Sunday, May 13, 2018
With a habitat ranging across the North Atlantic Ocean from North America to Europe the Atlantic salmon has always been an important and popular species for sports and commercial fisheries. But habitat destruction, over fishing, and warmer waters have decimated the wild population to the point where conservation measures have been introduced in most countries. The numbers for farmed Atlantic salmon, on the other hand, have increased exponentially with over 3 million tonnes now being produced annually vs. the 3,000 tonnes of Atlantic salmon being caught in the wild.
Atlantic salmon are the preferred species for fish farming because they grow quickly and consistently, are resistant to disease, and taste great. Salmon is also popular with people looking for healthy food alternatives because they provide Omega-3 fatty acids. Combine all this with the fact farmed salmon cost less than wild salmon and are available year round and you can see why the salmon farming industry is exploding.
Over the years Atlantic salmon have been bred to more efficiently turn "feed into flesh" but recent genetic development has now allowed the fish to reach market size in just 18 months or less than half the time if it was in the wild. By adding the growth hormone gene of the Chinook salmon (the largest species of Pacific salmon) with an antifreeze gene of the Ocean Pout to the fertilized egg of an Atlantic salmon the fish is able to grow continuously while eating less than half the amount of feed. After more than 25 years of testing and red tape this amazing breakthrough for the AquaBounty salmon has finally been certified by the Canadian & American governments as being safe for human consumption.
No matter how you look at it raising animals for protein is highly inefficient with feed inputs many times over what is ultimately produced. Because salmon are carnivorous it's even worse as more wild fish end up being harvested for fish food than for human consumption. But with this new genetically modified salmon the food cost ratio drops to 1:1 and this has profound implications for worldwide food production and the sustainability of other ocean populations.
Killer whales for example in the Pacific Northwest are a fish eating species that relies particularly on wild Chinook salmon. Competition with commercial fishing and a decline in the wild fish population is causing serious concern for their survival and another reason we should be getting our salmon from farms, just as we do for every other food group, and leave the wild salmon to the whales and recreational fishery. The demand for aquaculture products is huge and growing larger every year with salmon being one of the most important products.
Most farmed salmon are raised in open net pens that can hold up to 90,000 fish. While they provide a lower operating cost than closed land based systems, they also discharge a lot of waste, parasites, and disease into the surrounding water and this is what concerns folks who worry about Pacific wild salmon picking something up as they pass through on their migratory route. They also worry about Atlantic salmon escaping into the wild and competing with native Pacific salmon species.
Strangely enough various governments over the last 100 years have tried to introduce the Atlantic salmon to the Pacific coast and none of these efforts have been successful. Every species of salmon has the same life cycle which means being born in fresh water, moving on to the salt water ocean to become an adult, and then returning to the same fresh water it was born in to spawn and die. For whatever reason the Atlantic salmon couldn't make it through the adult stage in the ocean and return. To worry about any of them escaping from a net in the middle of nowhere and taking over the Pacific Northwest is ridiculous. But just to be safe the AquaBounty salmon are being raised in fresh water pens and they are only using sterilized females so there is no chance of interbreeding.
The hysteria over genetically modified food and animals is another version of the science vs. religion debate where fear, ignorance and misinformation combine to create a toxic dialogue. We've been eating genetically modified plants for quite some time now and this technology holds open the door of possibility for many parts of the planet that are currently unsuited to agriculture because of salinity, lack of moisture or other issues. There aren't any 2-headed fish coming our way only fish that cost half as much to feed in half the time and I call that a bargain.