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Point of View: Farmed fish no substitute for wild

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Terry Johnson
May 01, 2007

Two recent Point of View columns on farm-reared fish contain statements that beg a response. In February, Philip Walsh defended farmed salmon, and in March, National Fisheries Institute President John Connelly offered the view that aquaculture promotes wild stock sustainability. My main concern lies with Mr. Walsh's piece.

I'm not attacking farmed salmon, per se. There is a place for wild and farmed. People who value price over quality, uniformity over character, appearance over flavor, or simply don't know any better, are welcome to farmed salmon.

But Walsh made two statements that are simply untrue. He characterized wild salmon as a "seasonal delight" that "does not provide...the benefits of the year-round supply of farmed salmon." High-quality wild salmon is available year round. Perhaps he meant fresh wild salmon. A myth continues to persist that a fish sitting for days on ice is fresher and superior to one that was flash frozen at sea or in a modern shore plant only hours after harvest.

More egregious, however, is the claim that without farmed salmon, "pressure on wild stocks would have a severe impact." Walsh appears unaware of the role of fisheries management, which limits catches to the harvestable surplus - the production of stock that is above the level needed to maintain maximum sustainable yield. Market 
demand is not a factor in determining harvests. Farmed fish or no, harvest may not exceed what the stocks will support, and fishermen continue to take what's allowed. They just get paid a lot less. For decades Alaska wild salmon have returned in near record numbers under sound management.

Where wild salmon are depleted, habitat loss - not overfishing - usually is the cause. The availability of farmed salmon is more likely to exacerbate than alleviate that problem. When the public and politicians believe there is a ready substitute for a natural salmon resource there is less incentive to protect wild salmon habitat.

Connelly wrote, "Farmed seafood takes pressure off of the world's fisheries." In subsequent correspondence with me, Connelly referred to the problem of illegal, unregulated and unreported fisheries. It is plausible - if unproven - that in some cases a farmed substitute could kill the market for pirate fisheries products.

But I question Connelly's assertion that aquaculture is helping the domestic wild-capture fisheries to survive. Each innovation or policy change makes winners and losers. Seafood suppliers, and the corporations that own fish farms, have won handsomely on finfish aquaculture; commercial fishermen have lost proportionally. Part of my work in marine extension is trying to help fishermen survive and recover from the devastating impact aquaculture has had on the salmon industry.

I endorse the "one big family" view of the seafood industry and agree that its players should avoid infighting. Aquaculture advocates have a story to tell, but they should stick to the facts. The myth that aquaculture substitutes for wild harvest in the marketplace and therefore promotes sustainability should be laid to rest.


Terry Johns on is a professor of fisheries with the University of Alaska's Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program


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