Fishermen smoking over farm salmon
Higher contaminant levels add fuel to argument for wild fish
By Amelia Hansen, Staff writer
11th January 2004
Pillar Point Harbor - San Mateo County, California -- Ask any local fisherman how he feels about farm-raised salmon and you are likely to get a terse answer -- if not a downright growl.
They will say the pen-raised fish -- which mostly comes from Norway, Chile and the United Kingdom -- don't taste as good as wild salmon, are bad for the environment and have driven market prices so low it's nearly impossible for fishermen to survive financially.
A new scientific study offers one more serious argument for going wild when it comes to eating salmon: farm-raised salmon contain higher concentrations of contaminants than their wild counterparts -- so much so that consumers should limit their intake of farm-raised fish.
"This just confirms many things that we have long suspected," said Duncan MacLean, president of the Half Moon Bay Fisherman's Marketing Association. "I think it's about time farm fish get their just rewards."
Fishermen at Pillar Point have tried various methods of promoting wild salmon, their livelihood. Last July 4, MacLean handed out free, fresh fish to hundreds of people. He also has a bumper sticker on the back of his truck that reads: "Friends don't let friends eat farmed salmon."
Jim Anderson, a salmon and crab fisherman out of Pillar Point, said many fishermen extol the virtues of wild salmon as they sell to customers off their boats.
"We tell them what's going on in the fisheries, the regulations, the differences in the fish. It's better like that, right off the boat, when we have eye contact," said Anderson.
The two-year study, conducted by a group of scientists from University of Albany, Cornell University and other institutions, was published this week in Science magazine. It analyzed 700 farmed and wild salmon.
Based on toxin levels from fish sampled in the different cities, San Francisco consumers are advised to eat farm-raised fish no more than once every two months.
People in Seattle and New York can eat farm-raised fish once a month, but consumers in Frankfurt, Germany, by contrast, are warned to limit their intake to once every five months. Exceeding the recommended amount, according to the study summary, "could pose unacceptable cancer risks."
Those risks, researchers believe, can be traced back the diets of farm-raised fish. Unlike wild salmon, which eat krill, zooplankton, and small fish farm-raised salmon eat high-fat fishmeal; the contaminants concentrate in their fat tissue.
Other studies, including a report released last fall by the Environmental Working Group, have also shown high levels of contaminants in farm-raised fish.
The current levels are higher than the guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 for recreational caught fish, but have not exceeded the standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1984.
"We do think that the levels (in farmed salmon) should be lowered," said Terry Troxell, an FDA division director and toxicologist. "However, we don't believe there is a public health concern with the levels seen here...Our message to consumers is not to alter their consumption of wild or farmed salmon. It's an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids."
Even those not convinced by the scientific argument may still decide against eating farm-raised fish. Supermarket farmed salmon contains some 50 percent more fat than wild salmon -- due to ground fish meal they are fed -- is less firm, and is naturally gray in colour. Dye is usually added to the fish to make it "salmon" pink.
In San Mateo County, many supermarkets carry farm-raised salmon -- mostly from Canada, England and Chile. They range in price from $3.49 to $9.99 a pound. An employee at Whole Foods Market at San Mateo said their farm-raised salmon, grown in the United Kingdom, is free of growth hormones, and contains no colour additives.
The farm-raised fish, though, continue to beat out the wild salmon in one category: convenience.
"If we have bad weather of can't go out into closed areas, we don't have access to the fish," Anderson said. "That's how farms have taken over our market -- reliability."
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.