How salmon became the symbol of our broken food system


In 1973, pioneering undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau—the David Attenborough of the oceans—wrote: “With earth’s burgeoning human population to feed, we must turn to the sea with understanding and new technology. We must farm it as we have farmed the land.”

Norway was a particularly fertile ground for this imperative since the first floating sea pens to rear salmon had been developed in the country of the fjords already in the late 1960s. Until then, the aquaculture of salmonids had been virtually nonexistent and the global catch of all salmon species amounted to 400.000 tonnes per year. Fish farming changed everything.

Aquaculture production of salmonids in tonnes 1950–2010 as reported by the FAOEPIPELAGIC (WIKIPEDIA) CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2018, the total supply of salmon was more than 3 million tonnes, of which 2.36 million were farmed. The relative abundance of this ray-finned fish brought remarkable nutritional benefits to our tables as their pink flesh is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, high quality proteins and B vitamins.

Nutritional benefits aside, salmon aquaculture—which according to the WWF is the fastest-growing food production system in the world—has found itself in increasingly hot water, accused of polluting the waters and endangering wild salmon.

Recurring sea lice infestations is probably the biggest problem for salmon farms, costing the sector nearly $1 billion a year in losses. Sea lice has always existed in nature but, in floating sea pens, fish are kept at unnaturally high densities, favoring unprecedented epidemics of the parasite.

Wild salmon that swim by fish farms while migrating between saltwater and freshwater get contaminated with the disease. Moreover, farmed salmon sometimes escape and breed with wild fish, transmitting the sea lice and causing a genetic weakening of the species.

However, wild salmon are menaced by an array of other problems beyond aquaculture. Rising sea temperatures, dams impeding their migration, overfishing and hatcheries set up to enhance the harvest in fisheries (yes, using hatcheries to put more salmon in the rivers often results in fewer fish to catch) are all factors that contribute to dwindling numbers of wild salmon worldwide. Global populations of wild Atlantic salmon, for example, have fallen from between eight to ten million in the 1970s to between three to four million today.                 

Outdoor clothing giant Patagonia, a self-styled “activist company,” recently released the documentary Artifishal on YouTube. Directed by Josh Murphy, the film explores “wild salmon’s slide towards extinction” with a particular focus on the threats posed by hatcheries and fish farms. 

“Technology is great in so many realms of human experience but when you try to apply manipulation and control of ecosystems through technology, you’re often successful early on but then problems creep in,” says conservation biologist Gary Meffe in the film.

Salmon are a “keystone species” in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic meaning that they play a unique role in the ecosystem. Connecting salt and freshwater, they bring the nutrients of the oceans far inland and are an irreplaceable source of food for animals like orcas and grizzly bears.

“They are a natural barometer for the health of the planet,” writes journalist Mark Kurlansky in his upcoming book Salmon and the Earth: the History of a Common Fate (published by Patagonia). That’s why the survival of wild salmon is such an important environmental challenge: it’s our relationship with nature that is at stake.

In Artifishal, ecologist and writer Carl Safina recounts the Greek myth of Icarus, the overambitious man who died because he flew too close to the sun with wings made of wax and feathers. “Humans believe they can do anything and everything all the time and this can-do attitude has gotten us very far [...] but there are limits and we don’t understand anything about those limits,” comments Safina. In other words, aquaculture risks of becoming today’s myth of Icarus.

“Humans have often thought of themselves as superior to nature but it has got us into a lot of trouble,” echoes Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard.

In nature, salmon eggs hatch in freshwater streams. After a period ranging from a few months to a couple of years, the fish, which at this stage is called “smolt,” migrate to the sea where they grow to sexual maturity. When it’s spawning time, salmon return to their natal rivers, often swimming upstream against strong currents. Most of them die shortly after they have spawned (many species of salmon are semelparous meaning they experience just one reproductive episode before death).

Salmon are an importance source of food for grizzly bears (Credit: Pixabay)

Recreating artificially this heroic life cycle represented without any doubt a grandiose technological success but tinkering with salmon’s ecosystems to increase food production came with hefty environmental costs.

At the same time, Jacques Costeau’s admonishment is more relevant than ever. The current world population is 7.7 billion, almost double that of 1973, when the French explorer stressed the importance of developing new technologies to produce food.

There are people who argue that to feed the ever-burgeoning human population, we need to dramatically accelerate the speed of technological improvements, rather than slowing it down. Wild Type, for example, is a San Francisco-based startup that has recently raised $12.5 million to develop “lab-grown” salmon, that is fish produced by in vitro cultivation of animal cells, without the need of wild fisheries or setting up hatcheries and farms.

In June, the company hosted a test dinner in Portland, Oregon where they served samples of their product prepared according to a variety of culinary traditions, including a bowl of bisque (a French soup) and a platter of Latin American ceviche (raw fish cured in lemon and spiced with peppers). Wild Type estimated that a single spicy salmon roll served that night cost a whopping $ 200 to produce but they hope to bring the price down to just $7 to $8 per pound in a few years. “The dream vision is the cleanest, purest, freshest salmon, without contaminants or antibiotics, for a price lower than farmed Atlantic Salmon,” commented the company’s cofounder Justin Kolbeck.   

Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard is right: humans have often thought of themselves as superior to nature and that has gotten us into a lot of trouble. But this arrogance—the desire of becoming the “homo deus” described by Yuval Noah Harari in his famed book—has enabled us to bulldoze through herculean challenges like famines and diseases. It may then well be that also cultivating salmon—creating its pink flesh in the lab with an unabashed can-do attitude—will be part of the solution to restore our relationship with this mighty fish. And with the planet at large.

Credit header image: Pixabay

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