Fact vs. Fiction
Farmed salmon interbreed with native Pacific salmon stock.
Farmed salmon are harvested at approximately three years of age, before reaching sexual maturity. Furthermore, previous attempts by the State of Washington to stock Puget Sound rivers with Atlantic salmon have failed, and previous escapes from other net pen facilities did not result in reproducing populations. The process of mate selection by Pacific salmon excludes Atlantic salmon; laboratory studies conducted under ideal conditions have been unable to produce offspring from such a mating.
Farmed salmon colonize native waters.
Because cultured Atlantic salmon stocks have been bred and reared in captivity for generations and have become highly domesticated in nature, Atlantic salmon quickly perish if they escape, due to their inability to find food and poor ability to avoid predators. Escaped Atlantic salmon that have been recaptured and analyzed in Puget Sound had empty stomachs and swollen gall bladders, which indicates that they have not been eating.
Attempts were made by state agencies during the 20th century to introduce and establish Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound. Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife released Atlantic salmon smolts for the purpose of establishing runs in 1951, 1980, and 1981. These efforts failed, as have attempts by the Canadian government, which released over 8 million Atlantic salmon into Pacific waters over many decades, with no resulting colonization or interbreeding.
For colonization to occur, Atlantic salmon would need to be successful in each step of a complicated life history, and complete the life history in numbers sufficient to perpetuate the stock. Atlantic salmon have been reared in Washington hatcheries and marine net pens since the 1970s and have become domesticated. Farmed Atlantic salmon are not equipped to survive, reproduce and colonize in the wild.
Farmed salmon compete with native salmon for food.
Farmed salmon have not developed a foraging instinct and do not compete with wild salmon for food or prey on their smolt.
Farmed salmon are vectors of disease.
Salmon farms have economic incentive to maintain the health of their fish stocks through strict bio-security measures, disease control practices, 100 percent vaccination of the juvenile fish prior to transfer to marine net pens, and maintaining growing conditions conducive to healthy and fast-growing fish populations.
Like tribal hatcheries, farmed salmon hatcheries use protected water sources and a captive broodstock program to minimize potential disease vectors. All adult brood fish are screened for viral and bacterial pathogens during spawning by a licensed veterinary service to verify the disease-free status of the broodstock and the resultant gametes. Washington salmon farms employ full-time fish health professionals to administer bio-security protocols and routinely monitor the health status of fish at the farm sites.
Farmed salmon carry sea lice.
Sea lice are not found on fish farmed in Puget Sound in any significant number. Permitting requirements mandate the counting and reporting of sea lice on farmed fish, and those records are available to the public.
Farmed salmon are Frankenfish mutants.
Atlantic salmon that are farmed in Washington are not genetically modified, nor are they fed growth promoters or hormones. Malformations may naturally occur in any species population; fish with malformations that would be especially vulnerable to predators in a wild environment may be able to persist and mature in a farmed environment, where no predators are present. However, the presence of malformations among farmed salmon is rare and is in no way indicative of the health of the overall farmed salmon population.
Farmed salmon are fed antibiotics that affect native fish and consumers.
The two antibiotics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in farmed fish have been proven safe without residual impacts for over 40 years. They are also used at many other hatcheries operated by the state, tribes, and private parties. They are only used under veterinary prescription, never as a preventative measure.
Salmon farms are feed lots in the water
Salmon exhibit nature schooling behaviors on the farm. Fish densities in net pens typically do not exceed 4 percent of available space even when salmon are full grown. In addition to our farmers’ concern for animal welfare, there is no advantage gained by over stocking, as overcrowding creates fish health issues and affects the quality of the final product.
Farmed salmon create clouds of waste in Puget Sound.
Today’s farmers use underwater cameras and modern technologies to avoid wasting expensive feed. Farms are subject to permits issued through a well-developed regulatory system administered by the Washington Department of Ecology, and are required to regularly monitor environmental conditions and report that information to agencies that then make the data available to the public.
Atlantic Salmon should only be farmed on land.
Our salmon farmers are experts in land-based salmon farming because our fish spend almost half of their lives in land-based hatcheries where recirculation systems are used. We know that closed systems may work on some species for their entire life cycle. We also grow our broodstock, or parent fish, in these systems for their entire lives. However, it is not currently economically viable, environmentally sustainable, or in the best interests of fish welfare to grow Atlantic salmon to market size on a commercial scale in these systems.
A number of challenges must be overcome, including water and land usage, real costs of energy, and considerations around animal welfare, not to mention the quality and acceptance of the product (and its inevitably high retail price) by the consumer. Our industry continues to invest in technological improvements to land-based salmon farming systems because we recognize its proven technology and its valuable role in the freshwater and early rearing part of the salmon’s life cycle. However, the evidence provided to date strongly recommends that, given current technology, land-based fish farming systems are best suited to the early growth stages of Atlantic salmon. These systems are not the best alternative for the commercial production of the species to market-size.
Pacific salmon can be farmed just as easily as Atlantic salmon.
Atlantic salmon are much more adaptable to farming than Pacific salmon because the species grows quickly and efficiently, is more docile and is disease resistant. There is also a strong market demand for the species. Pacific salmon have been farmed in British Columbia and Chile on a small, niche basis. Broad commercial viability of such an approach remains to be proven.