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Can the Farmed Salmon Industry Become Sustainable?

By Jan Lee

Fifteen farmed salmon producers from Chile, Norway, Canada and Scotland have announced the start of a new initiative geared toward improving the way that farmed salmon is raised and produced.

The Global Salmon Initiative (GSI)  is the result of a partnership between farmed salmon companies and environmental advocates that have expressed concern about the methods used for farming salmon.

According to proponents of GSI, more than half of the salmon consumed by humans now comes from salmon farms. The majority of the salmon are Atlantic salmon raised in pens in open water, such as ocean, bays or rivers. In many cases, the farms have been located in waters indigenous to wild salmon or trout,  such as the coastal waters of British Columbia and New Brunswick Canada, Washington State, Scotland and the Faroe Islands of Denmark.

Farmed salmon and ISAV

Outbreaks of infectious salmon anemia virus (ISAV) in Norwegian pens of Atlantic salmon in the 1980s and later in Canada and Chile in the 1990s spurred the call for changes in the way farmed salmon were being raised. The eventual discovery of ISAV in wild stocks (first in wild Atlantic salmon, which were already reduced in numbers) in several areas worldwide that were near farms has increased public pressure for changes in farming procedures. Other breed-specific diseases and the revelation that ISAV can be transmitted to trout as a carrier have heightened the need for new farming techniques.

In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund launched and coordinated a series of roundtable talks directed at finding ways to improve salmon farming, which has since become a multi-billion-dollar industry.  Farms were being criticized for their impact on dwindling fish stocks, pollution and labor issues. Industry stakeholders, retailers, environmental advocates and others were invited to participate in the Salmon Aquaculture Dialogues.

Standards for farmed salmon

Finally, in 2012, progress was announced. The WWF released a voluminous 91-page list of SAD standards that industry specialists and other participants had agreed to accept. The standards address a variety of important issues, including the need to protect the health and genetic integrity of wild stocks, infection control in farmed fish, feeding procedures that lessen the impact on wild stocks and corporate social responsibility.

The GSI is a product of those roundtable discussions, and according to its participants, reflects a commitment of change by some of the world’s largest farmed salmon producers in the world, including Marine Harvest, AquaChileGrieg SeafoodsNorway Royal Salmon and The Scottish Salmon Company.

“The GSI is committed to making significant improvements in terms of industry sustainability and our actions reflect the objectives and principles which define our mission,” the organization states on its website.

The GSI suggests that by 2050, farmed fish could be a daily food supply for more than 500 million people. Creating sustainable methods for raising salmon stocks, the GSI believes, is key to meeting that demand.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF): A game changer

The WWF is lauding the efforts of farmed fish advocates to transform fishing methods.

“The commitment by the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI) not only to embrace sustainability, but to work together to become more responsible is a game changer,” says WWF. “It is not yet an end, but it is a means.”

The WWF reports that the 15 companies, which represent 70 percent of the world's salmon aquaculture industry, has committed that 100 percent of its production will be certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) by 2020.

“This should measurably reduce the impact of salmon production on some of the world's most ecologically important regions,” says WWF.

Whether the eight-year-long roundtable meetings that the WWF developed will result in improved sustainability for the farmed salmon industry has yet to be seen. According to a press release issued by the GSI, the farmed salmon producers see the ASC standard as “a framework to guide and report on the progress the GSI is making...and as its primary reference point.” The organization also cites some difficulties with the ASC standard, resulting in possible adjustments to how they are applied.

A number of the companies that have signed on to the GSI owned facilities that were affected by ISAV. So the adoption of a global sustainability program for the farmed salmon industry can only point to improved conditions. As the WWF suggests, increased support for the GSI could, if implemented correctly, be a “game changer” for both farmed and wild stock salmon.

Problems related to Atlantic farmed salmon

Still, not all environmental advocates are ready to stand behind the GSI and WWF’s efforts. The well-respected Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which publishes tip sheets on which kinds of seafood to buy or consume, recommends its readers avoid farmed Atlantic salmon. The reason?

“There are many environmental problems related to farming Atlantic salmon,” says Seafood Watch. Its key complaint is the amount of food that is required to raise farmed Atlantic salmon. “It generally takes three pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed salmon. The environmental impact of salmon farming is still increasing as global production continues to rise.”

Another issue is the environment in which they are farmed, a problem that environmentalists have highlighted with little results until now. Open waters can expose wild salmon to cross-contamination of transmittable diseases like ISAV. As a result, a small number of fish farmers have begun raising Atlantic salmon inland in closed pens. Doing so also removes the chance of escaping salmon, which have in the past been one method of cross-contamination in open waters.

Interestingly, the GSI’s announcement does not address whether the farmed salmon its members raise are Atlantic salmon, or whether they are raised in open waters. It also does not elaborate on just what standards it intends to adopt of the WWF’s 91-page publication, although it does recognize that “more needs to be done.”

Open pen vs. closed pen farming

The environmental think tank, The David Suzuki Foundation, in Vancouver BC has also pitched some questions to the farming industry and advocates of SAD. The Foundation is a participating member of the Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR).

According to the Foundation, after seven years of participation in the talks, CAAR concluded that “closed containment salmon farming is the only verifiable way to effectively reduce or eliminate the key negative environmental impacts of salmon farming.”

Salmon farms and ecological benchmarks

The Foundation also noted that the SAD standard did not assign an ecological benchmark for salmon farms to follow, something that ecologists have been advocating for years. The standard therefore, does not rate the performance “to the needs of the environment, or to other forms of seafood, farmed or wild.”

The GSI is clearly a good start to a long-awaited change. Whether it will be able to eliminate the problems that scientists have identified with the farmed salmon industry, and do so rapidly on a global scale is still to be determined. Marine science has had to adapt quickly in its detection methods for diseases like ISAV in open waters. Hopefully one positive outcome of these roundtable dialogues will be the continued collaboration between farmers and environmentalists, both of which have a vested stake in the success of salmon aquaculture’s timely changes.

Marine Harvest-run Salmon farm at Loch Ainort, Scotland: Photo courtesy of Richard Dorrell

Sea lice-infected salmon: Photo courtesy of 7Barrym0re

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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