What’s with the difference in price? Does it really matter which salmon you buy?
In this article, we’ll look at the differences between farm raised salmon and wild caught salmon so you can be the judge.
Farm raised salmon
Farm raised salmon are fish raised at specially-designed aquatic farms. Virtually all salmon sold in North America labeled as “Atlantic” comes from farms, because the majority of the natural habitat of fish on the eastern side of the good old U. S. of A. have been wiped out.
Here’s the basic rundown of how a farm raised salmon ends up on your table:
2. Fish eggs are incubated and hatched.
3. Fish babies begin their lives in controlled freshwater environments.
4. Salmon are exposed to increasing levels of salt in water.
5. Fish are vaccinated against infectious diseases before they enter a pen with tens of thousands of other fish.
6. Salmon is fattened up on a concentrated, high fat combination of ground up fish, fish oil, and grains. The food pellets also have color additives that help give the farm raised salmon the nice pinkish color we’re all accustomed to. Otherwise, they’d be a dullish grey color*.
*Wild salmon, by contrast, obtain their pink hue from their natural environment by feasting on a diet of krill, which eats red algae.
7. When the salmon weighs 8 – 10 pounds they’re killed, packaged, and shipped to your neighborhood grocery store.
Potential issues with farm raised salmon
1. Artificial Colors
I mentioned this above, but farm raised salmon gets its color from food additives. If you can get past the fact that the pink fish on your plate is not actually pink in real life, here’s something that may cause some concern. One of the most common dyes used in fish feed is called canthaxanthin. This compound may cause eye defects and retinal damage. As a result, the European Commission ordered fish farmers to reduce the use of canthaxanthin, and the United States requires labels to identify farmed and dyed salmon.
Here’s another reason you may want to be concerned about fish feed used with farm raised salmon …
One of the biggest debates when it comes to farm raised salmon and how it affects your health is the issue of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are synthetic chemicals that bioaccumulate in the fat of marine animals. PCBs were banned in the United States in 1976, but they still get released into the environment at toxic waste sites (like fish farms).
The Environmental Protection Agency says that PCBs “probably cause cancer in humans.” But several other studies dispute this. One fact is for certain though: research has shown that women exposed to high levels of PCBs are more likely to have babies born with neurological problems and developmental delays.
Harvard Medical School nutrition specialist George Blackburn, M.D., Ph.D., noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association that in most cases the levels of PCBs found in farm raised fish are low enough that they’re not going to cause harm.
But a group of Cornell researchers found that levels of pesticides, dioxins, PCBs and other contaminants were up to 10 times higher in farmed salmon than in wild Pacific salmon.
And, a research study published in the journal Science concluded that there were much higher levels of contaminants in farmed salmon than previously thought. In addition, three other substances that may be carcinogenic (cancer causing)—dioxins, dieldrin, and toxaphene—were consistently found in farmed salmon.  The researchers recommended that most people should eat no more than one serving of farmed salmon each month.
The Environmental Working Group suggests the same. And the Monterey Bay Aquarium‘s Seafood Watch says to avoid all salmon farmed in ocean net pens. It should be noted that Monterey Bay has given a “Best Choice” rating to AquaSeed Corporation, who use a new, sustainable method of “inland tank” farming.
The use of antibiotics is another hot topic in farm raised salmon operations. Industrial salmon farms use antibiotics to prevent fish from infecting each other with various diseases. This means when you eat farm raised salmon, some of those antibiotics and other substances enter your system as well. This, in turn, may lead to antibiotic resistance.
3. Environmental impact
Industrial salmon farms expel a steady stream of waste and sewage into surrounding waterways. Parasites and diseases from salmon farms can spread to wild fish. Salmon farms in Scotland alone produce nitrogen wastes equal to that of nine million humans.
And yet another issue is the fact that millions of salmon raised in farms escape. This can wreak havoc on wild salmon and affect their feeding and spawning behavior.
Finally, another environmental concern with farm raised salmon is the amount of food required. It takes three pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed salmon. This means farming salmon is an extremely inefficient and unsustainable way of producing food.
Wild caught salmon
The life of your average wild caught salmon is quite different from that of a farmed raised fish. A wild caught salmon’s life cycle looks like this:
2. One or more males fertilizes the eggs.
3. The salmon eggs hatch in 3-5 months.
4. The baby salmon begin to eat. And most of them are eaten.
5. The one in a thousand who live begin to swim upstream.
6. Once the salmon get big enough, they start to move downstream.
7. The salmon nears the ocean, acclimates itself to saltwater for several days, then enters the ocean.
8. The salmon feast on an abundance of krill, which turns their skin pink due to the red algae the krill eats.
9. At this point the salmon either fattens up for at least two years, then swims back upriver to spawn (sometimes over 1,000 miles). Or, a fisherman catches it in the ocean, freezes it, then ships it to a restaurant or grocery store near you.
Coastal watersheds are among the most important biological ecosystems on earth. An abundance of healthy, wild salmon is a vital component to many of these ecosystems.
At a 2010 senate hearing the President of The Wild Salmon Center, Guido Rahr, had this to say:
“Wild salmon have a disproportionate impact on the health of both the ecological and social human communities where they live. Scientists have a term for species that have this kind of impact, and it is called the ‘‘keystone species.’’ Wild salmon are a keystone species for the watersheds that flow into the north Pacific. They bring in tremendous amounts of marine nutrients which support over 100 species that depend upon wild salmon, the runs that have come in and spawned. They are also one of the top three revenue-generating seafood products, supporting tens of thousands of jobs and generating $3 billion in personal income. So salmon are really important for the health of the ecological and economic systems of the north Pacific.”
As you can see, in the debate over farm raised salmon vs wild caught salmon, there are many factors to consider. In my opinion, there aren’t many logical arguments to support farm raised salmon, unless it’s done in a way that’s sustainable and ecologically responsible.
So what can you do?
The simplest solution is to buy wild Alaskan salmon when it’s in season, and frozen wild salmon when it’s out of season.
Yes, you’re going to pay a little bit more. But next time you’re at the grocery store (or a restaurant) debating whether you want to pay $15 a pound, think about this: is it worth it to you to pay more for food that is natural, doesn’t lead to the destruction of a species, tastes better, doesn’t have color additives and high levels of potentially carcinogenic toxins, and is better for you?
For me, it’s a pretty easy choice.
This article is #5 in my 10-part Healthy Eating 201 tutorial.
To go to the next article and learn about the different types of antioxidants click here.
To read article #4 about the best and worst types of beef for your health click here.
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 Brighter eyesight or brighter salmon? DG SANCO press release, January 27, 2003, European Commission,
 C. D. Miranda et al., “Diversity of tetracycline resistance genes in bacteria from Chilean salmon farms," Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 47 (2003), pp. 883–888.
 G. Bearzi et al., “Bottlenose dolphins foraging alongside fish farm cages in Eastern Ionian Sea coastal waters," European Research on Cetaceans, 15 (2004) pp. 292-293