Good Salmon Sense

Which is better – wild caught or farm raised? Explore the pros and cons of America’s favorite fish.

Fish is fashionable. It’s Gucci hot. It’s this year’s Pink! Consumer access to fresh product has never been greater, and each day a new study gives us another reason why eating fish is good for you. No wonder seafood consumption is growing and most retail prices are holding steady. Shrimp (all sizes) and tuna (canned and fresh) are the two most popular species of seafood consumed in our country, but the most popular fresh fin fish, in both homes and restaurants, continues to be salmon.

We all know we need to eat more fish, and not just for its nutritional value, either. For those of us who are time poor, salmon is quick to cook, and these days it makes sense economically as well (farmed salmon is available in supermarkets for as low as $3.99 a pound). The “big sell” is that salmon is loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy fat that reduces bad cholesterol, aids adrenal functions, helps fight depression, possesses cancer-fighting antioxidants and nurtures basic heart functions by keeping blood platelets from clotting on arterial walls.

Salmon is good, tasty stuff, but how much do you really know about the salmon you’re eating? Can this wonderful fish, touted for its healthful benefits, be harmful to you? The answer is a resounding “yes,” and the core issue lies in the dramatic differences between farmed and wild salmon.

Decades ago, most salmon was available only through wild fisheries, but high levels of pollutants found in wild fish in the 1970s, together with the emerging Wild West era of globalization in the seafood imports business, spurred the growth of fish farming all over the world. Americans fell in love with the cheaper price of the unregulated, imported farmed fish (70 percent of all seafood eaten in this country is imported) and, combined with the explosion of good news regarding salmon’s healthful benefits, this created the monstrous demand for the fish itself.

As demand increased and new farming techniques (ocean net pens, GMO feed systems, increased processing efficiency of industrial farming, to name a few) created more fish, the prices fell and restaurants fell in love with salmon as well. Retailers of all kinds found that salmon could be purchased cheaply on the wholesale market, flown in daily from all points of the globe. Thanks to new packing techniques, it could arrive filleted and portioned, a labor saver that made salmon even cheaper to put on a menu.

Now the U.S. market is flooded with cheap farmed salmon from Chile, Scandinavia and Canada. But there are problems. Despite improvements in recent years, net pens release too much waste into the water and reintroduce the waste to other fish, both penned and wild. The use of antibiotics, pesticides and GMOs continues to increase the adverse environmental impact of salmon farming.

Additionally, because 95 percent of wild salmon in our country comes from the Pacific Northwest, coastal fishing communities that had depended for centuries on the sustainable renewable resource of wild salmon have increasingly turned to the oil industries for economic relief. Ouch.

It gets worse. Studies conducted by the Environmental Working Group have shown that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been found in 70 percent of farmed imported fish purchased in supermarkets. Ironically, these PCBs, 12 compounds in all, most closely resemble dioxin, the worst of the industrial pollutants whose presence helped shutter many wild fisheries 30 years ago.

PCBs contain potent cancer-causing agents and pose neurodevelopmental risks to children. Farmed fish accumulate PCBs from the salmon-chow-type feed they ingest, a mixture made from ground-up small fish whose sourcing is circumspect and unregulated. The PCB levels in farmed salmon are high enough to restrict eating the fish to once a month at most, but 23 million salmon-eating Americans are encouraged to eat salmon far more frequently than that! Both the FDA and the EPA have more restrictive PCB-level standards on wild fish (updated in 1999) than on farmed fish (an outdated 1984 update) so regulation over this vital health issue has been minimal.

So why is this salmon sold in our markets? Because according to experts, American inspectors at the FDA don’t test for a majority of fungicides, antibiotics, pesticides and PCBs. Salmon is tested at our borders for only a limited number of chemicals (as opposed to more than 50 for poultry) and according to both Congressional and watchdog groups, the under-manned FDA checks only 2 percent of seafood imports. According to reporting by the Portland-based Oregonian newspaper, more than 70,000 tons of imported salmon came through Seattle-area ports last year, checked by only 31 inspectors whose responsibilities also include checking every other import on the docks.

What’s the answer for salmon lovers? Why, wild salmon, of course. What was once suspect is now reasonably pristine. Wild salmon from Alaska, for example, is some of the cleanest fish in the world, thanks to decades of properly managed fisheries. The fish has a diet that is primarily composed of phytoplankton and krill from some of the purest waters on the planet. Wild salmon today is one of the best-managed fisheries worldwide, and is a healthy choice for all of us – for our health, for our environment. Let’s support the coastal fishing industry that has for years been the only consistent political advocate consumers have had on their side.

Andrew Zimmern is a celebrated chef, expert culinary instructor, and Experience Life's regular "Edibles" columnist. You can find more of Chef Andrew's recipes and cooking suggestions in Life Time Fitness's Cooking for Life section.

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