Is Organic Salmon Sustainable?
Eating oily fish once or twice a week like wild salmon may increase your lifespan and reduce cardiovascular disease by 35%. It is important that we practice eating (whether it is as an omnivore, vegetarian or vegan) truly sustainably, the way Native Americans practiced.
Recently, while at my local farmer’s market buying wild caught Pacific halibut, I asked if their Salmon was wild caught and from the Pacific ocean. The person behind the counter said that even though it wasn’t wild caught, it was sustainable salmon and raised organically in the Pacific ocean. Knowing what I know about “organic/sustainable” fish (read my past post to learn about farmed fish practices and viability), I passed on purchasing it. He then went on stating that his salmons produced by Creative Salmons are not farm raised, not raised in pens and not fed pellets. How could salmon be both sustainably raised and wild and not fed pellets and not kept in pens at the same time? I did what I do when I become curious. I started digging for some truth.
Organic Farmed Salmon Portrayed as Sustainable
So many restaurants and fish vendors at farmer’s market with great intentions are selling farmed raised salmon as wild caught salmon farming operations. Skuna Bay and Creative Salmon are perfect examples of supplier of “sustainable” salmon. With even a small amount of investigation, it is easy to see that the salmon being touted as sustainable or organic is farm raised: not wild.
To understand better, it is important to know the answer to these questions:
- What does an “organic” label on farmed salmon even mean? The term “organic” has a different meaning when it comes to fish vs livestock.
- It is important to find out if “organic” farmed salmon is substantially healthier than standard farmed salmon?
- Are “organic” salmon farms inherently safer and sustainable for surrounding fish — especially wild salmon — or for seafloor creatures and ecosystems critical to the ocean food chain?
Let’s understand the definitions of organic and sustainable and how “organic” label relates to fish vs livestock.
U.S. may approve “organic” farmed seafood by 2017
No U.S. company is currently allowed to sell wild or farmed seafood labeled “organic”.
Now, following many years of debate, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) appears poised to allow U.S. production and sale of “organic” seafood.
Under the agency’s proposed rules, any non-aquatic feed must be certified organic, except supplemental vitamin and minerals.
But the proposed USDA standard would allow up to a quarter of the feed to consist of sustainably wild-caught fish, placing burdens on wild fish stocks.
Incredibly, wild fish would not be eligible for the organic label — a stunningly unfair and illogical stance.
The USDA was set to propose standards for farmed organic seafood last year, possibly putting so-called organic salmon on store shelves by 2017.
However, that will only happen if and when the USDA actually finishes the rules, and aquaculture companies decide to act on the opportunity.
Unsurprisingly, as the Associated Press reported, “The discussions [within the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board] have been marked by tensions over what organic fish should eat and whether some of them can be raised in ocean cages called net pens.” (AP 2015)
Sadly, the proposed USDA standard would allow certified-organic fish to be raised in open-ocean net pens: a standard salmon-farming practice that can pollute the seafloor and spread disease to wild salmon.
So it’s quite clear that organic salmon farms will not be safer for surrounding fish and ecosystems.
Organic seafood rules won’t match organic livestock standards.
The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets, defines, and regulates the use and meaning of “organic” on food labels, including meat and poultry.
It seems very unlikely that the USDA’s final rules for organic seafood could or will match the high standards set for organic livestock.
Organic is the term used to describe raw or processed agricultural products and ingredients that have been (a) organically grown (farmed) and (b) handled in compliance with the standards of April 2001. These standards prohibit the use of:
- Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
- Sewer sludge fertilizers
- Genetic engineering
- Growth hormones
- Ionizing radiation (irradiation)
- Artificial ingredients
Healthy living conditions and attentive care are considered. Therefore, animals must not be overcrowded and must be allowed periodic access to the outdoors and direct sunlight. Organic livestock “must be raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior”.
Interestingly, synthetic vitamins and minerals are allowed.
“Sustainable agriculture” was addressed by Congress in the 1990 “Farm Bill.” Under that law, the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
- Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
- Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends.
- Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
- Sustain the economic viability of farm operations.
- Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole
As it pertains to agriculture, sustainable describes farming systems that are “capable of maintaining their productivity and usefulness to society indefinitely. Such systems… must be resource-conserving, socially supportive, commercially competitive, and environmentally sound.”
Organic/Sustainably Raised Fish=NOT wild
Let’s go fishing for some facts.
“Organic” or “sustainable” labeled fish are farmed fish. It isn’t wild caught no matter how sustainable it is called.
The images below are from Creative Salmon website (either still or screen shot from video).
Raised in caged environment even if within a large body of water.
Check out Creative Salmon’s video. It is neither cage-free nor pellet-free.
Often referred to as feedlots of the sea, farmed fish are raised in net-covered pens that are tethered offshore in the ocean. The fish are overcrowded, and fish waste and uneaten feed covers the sea floor beneath the pen (which is a disaster for other marine life).
Below is a screen shot from the CreativeSalmon site showing the feed from Taplow. Penned salmon are fed pellets and not allowed to forage, exercising their natural behavior.
Fish Meal, Certified Organic Wheat, Fish Oil, Calcium Propionate, Phaffa Yeast and/or Panferd (natural sources of carotenoid pigments), Essential Minerals and Vitamins.
Importantly, USDA regulations say that organic livestock “must be raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior”.
It’s obvious that raising salmon in net pens and feeding them pellets does not “accommodate their natural behavior”.
Wild salmon are born in rivers, then range and feed freely through thousands of miles of open ocean before returning to their birth rivers to spawn.
In general young Wild Salmon’s diet consists of insects, invertebrates and plankton; adults eat other fish, squid, eels, and shrimp. Unlike all other salmon, the sockeye salmon has a diet that consists almost entirely of plankton. They receive the beneficial oils, nutrients and color from the feed they catch themselves. They do not seek wheat, fish oil, pigments, essential minerals and vitamins from an external processed source.
Farm-raised salmon are fed the carotenoids astaxanthin and canthaxanthin to match their flesh colour to wild salmon to improve their marketability.
Fish are raised in an egg hatchery.
Let’s take a look at problems with standards Farmed Salmon practices.
Problems with Farmed Salmon (conventional and organic)
- Farmed salmon has three times the total fat of wild salmon, but a large part of these fats are Omega-6 fatty acids.
- Farmed salmon has much higher concentrations of contaminants than wild salmon
- Standard farmed fish are fed an unnatural diet heavy in grains and/or soy.
- Because the muscles of farmed fish do not develop in the same way as wild fish, their coloring is different because they are not eating their natural diet. Most farmed salmon are fed synthetic, chemically altered forms of the red-orange antioxidant called astaxanthin, which wild salmon get from the tiny crustaceans in their diets. Remember, in organic standards, synthetic vitamins and minerals are allowed.
- Fish farms pollute the environment and damage the local ecosystems
- Fish feces harm coral reefs
- Penned fish face many problems that factory-farmed cattle face such as rampant disease and parasites
- Farmed fish escape
- Farmed fish may spread disease to wild fish
- Farmed salmon practices may pose serious risks to coastal environments and to wild fish.
- Fed potentially unsustainable sources (albeit organic)
- Unlimited wild fish in feed.
- Farmed fish are nutritionally deficient. The fat profiles of regular farmed Atlantic salmon are clearly inferior to those of wild salmon. (See “Differences in Nutrition Composition”, below.) 1 and 2
- Those living in communities that are directly and negatively impacted by salmon farms. These community members include scientists, marine biologists, local fisherman and others who may rely upon their local waters for a living.
- Salmon certification standards are too weak to protect wild salmon.
The penned fish may encounter many of the problems that factory-farmed cattle face including rampant disease and parasites.
Organic farmed salmon: Not much better than other farmed salmon
The major difference in “organic” fish and conventionally farmed/sustainable fish is that “organic” fish is not fed antibiotics, hormones, GM feed, it is not irradiated or genetically modified. This is a plus. However, there are still major issues with farmed and so called sustainable fish.
You are only getting at best a slightly better product by choosing organic farmed salmon over regular farmed salmon. The best sources remain wild salmon from Alaska that is certified by the Maine Stewardship Council.
BareFood Angel’s Recommendation
Choosing your food that is sourced locally and grown sustainably is truly what our bodies are striving for to thrive.
Farmed fish, whether organic or not, are a disaster for not only your health but also the environment.
When it comes to my food, other than fish, I choose organic and beyond whenever possible.
When choosing my fish, organic label is the one I avoid. Organic fish is synonymous with farmed fish. I choose wild fish that meets the real sustainability and contaminant guidelines.
There is only one kind of “organic” salmon: the Wild, delicious, extraordinarily pure and nutritious salmon that Alaskan fishermen catch in the open ocean.
Because our oceans are being polluted and fish are being exposed to harmful toxins known as PCBs along with the neurotoxin mercury and because the U.S. FDA approved the sale of a genetically modified (GM) salmon by AquaBounty Technologies., I recommend:
Buying Wild Pacific Salmon
For a useful seafood guide, visit Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Sea Food Selector. EDF’s scientists analyze many aspects of wild fisheries and fish farming operations for more than 200 types of seafood frequently sold in the U.S. market (for details, see our eco-rating methodology). The scientists collect the latest information on omega-3s and mercury in seafood to provide the best recommendations possible.
EDF guide is a helpful tool when wanting to choose the fish with the lowest contaminant levels.
Monterey Bay’s SeaFood Watch recently took off its rating of contaminants. One of the representatives said that there was not enough interest from consumers. The other reason is that there is not enough “concrete” science for them to use for the rating system.
Purchase from a Trusted Source
I buy my wild caught Pacific Salmon from these 2 sources:
Purchase online through Vital Choice *
The only salmon they purchase and sell are four species of wild Pacific salmon.
Vital Choice assures no radiation PLUS they meet the EDF’s guidelines for eco friendly fishery practice AND lowest contaminant level and more.
Westlake Village Farmer’s Market
Patrick Ashby Fishermans Daughters Salmon sells his catches at the Westlake Village Farmers market on Sundays. He is working on his website. You can visit him at the Westlake Village Farmer’s Market or email him at info@FishermansDaughterSalmon.com. He takes off for a couple of months from June to catch the next batch. Tell him I sent ya.
Ask for Wild Pacific Salmon at Restaurant
If the menu says that the fish is “organic” and/or “sustainable”, please know that it is farm raised. If it is from “Wild” Pacific Salmon from Skuna Bay or Creative Farm, know that it is farm raised. Tell them kindly that you choose not to eat farmed fish. If you feel comfortable, ask for the owner/ manager/ chef’s email address and send them this article. Most people want to do the right thing and they will appreciate you sharing this information. No need to get into a discussion with them at the restaurant.
Our Basic Right
Fish grown wild and harvested sustainably (not grown sustainably) is the basic standard that needs to be met. It is our given right to eat that way. It is the least we can do to offer nourishment without toxicity to our bodies and to Mother Earth. It is not a high standard even though sometimes it comes at a higher price than “farmed” food. Conventionally “factory farmed” produced and grown food is cheap because it cuts corners. Cheap food is sold to us as the standard. And when compared to pricing of food that is grown to nature’s standards, without GM, pesticides, irradiation, growth hormones, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers etc, cheap food seems to meet our budgets initially until we end up paying the high price that it carries …. poor health.
I love this quote from hubby.
Great news! After being curious about my investigation, the vendor at the local farmer’s market started to call its salmon from Creative Farms as is….farmed salmon. I believe people inherently want to do the right thing especially when they know shoppers care.
So please spread the love and awareness especially those who provide you with the food. Share this article with your loved ones.
I would love to hear how this post has served you? Is it helpful? Is it empowering?
- Associated Press/Jalonick MC. USDA to propose standards for organic seafood raised in U.S. April 16, 2015. Accessed at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/usda-propose-standards-organic-seafood-raised-u-s/
- Annals of Internal Medicine 2 April 2013;158(7):515-525
Salerno, D. J. (2010, March 22). What Is Sustainable Food? Retrieved July 21, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-john-salerno/what-is-sustainable-food_b_428570.html
- What is Biodynamics? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.biodynamics.com/what-is-biodynamics
- Mateljan, G. (n.d.). About organic food. Retrieved from http://www.worldshealthiestfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=faq&dbid=46
- Basic Facts About Salmon. (2012). Retrieved July 27, 2016, from http://www.defenders.org/salmon/basic-facts
- “Pigments in Salmon Aquaculture: How to Grow a Salmon-colored Salmon”. Retrieved 26 August 2007.
Astaxanthin (3,3′-hydroxy-β,β-carotene-4,4′-dione) is a carotenoid pigment, one of a large group of organic molecules related to vitamins and widely found in plants. In addition to providing red, orange, and yellow colours to various plant parts and playing a role in photosynthesis, carotenoids are powerful antioxidants, and some (notably various forms of carotene) are essential precursors to vitamin A synthesis in animals.
- Guilford, Gwynn (12 March 2015). “Here’s why your farmed salmon has color added to it”. Quartz (publication). Retrieved 12 March 2015.
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