Farmed Salmon vs. Wild Salmon

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Straight from the Forq Kitchen!
by Rachel Silver

Farmed salmon versus wild salmon

Some Thoughts on How to Buy Good Salmon

I have very fond memories of gathering around the dinner table on Friday nights and dining with my family on incredible peachy-orange salmon filets. We would invite the neighbors over for these elegantly simple meals, with golden, crispy oven-roasted potatoes; crunchy warm bread slathered in creamy butter; and the requisite veggies (I can’t say I was one of those kids who objected to vegetables. I’ve just always loved food—all of it). When it was time for my dad to take the salmon off the grill, I would get so excited (and exercise so little self control) that I would burn my fingertips in an attempt to snitch a tiny taste. It was always worth it.

Oh. Yum.

But things change, as do the times and our understanding; one day I heard this strange idea from my mom that “we can’t buy those salmon filets from Costco anymore, Rachel…” I was a Costco-fiend anyway—sample day, anyone? But my mom patiently explained to me that the salmon was farmed. I didn’t care at the time – I was too attached to our Friday night dinners. I wanted my juicy tender salmon filets, dammit! Well I wouldn’t be the first teenager to have been wrong and to have needed to do a little growing up. My parents made the switch and we started buying wild salmon. Our Friday ritual wasn’t the same and I felt really put out about it. Why? Because I didn’t believe wild salmon tasted as good. It’s not as tender, not as flavorful, and wasn’t the weekly indulgence I was used to. I was learning about the cost of my convenience.

Science is showing us what we can’t look away from anymore: farming salmon hurts the environment.

The Environment

Science is showing us what we can’t look away from anymore: farming salmon hurts the environment. Why? Because the common methods of farming—hatcheries, open net pens, ponds, and raceways—are incredibly destructive. These farms damage the ocean seabed; they allow farmed salmon to escape and interbreed with wild salmon; and they contaminate surrounding waters with toxins, antibiotics, and pesticides.

I love being in the ocean. Snorkeling is great, but my true passion is SCUBA diving. SCUBA diving takes me to a magical place, brimming with the beauty of the sea, the reefs, the wildlife, the expansive waters, and the awesome ocean floor crawling with crustaceans and fish. It’s time and beauty on a different scale.

You know who doesn’t give a flying @$&%? Fishing trawlers, aka ocean-floor destroyers. Trawling involves dragging mesh nets across the ocean floor that pick up everything in their path. Efficient, yes. But these nets also pick up bycatch (innocent bystanders on the ocean floor), and this bycatch can make up 90% of a total catch. Still sound efficient? 10% of what they pick up is what they intend to pick up. And not only does this practice kill thousands of sea creatures, it also devastates ecosystems by physically destroying these creatures’ homes. Trawling sucks.

Pardon the digression.

What does trawling have to do with salmon farming? Farmed salmon are fed a special diet to make them grow unnaturally large (sounds like my college cafeteria diet…). One of the ingredients in their special food is fish feed, a processed mash of hundreds of small wild fish. To provide some reference, when I go to the store and buy one pound of farmed salmon, three pounds of wild fish were pulverized to feed my farmed filet. It gets worse. How do salmon-food manufacturers catch all the small wild fish they need? They trawl. So, going back to the grocery store, to produce one pound of farmed salmon, not only were three pounds of wild fish killed, countless other sea creatures were sacrificed, too.


“Eh-scah-peh.” This still makes me laugh when I watch Finding Nemo. But what’s not so funny is when farmed salmon escape. (I know I know, that was a stretch…) Farmed salmon reveling in their first taste of freedom do what any of us would do—find our kind and mingle! You know what I’m getting at. Interbreeding between farmed salmon and wild salmon threatens the wild population by genetically weakening their species.

Poop. (My editor tried to take this out, but, turns out you can’t get around it…) Salmon farms allow large quantities of farmed salmon poop to pass freely into the surrounding waters. Whatever, it’s just poop; poop is natural! The ocean should be full of it! But not when it contains antibiotics and pesticides (fed to the fish to prevent disease) that pollute the wild habitat. It’s polluted poop, it taints everything, and it’s not a pretty picture.

The Fish

Here’s the problem. Farmed salmon are often crammed into densely packed enclosures (think poultry farming). One salmon can spend its entire life confined to an area the size of a bathtub. This overcrowding—and the abuse of these fish—physically hurts the farmed salmon and makes them more susceptible to disease. The farmed salmon then pass along their diseases and contaminated floating feces to the wild salmon populations nearby. Sea lice, just one form of parasite, targets and kills a meaningful percentage (over 30%) of the wild salmon population ( So, in an attempt to stop the spread of disease, farmed salmon are treated with massive doses of antibiotics and pesticides. In fact, salmon are fed antibiotics at a higher rate than any other livestock in the U.S.

The People

Why should we care about antibiotic use in our salmon?

I like to stay healthy. To do so, I eat healthy, I exercise, the usual. What I don’t appreciate is consuming, unknowingly, food that would compromise my health. And that’s the risk I take when I eat farmed salmon. The overuse of antibiotics in farmed salmon encourages antibiotic-resistant bacteria (increasingly E. coli, Salmonella…) to spread to those creatures that eat farmed salmon, which includes us. And here’s the kicker: antibiotic resistance itself can spread between different types of bacteria ( So if I eat some farmed salmon that has antibiotic-resistant bacteria which might normally not cause human disease, I’m still not in the clear because that bacteria can transfer its resistance to other bacteria in my body and make the bacteria I have resistant to treatment.

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You Are What You Eat

When I first stopped eating farmed salmon, it wasn’t the plea to help the environment (or salmon-wellbeing) that motivated me to change. It was that old adage: you are what you eat (in this case, what your salmon eats).

So what do salmon eat? Wild salmon naturally eat small invertebrates like krill or small fish. Simple. Farmed salmon, on the other hand, eat special pellets designed to make them grow faster and fatter. These pellets contain fish feed, fish oil, chicken feces, genetically modified canola oil, soy, and corn meal. And because farmed salmon are fed a special diet, and they have little room to swim around (recall the bathtub), farmed salmon are about 35% fattier than wild salmon.


Fat: friend or foe?

Unlike steak fat, which promotes flavor and succulence, farmed salmon fat does not equate to high quality. And the nerd-out continues: compared to wild salmon, farmed salmon contain more omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (good!), but they also contain twice as much fat (most is evil saturated fat), and 40% more calories. Not only will the fat in salmon widen your waistband and clog your arteries, it’s sneaky at storing toxins, like PCB.

PCB, it turns out, is an environmental pollutant—a probable carcinogen. In small doses, PCB isn’t that bad—it’s naturally eaten by many wild fish. But there’s nothing natural about the amount of PCB found in farmed salmon. The food pellets fed to farmed salmon contain a smashed smorgasbord of small fish high in PCB. Which means farmed salmon are eating unnaturally high concentrations of PCB—and so are we.

And size-manipulation isn’t the only thing unnatural about farmed salmon.

I’ve often wondered why wild salmon and farmed salmon are different shades of color. I looked it up. I kind of wish I hadn’t. Why are wild salmon a lovely deep red-ish pink hue? Because of their healthy diet and swimming habits! Why are farmed salmon a peachy orange hue? Because they are fed chemicals to create the plump, decadent orange we see in the grocery store. So what color are farmed salmon naturally (ie: farmed salmon who aren’t given color tablet)? They’re gray. Gray. And they are gray because of their diet and cramped quarters.

‘Salmon’: a synthetic shade

Besides the simple sadness that farming salmon diminishes, in fact destroys, their natural beauty, and that 70% of the salmon we consume would naturally be gray if not color-dyed (think about this…), why should we care if farmed salmon are chemically dyed? Back to that old adage—if the salmon are eating chemicals, we are eating chemicals. It’s madness.

Endangered at Sea: Not All (Wild) Salmon are Created Equal

Now that I’ve convinced myself that wild salmon is the winner, I’m making my trip to the grocery store irksome once again: not all wild salmon are created equal. Why? Certain wild salmon populations (Atlantic) are endangered from overfishing. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list is a great place to check whether the contents of your grocery cart are sustainable. (Click here to check it out!) If you’ve chosen wild Alaskan salmon, Seafood Watch says you can rest easy. But if you have a wild Atlantic salmon in your basket, those fish populations are under serious threat.


Some Farmed Salmon is Sustainable

Though, as with all things, I have to mention that the debate between wild versus farmed salmon is not exactly black and white (or… gray). Some farmed salmon is okay—actually encouraged—for consumption. It’s true. Seafood Watch gave its highest “best choice” approval ratings to three indoor land-based farms: Atlantic Sapphire, in Denmark; The Conservation Fund Freshwater Institute, in West Virginia; and the ‘Namgis Closed Containment Farm, in British Columbia.

These farms are sustainable, and awesome, because they’ve solved the issues common to horrific salmon farming—escape, disease, confinement, and contamination. In addition, they recycle over 95% of their water, and they use healthy fish feed that contains fewer fish and fewer chemicals to grow their salmon.

You can and should get more education on the ecological importance and health benefits of choosing the right salmon for your meal preparation. For more information on sustainable salmon farming:

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Who’s Cooking Today

Rachel Silver

Rachel Zoë Silver, a recent Cal Berkeley graduate, has been a foodie since her first sushi at three years old. With heritage from the Pacific Northwest, she learned early how to select the best fish from the Pike Place market. Her parents, also cooks and foodies, schlepped her to the best restaurants up and down the West Coast and through Italy. Rachel was still missing her front teeth when she mastered her grandmother’s Apple Pie recipe. She is still as excited by food as she was when, at 18 months, discovered on the pantry floor, hands and face smeared brown, she declared, “Chocolate is Yum!”

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