Salmon, is it really healthy?
Scotland and Norway look so pristine, so wild and natural it is hard for us to believe that under the water they are hiding a dirty secret that is anything but natural - Salmon Farming
I have wanted to write this post for some time now. When I was travelling in beautiful wild parts of Scotland I would see salmon farms, they looked so unassuming. Then recently I watched a BBC clip on how these salmon are farmed and I was so shocked at the cruelty that these beautiful creatures have to endure. Salmon farming is factory farming and just like any other mass-produced food it is best avoided.
Part of a Healthy Diet
I feel the health industry is largely to blame for the rise in salmon farming. For years we have been extolling the benefits of omega 3 essential fatty acids found in oily fish, such as sardines, pilchards, herring, mackerel, tuna and salmon. Tuna and salmon are the preferred choices for many.
A healthy diet includes eating oily fish, like salmon 2 - 3 times a week as a beneficially way to get in those healthy omega 3’s. The health benefits have been well researched. Eating oily fish or supplementing with an omega 3 fish oil reduces inflammation, improves brain function and mood, is important for the cardiovascular system and helps keep skin healthy.
The number of “health” recipe books I have seen where predominately recipes are for salmon or trout, both of which are extensively farmed and the most expensive oily fish so not even attainable for many. in fact, most recipe books have fish recipes for salmon because like chicken it is so versatile, it can be poached, baked, fried and served perfectly filleted and bone free, making it a favourite for the home cook.
Historically salmon have always been seen as a rather heroic fish. The epic journey from a juvenile leaving the river and spending years in the sea. Then back into the river where it came from, fighting its way upstream and then dying after spawning, it seems so noble. As it made the journey back into the river at the end of its life it became much prized by fishermen. It was an expensive delicacy reserved for special occasions.
Locally, in South Africa Norwegian or Scottish salmon is a real luxury that many seem willing to pay astronomical prices for. This is probably due to two reasons. One we have lots of recipes showing us how to cook it and two we know it is good for us. But is it really healthy and what are you really paying for?
Don’t for one moment think that your Woolworths salmon was caught in some Scottish river, it mostly comes from Norwegian salmon farms. Farmed salmon used to be just 5% of the market it is now 50% and all fish farms operate in a similar way.
Young fish are breed in freshwater tanks and then are moved out to penned off cages just off the coast. These cages hold huge numbers of salmon and like any farm with cramped conditions, disease and parasites are a problem.
Sea lice are one such problem, they eat the flesh around the salmon’s head and eventually cause the fish to die but not before it has suffered. Chemicals and antibiotics are used to treat diseases.
The really crazy thing is what the salmon are fed, to farm 1kg of salmon takes 2-5kg of wild fish, wouldn’t it better if we just ate the wild fish? Marine Harvest one of the biggest producers of farmed salmon have a salmon feed that is made up of 24% vegetable oils, 17% wheat, 14% corn, 12% fish meal, 11% soy protein, 10% beans and 8% fish oil. That doesn’t look like food that salmon would usually find in the oceans?
And to keep that pink colour, well they used to use dyes but more worryingly they are now using krill. Huge unsustainable amounts of krill are being harvested from the Antarctic to give the farmed salmon that “natural” pink colour. It is quite a lot pinker than wild salmon. Wild salmon would have eaten some krill but not the amount they are now being fed.
Is it good for us
Like all industrial farming generally, things have moved far from what is natural, just look at the feed they are given. They do contain omega 3, given to them in a concentrated form.
If you look at farmed salmon you often find thick layers of fat you wouldn’t find in wild salmon. The Environmental Working Group has studied salmon to find out how contaminated they are with toxic chemicals. They found Scottish salmon to be some of the most polluted with high levels of dioxins and PCB. And these toxins are stored in the fat.
Farmed salmon has also been genetically modified, strains of salmon are chosen for farming because they mature quicker, wild salmon takes about 4/5 years to mature. Farmed salmon is ready to eat after 2 years. That is 2 years of living in hell.
I don’t think this convinces me to be spending over R400 per kilo for a supposedly healthy source of protein. Yes, of course, I would eat wild salmon if I knew wild stocks levels were sustainable. And unless you know a Scottish fisherman this is unlikely to be an option.
The environmental cost
The real price we are paying is for the damage done to the environment and the fish. So many farmed salmon die because of the conditions they live in. This is one of the reasons for the price, there is a large amount of wastage.
Sea lice are a big problem for farmed salmon but they also affect wild stocks. Most of the farms are located in lochs and inlets where rivers make their way into the sea. Many juvenile or returning wild salmon have to navigate through the lice soup around the farms to get in and out of the river. It is hard for them not to be affected by the lice. And the lice only die when they move back into fresh water. Which for young salmon will only be when they return to spawn.
Rivers that salmon return to have seen a big drop in the amount of wild salmon travelling back up to spawn. In 20 years some wild salmon levels have dropped from almost 1000 fish to less than 30, and when the fish do return many of them are infected with sea lice.
Other creatures like seals, otters, dolphins and sea lions get entangled and die in the nets. Smaller fish like herring get trapped and cannot escape it a cruel way to farm and yet still the salmon industry cannot keep up with demand.
Concerns for feeding a growing world population a healthy diet has lead to the EAT-Lancet Commission. They have proposed the Great Food Transformation. A way for the growing world population to eat a healthy diet. Rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts and seeds. And protein coming from sustainable aquaculture salmon farms is seen as one way to feed the world. With wild fish stock overfished these farms seem like the best options. I am not sure if I would call salmon farming sustainable.
But what about other healthy oily fish options like herring, sardines, pilchards and mackerel and our local snoek. These fish are very much a part of traditional food cultures. Why don’t we find these fish available fresh and filleted and ready to eat? Most of us only ever eat them tinned.
I live in Hout Bay and even though I know sardines are caught only once in 15 years I found fresh sardines. Most of the sardines and pilchards are caught to make pet food, they say cats are the biggest predator of the oceans! These smaller oily fish are often used as food for that rather pricey salmon.
Sometimes I can find sardines frozen for about R55 per kilo, a lot cheaper than farmed salmon but then I have to scale and filet them myself, I don’t mind doing this but most people wouldn’t know how or would want to. Until we start seeing these options on menus in restaurants and in recipe books and start asking for them and stop buying farmed salmon nothing will change.
Power as Consumers
We have been conned by the food industry, a noble fish like salmon has become abused. We have been told it is healthy, farmed sustainably and by buying it we are protecting wild fish stocks. Woolworths calls it Fishing for the Future. We think we are doing the right thing for our health and the oceans but it is far from the truth. These fish suffer and eating farmed salmon isn’t the only healthy option.
I don’t know about you but as much as I love the flavour of salmon I would be reluctant to eat it, especially when I have other delicious fish options available waiting to be explored. I am also mindful of the pressure we are putting on our oceans so fish only appears on my plate about once a week.