At the grocery a few weeks ago, I was looking over the selection of smoked salmon when another shopper walked up, examined a package and exclaimed in horror, “color added??!!” A lawsuit filed several years ago forced the marketers of farmed salmon to inform consumers that color is added to make the flesh of the salmon pink rather than gray. The reality is that the chemical used to color the salmon, astaxanthin, is a manufactured copy of the pigment that wild salmon eat in nature, which gives wild salmon their pinkish-red color. Many of us might choose not to consume fish with an added chemical of any type, but this colorant is probably not a big worry to most consumers. As the shopper above put the fish back and walked away, I wondered if she knew the whole biography of that package of farmed salmon. What I think would really turn people away from the farmed version of salmon are the chemicals used in aquaculture that don’t show up on the labels in our local stores.
Because the salmon are raised in very unnatural, crowded pens, diseases are a big problem, resulting in antibiotics being added to the fish feed. Additionally, farms have used anti-parasitic drugs to kill the sea lice that overpopulate and attach themselves to the salmon in the pens. There are probably any number of chemicals and drugs in farmed salmon, and not listed on the package, that are cause for more concern than the colorant.
Here is an interesting link for more information about the safety of farmed salmon. I now choose not to eat farmed salmon, but for reasons in addition to the safety question. Specifically, salmon farming is absolutely disastrous to local fish populations and local environments into which salmon fish farms are placed.
Wild fish populations the world over are in trouble because of the modern methods of commercial fishing. For example, tuna fisherman now routinely use sonar, computer, and gps technology, combined with spotter aircraft, to locate tuna. Then the huge seiners scoop up the entire school of fish, allowing nothing to escape. Even when there are laws regulating harvests, they can be impossible to enforce. I remember fishing years ago out on the Cordell Banks, an ocean preserve where only sport fishing was allowed. Often we would see commercial fishing boats with their nets down inside the boundaries. We would report the offenders, but in the rare instance when enforcement could arrive so far offshore, the fishermen would have been alerted and moved into open fishing grounds. But, to get back on topic, if you thought that buying farmed salmon saves the wild salmon resource, you might be surprised by the reality.
Commercial salmon farms actually harm wild salmon populations. The farms release toxins, diseases, and parasites into the surrounding waters. Strains of farmed fish escape their pens and compete with the wild salmon. In British Columbia, the Atlantic Salmon has already taken up permanent, reproducing, residence in several rivers. Many people have worked long and hard to save endangered runs of pacific salmon, but the Atlantic Salmon is now an invasive species that competes with the natural, endangered species. If salmon could be successfully farmed in landlocked commercial ponds, at least the damage to wild ocean salmon could be reduced. I do doubt, however, that any presently feasible methods of farming salmon can produce a product I would feel safe eating.