When I think Atlantic salmon, I don’t usually think of the state of Washington and I assume you don’t either. In my mind, the Pacific Northwest is the land of wild salmon. But according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington is the largest domestic producer of farmed-raised finfish, which includes an annual yield of 17 million pounds of Atlantic salmon. That is a lot of salmon raised in cages at sea, in the wrong ocean. What happens if some of these fish escape? Or should I say “when” these fish escape?
The potential for Atlantic salmon to become a major invasive species has just increased due to a recent event that let farm-raised fish escape into the Pacific. In response, the state of Washington has halted permits for salmon sea pens and are asking local fishermen to catch as many of the escaped fish as possible.
The Associated Press reports that an unknown amount of Atlantic salmon have escaped from damaged sea pens. They belong to Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian firm that raises Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound. The fish, which are up to 10 pounds in weight, escaped when an August storm damaged the sea pens, which can hold over 300,000 fish. According to this report, the company originally cited the recent solar eclipse as one reason for the escaped fish…they have since backtracked from that statement.
Atlantic salmon are already an invasive species in some parts of the West Coast and are a threat to our wild salmon and steelhead populations. And it isn’t like this is a rare occurence…fish escape all the time, so why raise these fish here? Why risk so much? From where I stand it looks like greed, a shorter supply chain to the customers West of the Mississippi overrides concern for wild stocks. They raise Atlantic salmon in Canada, Maine, Washington, Chile and Scotland and before this event occurred, Cooke had been planning to add even more sea pens in Washington!
You may be thinking that this company is one of the “bad apples” that spoil the whole bunch when it comes to farm-raised salmon. Well, on their website they proudly display all those colorful little badges that make the consumer feel good about their purchase. But let me ask you: How can they display a “Certified Best Aquaculture Practices” badge on their products when they just created a potential ecological disaster by raising fish where they don’t belong? Even if they don’t escape, the viruses and sea lice associated with farmed salmon are a very grave risk to juvenile wild salmon and steelhead as they make their way to the sea. I’ve been wary of those special little badges and this is a good example of just how worthless they usually are. If these are supposed to be one of the “good” salmon farmers, do I really want to know what the bad ones are like?
It is salmon farming on this scale that has turned a luxury fish into something as common as chicken nuggests. If this concerns you as much as it does me, vote with your wallet and stay clear of aquaculture products from companies that raise their fish in such a manner. There is some very good farm-raised organic salmon on the market, but it can be pricey and you have to do some scouting to find it sometimes. Better yet, support our domestic salmon fishermen and go for wild salmon. And when you can’t find the salmon that meets your criteria, opt for another local, wild-caught fish.