treat their local marine environment this is one more reason to be critical about their seafood guide.

For a better understanding about this hypocrisy read the full story on Alaska salmon’s Blog

Monterey Bay Aquarium applying for waste impact exception

To learn more about seafood guides read our previous posting The Gospel of Seafood.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on April 23, 2012 in News, Opinion

 

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The Gospel of Seafood

A great looking seafood display from a store in Mississippi.

Seafood shoppers have a lot of information to consider these days when making healthy food choices.

I put my money where my mouth is. If you like healthy, fresh, available year round, great tasting salmon, try Atlantic.

But opponents of fish farming, like the David Suzuki Foundation, want to you use your wallets to shun farmed fish.

Learn more about the seafood you like to eat. Get familiar with the online sustainable seafood guides, provided by SeaChoice or Seafood Watch to help inform your choices. Your actions in the marketplace can help realize urgently needed fisheries-policy reforms to end overfishing and habitat-damaging practices.

But what is the alternative? If you want salmon on the table, and you are told not to buy farmed, then you need to buy wild. Save the wild salmon by eating them. This does not make a lot of sense to me, but, if you are going to buy wild, what are your options for putting fish on your table?

Canned fish comes from wild caught sources. Some frozen prepared fish (fish sticks etc.) come from wild sources, but fish like tilapia are farmed. Trout, Atlantic salmon and tilapia found in the fresh seafood section are farmed but most of the rest is wild. Most of the pacific salmon available in the grocery stores in Canada are caught in Alaska. Is farmed fish “bad?” Is Alaskan salmon really wild? How do we know for sure what the best choices are for the oceans?

We all know that we should care for our oceans and that overfishing has caused many problems in the last few centuries (whale hunting and cod fishing immediately spring to mind). How do we choose which fish we should buy? There are many different labeling systems currently in use across the world. Marine Stewardship Council or MSC is one of the most global and well known certifications. Also, there are at least 4 different ones across North America. So we just look for a sticker that implies a “sustainable” fish source, buy it and feel good about what we are putting on our plate for dinner, right?

Labels like gospels

People promoting these labels expect us to accept them like gospel truth.

But how much faith can we put into these labels? Are they reliable? Consistent? Do they have motivations that go beyond the health of our oceans?

MSC is based in London, England and only certifies fisheries, not farms. They have offices worldwide and seem to have a very thorough process.

Eco-labeling programs evaluate the production process of a fishery with regard to established environmental standards set by an independent third party. If the process meets these standards, the producer or marketer may buy a license to use a specific eco-label in marketing efforts. In effect, the label conveys to the consumer information concerning a product’s environmental impact. The consumer is then able to choose among product alternatives, eco-labeled and not. In theory, if the consumer perceives benefits from seafood from sustainable fisheries, then the consumer will pay a premium for that product, creating a marketbased incentive for the fishery to become and remain certified, and for other fisheries to do the same. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) was created in 1996 through a cooperative effort of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Unilever, a multi-national corporation. The goal of the partnership was to provide a standardized mechanism for certifying and labeling sustainable seafood products from wild fisheries worldwide, thereby providing a market-based incentive to maintain sustainable fish stocks. The MSC has been independent from WWF and Unilever for several years.

However, Alaska fisheries recently announced they were no longer going to seek MSC certification. If one of the largest salmon fisheries in the world doesn’t want to be MSC certified what does that say?

And there are other critics:

“Does the MSC label provide sufficient information for the consumer to make a wise choice?  Typically it does not.  There are 5 choices of text that MSC provides to accompany their blue eco-label.  None of these contain any information on the geographic stock location of the fishery, the scientific name of the species, or the fishing gear used.  There is also nothing to distinguish fisheries that have conditional sustainability certification from those that meet all the MSC criteria.  Consumers must take the MSC eco-label on faith or visit the MSC website and do their own research to determine these important details. (1)

“Sustainable fish customers ‘duped’ by Marine Stewardship Council

Certification granted to controversial fisheries has prompted severe criticism of the sustainable fisheries organisation

Richard Page, a Greenpeace oceans campaigner, said decisions to certify some fisheries “seriously undermine” the MSC’s credibility. “I will go as far as to say consumers are being duped. They think they are buying fish that are sustainable and can eat them with a clean conscience.”

… Chris Pincetich, a marine biologist with the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said: “The MSC has rushed to accept applications from hundreds of fisheries around the globe in order to grow their business and network. Many of those are actually viewed by scientists as unsustainable. They should really take a closer look before they even engage with those fisheries.” (2)

“Greenpeace is of the opinion that no fully credible certification system for sustainable seafood currently exists. Although Greenpeace acknowledges the MSC’s professional operation and its transparency and stakeholder involvement at all levels, Greenpeace does not currently endorse the MSC. (3)

Greenpeace is vehemently against certain fisheries around the world but they don’t have much to say about salmon fishing. They are against fishing in BC because of the damage they claim the logging industry has caused to the “great bear rain forest.”

However, they do mention fishing in the North Pacific Ocean and the problems associated with it:

The Bering Sea seems so remote for most of us. However, the waters between Alaska and Russia are a rich marine environment home to a diverse array of wildlife.

Polar bears, seals, sea lions, walruses, whales and millions of seabirds make their home here. It is also one of the most productive fishing spots in the world. In fact, more than half the fish we catch in the United States comes from Alaska, including salmon, pollock, king crab, and Pacific cod.

But, the fragile ecosystem cannot sustain this level of commercial fishing without paying a price. Factory fishing ships are taking too many fish out of the sea-and leaving too little left for the animals whose lives depend on it.

They are also bulldozing the ocean’s seafloor, barely leaving a coral or sponge left standing. Even native communities are feeling the negative impacts of commercial factory fishing on their livelihood and traditions.

Greenpeace states that there is no fully credible certification system for sustainable seafood; however, they do have a campaign that encourages people to shop at stores that agree with Greenpeace philosophies about sustainable seafood.

Our oceans are in peril. Despite the sustainable seafood movement gaining steam globally, the devastation wrought by global industrialized fishing continues on a massive scale. In spite of overwhelming evidence and strong warnings from the scientific community, we continue to plunder our seas.

To learn more about how supermarkets play a role in ocean conservation, Greenpeace USA has released its fifth Carting Away the Oceans (CATO) report, our periodic snapshot of seafood sustainability in the US grocery sector.

In this guide Greenpeace has granted their seal of approval to Safeway and Whole Foods for working with third-party environmental groups.

“Companies like Safeway and Whole Foods are joining forces with independent third-party environmental groups like FishWise and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in order to improve their operations and to better promote sustainable seafood to their customers.”

Green peace also applauds Target, for removing farmed salmon from their stores and selling wild Alaskan instead and gives the company a good rating because it is consulting with certification programs:

Target is a member of the Food Marketing Institute’s Sustainability Task Force and its subsidiary, Seafood Working Group. In addition to working with industry groups that represent producers, processors, and conservation organizations, Target also consults with seafood scientists on its seafood sustainability and supports certification groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA). Information from the company suggests that new partnership endeavors are underway.

It is interesting that Greenpeace holds such a double standard. They don’t like certifications yet promote their own. And as we see here in their latest report that Greenpeace is giving a thumbs up to Target for working with MSC, Fish Wise, Monterey Bay Aquarium and GAA. They obviously don’t like MSC and don’t have total faith in any certification system. Not to mention the fact that GAA supports fish farming in B.C. Which Greenpeace seems to hate.

Greenpeace makes bold statements against certification programs on one page of its site but seems to say something else on other pages. What is a consumer supposed to do? If you decide that any certification system is better than no system at all then which guide do you choose?

Worldwide there is doubt about MSC, so what about the North American options? Here are four groups who all oppose salmon aquaculture but support Alaska’s “wild” salmon fishery: Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Seafood Watch program, Vancouver Aquarium and their Ocean Wise program, Sea Choice, and Fish Wise. But are they four different groups who came to the same decision after individual analysis by each group? No. If you look closely at each of the groups sites eventually you will find that they all work in collaboration with Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is an American aquarium which receives American funding which in turn supports an American fishery over Canadian options.

It is hard not to be a little skeptical about their good intentions. Especially when you consider that much of the Alaskan catch is not wild at all but “cultured” or “ranched”. In other words, Alaskan salmon is born and raised in hatcheries on land, fed flakes and then pellets made from wild sources of protein, moved to ocean net pen until they grow big enough to be released into the wild to be caught later by a huge fishing industry. And yet Alaska states that it is opposed to fish farms.

Greenpeace and Alaska stand resolutely opposed to fish farms, which generate lethal amounts of sea lice that threaten wild salmon,” said Jeremy Paster of Greenpeace U.S. “British Columbia is expanding aquaculture toward Alaska, a reckless move that endangers wild salmon stocks in both Canada and the U.S.”

Aquaculture is a huge industry in Alaska but because they raise pacific salmon and they don’t raise it to full maturity in pens they figure they can name it enhancement and leave aquaculture critics behind them. Here are two of the many examples of the hatchery companies in Alaska:

Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC) is a private nonprofit aquaculture association founded in 1974 by local fishermen and other stakeholders to optimize Alaska’s wild salmon resources. PWSAC produces hatchery-born, ocean-raised wild salmon for the commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence fisheries in the Prince William Sound and Copper River regions.

What is the NSRAA?

We are a private, nonprofit regional aquaculture association formed by a community of salmon fishermen back in the late 1970’s with the goal of enhancing and providing salmon opportunities in southeast Alaska. At our creation, the drive was to reverse the decline in the local salmon fisheries. To date, our efforts have been extremely successful. We are involved with a range of projects, from determining hatchery and fish dock locations to operating two large salmon hatcheries.

Instead of focusing on net pen aquaculture as an issue in Alaskan waters, climate change is a better answer to the ills of the ocean.

Whether the current magnitude of hatchery production in Alaska is impacting wild stock production has been debated, especially in relation to pink salmon production in Prince William Sound. The most recent analyses suggest that variable conditions in the marine environment over time, rather than the number of hatchery fry, best explain the changes in wild stock production.

If hatcheries are not to blame why are fish farms?

Here are some recommendations from a extensive report on salmon aquaculture in North America called The Great Salmon Run:

Recognize the role of hatcheries. Salmon hatcheries account for a significant share of North American “wild”  salmon catches, particularly of pink and chum salmon. There are important issues related to the effects of hatcheries on salmon ecosystems, as well as to the economic role of hatcheries in commercial salmon fisheries and markets. These issues should be explicitly recognized in analysis and policy discussions about North American “wild” fisheries.

Recognize that the choices are not between wild and farmed salmon. It is essential to move away from the simplistic perspective that policy makers and consumers face a choice between wild salmon and farmed  salmon. Salmon farming is a major world industry which is here to stay. Wild salmon is incapable of supplying the much larger domestic and world salmon market which has been created by farmed salmon. Natural wild salmon, hatchery salmon, and salmon farming all offer potential economic opportunities and benefits to consumers. All also have inherent risks. The real issues are how to take responsible advantage of the potential economic opportunities and benefits to consumers from both wild and farmed salmon.

If you want to serve sustainable seafood choices at your dinner table use these certifications as guides, not gospel. These guides are right that it is important that we are critical about how our seafood is brought to our table and we should be aware of the source of our seafood, even if it is labeled sustainable.

We should use all the information available, not just seafood guides, to make good decisions about the seafood we buy.

Additional Reading:

* Extensive article and conversation with Monterey Bay Aquarium about how Alaskan fisheries are assessed in the Seafood Watch guide and how that will change in 2012 – written by Bertrand Charron

* Fishyfellow writes a blog about eco-certification labels and specifically focuses on the MSC

Here is a link to an interesting interview of the CEO of MSC, Robert Howes, by Bob Searle of The Bridgespan Group… One concern may be Howes’ view that “From the consumer’s perspective, they don’t need to know this amount of detail [the complexities of the MSC standard and how it is applied to determine whether or not a fishery is sustainable]. They need to see the eco label and know that that fishery has been through an incredibly rigorous, often lengthy certification and assessment process.” This sounds a little paternalistic.  Don’t worry your pretty little heads, just trust us, we have everything under control.  Surely it is the right of the public to question and challenge decisions that a third party is making regarding whether or not a fishery accessing a public resource really is sustainable?

* Food and Water Watch published a paper about eco-labels and their inadequacies.

  • The eco-label certification programs reviewed in this report demonstrate inadequacies with regard to some or all of the following: environmental standards, social responsibility and community relations, labor regulations, international law, and/or transparency.
  • Eco-labeling programs may cause increased public acceptance of products from controversial farming operations, such as coastal shrimp ponds and open-water aquaculture.
  • Eco-labeling programs fail to promote local seafood options or account for the miles that imported seafood travels.
  • Existing eco-labels have the potential to override the authority of governments, particularly in developing countries.
  • Each of the examined eco-labels that certify wild fisheries fails to meet Food and Agriculture Organization criteria for eco-labeling and certification programs for wild fisheries.
  • Financial constraints have affected the ability of some otherwise eligible fisheries to attain certification.
  • For some programs, there is a conflict between the intent to promote change within a certain fishery and the product labeling program, which can place a seal of approval on a product from a certified fishery before it has made conditional improvements in ecological performance to actually meet the standards for the label.
  • Eco-labels should not be permitted for forage fish. These types of fish are processed into fishmeal and fish oil for use in various products, including animal feed. Depleting forage fish stocks can damage marine food webs and negatively impact food security in developing countries.
 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Opinion

 

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