Swimming upstream

Wild caught vs. farmed salmon:
a tale of two fishes


Salmon raised by fish farms (above) has some pros and cons compared
to wild-caught salmon.

By Paula Johnson

As I write this, I am forking up the last coral-red shard of smoked salmon flesh, mingled with capers, chopped egg, finely minced red onion, and a little fresh dill zinged with a burst of citrusy lemon juice. It’s a lunch or breakfast I have frequently, and one that has me musing on the ethics and healthfulness surrounding my meal of choice. Turns out there’s nothing definitive as you’ll read below. The answer is as slippery as the fish itself, if there is indeed an answer. What shakes out in the end is more food-for-thought and options for consideration as the American public attempts to navigate the choppy waters of including salmon in our diets.

The most important question is choosing farmed versus wild caught salmon. The first thing that hits the consumer peering through the glass at the fish counter is price. Author Diane Morgan addresses this in her book “Salmon: Everything You Need to Know + 45 Recipes.” She says of America’s most ethically confounding fish, “You’re making a real economic choice to eat wild salmon. The lowest price I could get last season at peak season for wild Alaskan salmon was $17 a pound.” But cost is not the only thing that’s in stark contrast where these two types of fish are concerned. In terms of health benefits, do you get what you pay for? Here’s a little fish food-for-thought:

• Farmed salmon is much higher in fat, containing 46 percent more calories, mostly from fat. If you are focusing on calories, go wild.

• Farmed salmon also contains Vitamin C, which is added to the feed. Team farmed.

• However, the feed also contains a chemical (astaxanthin) to dye the flesh of the fish red (it’s naturally gray). Wild salmon achieve a red color by eating marine animals. Team wild.

• Wild salmon is higher in minerals, including potassium, zinc, and iron. Wild wins here.

• A three-ounce serving of wild salmon contains 1.4 grams of long chain omega-3 fats (that thing we all want in our diets), while the same size serving of farm-raised salmon contains 2 grams. So if you are eating salmon to get more omega-3 fats in your diet, farm-raised salmon is the way to go.

• But to completely counter this, when you compare the overall fatty acid composition of farmed vs. wild salmon, it is easy to understand why farmed salmon was found to have a higher omega-3 content in this study—farmed salmon has a much higher overall fat content than wild salmon. If you only compare the composition of the fatty portion of each type of fish, it turns out that the ratio of omega-3s to other types of fats is more attractive in wild salmon. So, if you are simply trying to increase your total intake of omega-3 fatty acids, go farmed. If you are trying to increase your omega-3 intake but want to limit your overall fat intake, wild salmon wins.

• Organic pollutants are five to ten times higher in farmed fish. Why is this important? Persistent organic pollutants have been linked to several diseases, including type 2 diabetes and obesity, and can increase the risk of stroke in women. This from an article from Health Essentials published by the Cleveland Clinic. They say go wild.

See the problem here? There’s just not a real consensus about which is better. So, let’s look at a few other factors, including ethics and sustainability. Farmed fish have, in the past, been seen as the solution to overfishing. The more we could produce in caged farms and ponds, the theory went, the fewer we would need from the sea. Then we found out that most of the wild fish being caught were being used to feed the fish in the cages, and the benefits suddenly seemed a lot less clear.

And while farming is efficient and cost effective, a huge con is environmental impact. If the feeding source is primarily plants, the use of palm oil in feed is devastating to the environment, and other crops, such as soy, fed to farmed fish contribute to global deforestation. (Fish feed companies have reacted to the criticism by looking to algae, seaweed and even insects).

Then there’s the issue of feed and effluent waste. Excess salmon feed (and excrement) settles to the bottom of the sea pens and seafloor, negatively affecting the water oxygen levels leading to mass fish deaths. While salmon farming can alleviate stress on the environment in one sense, if you’re concerned about animal welfare the way salmon are kept in sea pens and the mass death of salmon may be a deciding factor on whether or not you feel comfortable consuming farmed salmon.

Oh and just one more thing to think (worry) about—the Food and Drug Administration has approved genetically modified salmon for sale in the U.S. These salmon have had the genes of another, eel-like fish inserted into their DNA, which helps them grow faster, upping yields and lowering costs for fish farmers. While proponents argue that this practice is safe and could make salmon more affordable, environmentalists worry that this could hurt wild salmon populations if GMO fish inadvertently made their way into nature.

So, what’s a salmon-eating boy or girl to do? It’s a question I struggle with and come down on neither side. I end up attempting to cover all bases by splitting the difference. I buy and eat both. Smoked, seared, or sautéed, salmon is one of my all-time fish faves, and I don’t plan to stop eating either kind. That is until something more definitive favoring one over the other finally settles this “de-bait.”

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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