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Salmon farming makes strides toward improvement

DEB LINDSEY / Washington Post
Gallery: Salmon farming makes strides toward improvement

Come dinnertime, wild salmon is an excellent choice. Many of the Pacific fisheries are well-managed, and the fish itself is healthful and delicious.

The problem is, there isn't very much of it.

Globally, the wild salmon harvest comes to about 2 billion pounds a year. Divided by 7 billion earthlings, that's just one serving per person.

What's a salmon eater to eat?

Go back just 10 years, and the answer was definitely not farmed salmon. "It was the thing you weren't supposed to buy," says Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, which established the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to create sustainability standards for shellfish and fin fish aquaculture worldwide.

When the industry was new, salmon farms were accused of polluting the oceans, spreading sea lice, fostering disease, allowing escapees, and depleting stocks of forage fish, up to 7 pounds of which went into each pound of farmed Atlantic salmon.

For the industry to survive, farmers had to clean up their act, and that's what they started to do.

By 2004, the WWF had begun to develop standards, and in June, it released more than 100 pages of them. Farms meeting the standards will be ASC-certified.

Meantime, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has noted improvements. It awarded its first "buy" recommendation to an open-pen farm in Chile named Verlasso, a project of salmon producer AquaChile and DuPont. The chemical giant developed a genetically engineered yeast that produces a substitute for fish oil - vital to the salmon's diet - that's biochemically identical to the real thing.

Seafood Watch is evaluating farms in other areas, with revised ratings to come out at year's end.

Areas of industry improvement include:

Pollution. Feed, feces, and other byproducts of high fish concentrations are better controlled. "There's an intuitive sense of feedlots," says Peter Bridson, a Seafood Watch research manager. "The gut reaction is that they're a horrific source of pollution. But it seems now, from longer-term data sets, that the impacts are restricted to a small area around the pens."

He notes that we know more about finding sites where farms work well, accurately predicting their impact, and assessing the total number of farmed fish an area can support.

Escapees. There are a lot fewer of them, and concern about Atlantic salmon in nonnative waters has decreased.

There still are problems in their natural range, however, with evidence of farmed-salmon genes in wild Atlantic salmon. The new ASC standards acknowledge the importance of keeping farmed salmon securely penned.

Feed conversion. That industry average of as much as 7 pounds of forage fish to grow 1 pound of farmed salmon has come down to 21/2 or 3 pounds. One reason: Cameras detect when the feed starts falling through the pen, indicating the salmon have finished eating, and the feed is stopped.

The content of the feed has changed, as well. Forage fish provide two essential products: fish meal, for protein, and fish oil, for omega-3 fatty acids.

Twenty-five years ago, fish meal made up 50 percent of feed. Now, it's 15 percent or less, as other kinds of protein are being substituted. Plant sources of omega-3s are replacing some fish oil, but they don't provide the long-chain omega-3 fats that are linked to health benefits. The industry is looking into alternatives such as algae to further cut reliance on forage fish.

Another concern about feed is added astaxanthin and canthaxanthin, carotenoids that give salmon its pink color. In the wild, fish get it naturally. On the farm, it has to be added to feed (hence, "color added" on the label). Canthaxanthin, in large doses, can cause retinal damage in humans, and the FDA limits the allowable amount in salmon feed.

Contaminants. In 2004, a controversial study found higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins in farmed salmon than in wild salmon. That scared consumers. More recent research weighing the contaminant risk against health benefits from omega-3s concluded that every serving of salmon, wild or farmed, is a net positive.

Contaminant content defies generalizations; some farmed salmon has higher levels than some wild, and vice versa. Greater use of plant oils in feed naturally lowers contaminant content, and because farmed salmon generally has more omega-3s, it can be a more healthful choice.

Parasites and disease. This is probably the most serious problem, particularly in areas where farmed salmon and wild populations coexist. "Sea lice and viruses continue to be issues," says Bridson, and the problem varies by region.

There is broad agreement that fish farms can raise parasite levels in wild fish. But farms are getting better at combating parasites. By using parasiticides just before the wild salmon come through an area, they decrease the chance of transferring them to wild populations.

Work remains to be done in salmon aquaculture. But everyone acknowledges that progress is being made.

Come dinnertime, that's good news.


Where to find responsibly farmed salmon

Verlasso farmed salmon from Chile is available in a variety of markets. To find one, check "Where to Buy" at Many of the vendors listed are distributors; call the one in your area to find retail outlets.

Whole Foods Market says it is committed to sustainable seafood and buys only from farms that meet its requirements, which specify salmon aquaculture policies on antibiotics, hormones, parasiticides, contaminant levels, environmental impact, and many other factors.

Costco has collaborated with the World Wildlife Federation on sustainability issues since 2006 and is working with farmed salmon suppliers to implement standards set by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

Trader Joe's has a stated policy of "shifting to sustainable sources." The company's website says, "We are in the process of developing a set of standards" for its farmed salmon suppliers.

Giant has a farmed salmon improvement program. The company's website says the supermarket chain works with "the salmon farms that supply our stores to continually improve the sustainability of their product."  

- Tamar Haspel


Farmed salmon beats wild in blind taste test

Read a story about salmon, and the odds are good that somewhere it'll tell you wild salmon tastes better than farmed.

But does it?

We decided to find out in a blind tasting by a panel that included Washington seafood chefs and a seafood wholesaler.

The fish swam the gamut. We had wild king from Washington, frozen farmed from Costco, and eight in between, including Verlasso farmed salmon from Chile.

Scott Drewno, executive chef of the Source by Wolfgang Puck, just steamed the fillets with a little salt.

The judgments were surprising. Farmed salmon beat wild salmon, hands down. The overall winner was the Costco frozen Atlantic salmon (Norwegian), but with an important caveat: It was packed in a 4 percent salt solution. So it wasn't strictly comparable to the others. It was also about $5 per pound cheaper.

The next three top-rated fish also were farmed: Trader Joe's, from Norway; Loch Duart, from Scotland; and Verlasso.

Although some samples had either the large flake and high fat content that gave them away as farmed, or the finer grain and meaty texture that identified them as wild, we could not consistently tell which was which.

The rankings on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best):

Score 7.6 - Costco farmed Atlantic, from Norway; $6 per pound.

6.4 - Trader Joe's farmed Atlantic, from Norway; $10.99 per pound.

6.1 - Loch Duart farmed Atlantic, from Scotland; $15 to $18 per pound.

6 - Verlasso farmed Atlantic, from Chile; $12 to $15 per pound.

5.6 - Whole Foods farmed Atlantic salmon, from Scotland; $14.99/ pound.

5.3 - ProFish wild king (netted), from Willapa Bay, Wash.; $16-$20 per pound.

4.9 - AquaChile farmed Atlantic, from Chile; $12 to $15 per pound.

4.4 - ProFish wild coho (trolled), from Alaska; $16 to $20 per pound.

4 - ProFish wild king (trolled), from Willapa Bay; $16 to $20 per pound.

3.9 - Costco wild coho, from Alaska; $10.99/ pound.


Tandoori Salmon With Cucumber Raita

Makes 4 servings

For the salmon and marinade:

6 tablespoons sweet paprika

Generous pinch ground turmeric

1/2 tablespoon ground cayenne pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons ground coriander

1 1/2 tablespoons cumin seed

1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom

3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt

4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons tamarind paste

1 cup honey

1 cup plain low-fat yogurt

Four 4-ounce skin-on salmon fillets

Beet strings, for garnish (see Notes)

Scallions, for garnish (see Notes)

1 teaspoon garam masala, for garnish

For the raita:

3/4 cup plain whole yogurt

3/4 cup creme fraiche

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup packed chopped cilantro leaves

2 cups chopped fresh mint

2 small Japanese or Persian cucumbers, cut into small dice

1 medium red onion, cut into small dice

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)

3/4 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1. For the salmon and marinade: Combine paprika, turmeric, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin seed, ground ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, sea salt, garlic, tamarind paste, honey, and yogurt in a blender. Puree until smooth, then pour into a gallon-size zip-top bag. Add salmon fillets, pressing out as much air as possible. Seal and massage to coat thoroughly. Marinate at a cool room temperature or in the refrigerator for 2 hours.

2. Meanwhile, make the raita: Combine the yogurt, creme fraiche, honey, cilantro, mint, cucumbers, red onion, salt, vinegar, lemon juice, garam masala, and cayenne pepper (to taste) in a blender. Puree until well incorporated. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Transfer to a serving bowl; cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving. Yields about 2 cups.

3. When ready to cook the fish, position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler.

4. Arrange the marinated fillets in a large ovenproof skillet, skin sides down. Broil about 3 minutes, using some of the marinade to baste the fish several times. Discard any remaining marinade. The salmon should be soft inside and barely opaque.

5. Create a small pool of raita on each plate. Place a fillet on top of each portion, carefully discarding the salmon skin as you work.

6. Toss together the beet strings and scallions in a medium bowl, then use the mixture to garnish each salmon fillet. Sprinkle each portion with garam masala; serve right away.


- From the Washington Post and executive chef Scott Drewno of the Source by Wolfgang Puck


Notes: The salmon needs to marinate for 2 hours, either at a cool room temperature or in the refrigerator. The raita needs to marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

To make beet strings, peel a small beet. Use a zester with a single slot for cutting or a small paring knife to cut matchstick-thin sticks or strips that follow around the vegetable. Place in ice water until ready to use.

To prep the scallions, cut the white and light-green parts on an extreme diagonal into 11/2- to 2-inch slices. Wrap in barely damp paper toweling until ready to use.

* Ingredients are too varied for a meaningful nutritional analysis.

Scandinavian Salmon Stew With Dill

Makes about 8 cups or 6 to 8 servings

12 ounces skinned salmon fillets (preferably Atlantic), pinbones removed

3 cups fish stock (may substitute 2 cups clam juice plus 1 cup water or no-salt-added chicken broth)

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 cups heavy cream

2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 2 cups; may substitute other potatoes that are waxy)

2 ounces pancetta, diced

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 medium shallots, minced (about 1/4 cup)

12 medium button mushrooms, stemmed and cut into quarters (about 2 cups)

1 teaspoon sea salt, or more as needed

1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked white pepper, or more as needed

1 medium leek, white part only, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1. Cut the salmon into 1-inch cubes; wrap tightly and refrigerate until ready to use.

2. Combine the fish stock and wine in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then cook until reduced by a third, 15 to 20 minutes. Add the heavy cream and potatoes to the saucepan; once the liquid returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, so it's barely bubbling. Cook for 5 minutes, until potatoes are just tender.

3. Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels. Cook the pancetta in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until it has crisped and browned, then transfer it to the paper towel-lined plate to drain. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter to the same skillet, along with half of the shallots and all of the mushrooms, stirring until the butter has melted. Cook until the moisture released by the mushrooms has evaporated and they have browned. Scrape the mushroom-shallot mixture into the saucepan. Season with the salt and pepper.

4. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in the same skillet over medium heat. Add the leek and the remaining shallots, stirring to coat. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the vegetables have softened. Then add them to the saucepan along with the pancetta and the chilled cubes of salmon, stirring gently to incorporate.

5. Once the liquid starts to bubble, cook for 1 minute, then remove saucepan from the heat. The salmon should be just cooked through. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed, and whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, making sure it has been thoroughly incorporated.

6. Just before serving, stir in the dill. Divide among individual bowls. Serve warm.


- From the Washington Post and chef Bob Kinkead of Ancora in Washington


Per serving (based on 8): 400 calories, 13 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, no sugar; 33 grams fat, 125 milligrams cholesterol, 630 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Tamar Haspel Washington Post
Comments  (4)
  • 0 like this / 0 don't   •   Posted 3:13 PM, 10/10/2013
    5 - 10 times carcinogenic risk with typical farm raised salmon.
  • 0 like this / 0 don't   •   Posted 3:13 PM, 10/10/2013
    5 - 10 times carcinogenic risk with typical farm raised salmon.
  • 0 like this / 0 don't   •   Posted 12:41 PM, 10/11/2013
    If you spent alot of time eating wild salmon, then go farm raised every once in a while you can certainly taste the difference. I can even tell the difference between the species of salmon. Sockeye for instance tastes different than king.
  • 0 like this / 0 don't   •   Posted 7:23 AM, 10/12/2013
    What a shill article for the salmon farming institute. The tastiest catch-of-the-day are the tumor-laden Schuylkill River 3-eyed Catfish. People who love their pets should never buy pet food containing salmon because it's the lowest quality rejected farmed fish highly carcinogenic. Additionally -the lowest quality worst of the lot (non-pet food) farmed-salmon would be offered at cheap restaurants catering to masses ( ie. the unnamed chain restaurants that advertise $9.99 complete dinners )