The Farmed Salmon Fad
Back in the 90’s a hot new trend was sweeping the restaurant industry: farmed salmon. The farmed fish companies promised that restaurants would have access to quality salmon on a consistent basis, with no discernible difference between wild-caught fish and their product. The idea of a streamlined delivery system for high caliber salmon with no apparent drawbacks took the restaurant world by storm, and everybody jumped on board. Including Duke’s…but only for a very short period.
We tried serving farmed salmon at Duke’s for the same reason we try other ideas; maybe it will work. Well, long story short, it didn’t. Personally, I was never crazy about the flavor. Keep in mind that I’d been sourcing Wild Alaskan Salmon from Copper River in Alaska for over ten years by this point, so I had a pretty solid idea about how good salmon tasted. Farmed salmon just didn’t measure up in my opinion.
In addition, I’m a story guy. I like to know everything about where my food is coming from, how it is being treated and ultimately how it gets to my customers. So I started looking for the story behind farmed fish, trying to answer those questions.
What I Learned
Soon after beginning my research, I learned a disturbing fact. Fish raised in net pens are fed with pellets containing various nutrients that salmon need to survive. But the feed also contained something else. It turns out that the pellets can have a chemical or natural ingredient that dyed the flesh of the farmed salmon a healthy looking red color. Wild Salmon flesh is naturally red due to their natural food sources, but it seemed that without the dye, farmed fish were a sickly grayish or yellow color.
Could this explain why farmed salmon seemed to have inferior flavor?
What else was in those food pellets?
What were we actually eating when we ate farmed salmon?
These questions and more arose as I investigated further into salmon farming. Finally, I came to realize that the only answer was a commitment to serving 100 percent Wild Salmon at Duke’s. I could not in good conscience serve food to my customers that I myself didn’t want to eat.
While we stopped serving farmed salmon, it remained popular in most other restaurants. So in May 2003, I wrote an email titled “You Could Be Getting Poisoned if You Eat Somewhere Other Than Duke’s.” My intention was to inform friends, family, and customers about a food product that I considered questionable, and I never stated outright that farmed salmon was poisonous. However, the inference was clear. My main point, in the end, was simple: Wild Salmon just tastes better.
That email generated a lot of controversy, and I promptly received a formal letter from attorneys representing the fish farms. The letter basically told me to retract my statement about “farmed fish poisoning you” (which I never said) or face legal consequences.
Now, my intent was not to take on the fish farms in some sort of ‘David and Goliath’ battle. I simply wanted to share my concerns with those who may be affected. I decided to issue an apology, and take a straightforward stance on the subject. Farmed fish has a place in feeding the world; it just doesn’t have a place at Duke’s Chowder House. This remains my position on the subject today.
Wild vs. Farmed
The debate surrounding wild and farmed salmon is a complex one, and it seems that much of the information available is contradictory. The issues and arguments generally fall into three main categories: environmental concerns, contamination problems, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Farmed fish are most commonly raised in net pens in the ocean, usually in a protected area such as a bay or a cove. The environmental impact of such farms is still being studied, but pollution has been noted as a familiar side effect of these pens. Waste collects underneath the pens, especially in low current areas, possibly impacting the underlying habitat for other sea life. These impacts are thought to be temporary.
Most farmed fish raised in the Pacific Northwest are actually Atlantic salmon species, which presents a number of environmental concerns to wild Pacific populations. Disease transfer from Atlantic salmon eggs is of particular concern to scientists, though restrictions around how salmon are raised in general hope to curb the issue.
Escapees are also a potential major threat to native Pacific salmon species. Atlantic salmon can survive in the wild, and though they will not reproduce with Pacific salmon, if their numbers rise high enough they will become competition for necessary resources. While not a problem at this time, the threat is very real that Atlantic salmon could become an invasive species with massive environmental consequences.
Farmed fish generally contain higher levels of PCB’s than Wild Salmon, which are a toxic organic compound found in the fish feed they are often given. While still low enough to be designated safe to eat, to me this is a relative distinction. How toxic is too toxic? As ocean pollution becomes a bigger problem, PCB’s are also found in Wild Salmon, but not at the levels farmed fish can show.
Sea lice is also a problem in many fish farm pens, affecting not only the farmed fish but spreading to contaminate Wild Salmon populations as well. While regulations and monitoring of sea lice continue to improve, they still present a major problem for fish farmers.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Wild Salmon naturally derive omega-3 fatty acids from plant, algae, and plankton food sources. In farmed salmon, it is a part of their feed. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential to human health since our bodies cannot produce them naturally. Studies show that both wild and farmed salmon contain these fatty acids, and in some cases farmed salmon may have even higher levels. However, this is only one side of the coin. Much of the omega-3 fatty acids in farmed salmon can be unusable in the human body due to higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids. A healthy ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is about 15:1, typical in Wild Salmon. Farmed salmon average a 3:1 ratio.
Benefits of Wild Salmon
Overall, Wild Salmon is better for the environment and for your own health. Lower levels of PCB’s, more essential nutrients and less damage to the marine ecosystem are just a few of the benefits Wild Salmon offer. This is why I stand by my viewpoint that while farmed fish are a part of the world’s diet, they don’t have to be a part of my menu. And again, I think the strongest argument for eating Wild Salmon is the simplest: it just tastes better!
At Duke’s we only serve 100 percent sustainable seafood, including Wild Alaskan Salmon. Book a reservation at one of our six locations and taste the difference for yourself.