why I won’t eat farmed Atlantic salmon

In a recent blog post, I wrote about food sources of omega-3 fatty acids (and why I often recommend people take fish-oil supplements.) The clear winner was farmed Atlantic salmon — something I will never recommend and personally will not eat.

Here’s why.

North-American Atlantic salmon runs are functionally extinct

The only real places you can find any in the United States are in Maine, where they are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. (I wrote the first stories about this in the late 1990s when I covered environmental issues for the Bangor Daily News. Here’s my successor’s story about the eventual endangered listing.)

So you won’t find wild Atlantic salmon on the shelves at Albertson’s. What you will find is farmed salmon. You’d think that would be a reasonable alternative. But as with all critter husbandry, this comes at a cost to the environment, the critters in question, and the subsequent nutritional value of the food they become.

farmed salmon can harm wild salmon populations

These fish are often raised in net pens in the ocean. This is smart from a cleanliness perspective: the fish aren’t swimming around in a tank like hippies making soup in a hot tub. (Hand-raised emoji.)

But if the fish escape their pens, as they did in a massive 2017 Washington state incident, they can compete with local wild populations and ultimately undermine restoration efforts. (Washington banned the practice from state waters in 2022.)

Even when the fish don’t escape, any diseases from overcrowding can transfer to wild populations, and their concentrated population can cause local pollution.

farmed salmon is higher in persistent organic pollutants.

Yes, wild fish all have some levels of mercury, of which we all need to be mindful (especially folks who are or want to become pregnant). But farmed salmon really outdo themselves concentrating PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).

PCBs  were used in industrial applications until the U.S. banned them in 1979. PCBs are linked to cancer and can harm the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine (hormone) systems.

These chemicals are known called persistent environmental pollutants (or POPs) because they take forever to go away. In fact, they’re sometimes known as “forever chemicals.” And they love to accumulate in fat — including the tissues of fatty fishes and the humans that eat them.

And depending on the study, farmed salmon have been found to have 5 to 16 times more PCBs than wild salmon, and 3-4 times more than what’s found in other foods. It’s likely coming from their feed, which is made from smaller fishes such as herring and anchovies.

farmed salmon is dyed red

Wild fish get their deep red coloring from what they eat in the ocean, including colorful crustaceans such as krill and shrimp. That coloration shows you that the wild fish are high in antioxidants including astaxanthin, which helps protect your brain and nervous system and reduces inflammation and heart disease risk. Some reports find that astaxanthin helps keep your skin elastic, reducing wrinkles and overall damage. (Sockeye salmon has the most.)

Farmed fish eat feed pellets, as described above, and their flesh tends to be gray. Because that looks icky and un-salmonlike, fish farmers add red dye to the feed to pigment the fishes’ flesh. If you’d prefer to avoid non-food additives (as I would recommend), farmed fish is not your friend.

fishy antibiotics

Like any critters growing in crowded conditions for corporate profit, sickness is a serious concern. If bacteria get into the tank or pen, it can quickly infect the whole school. So just as ranchers and poultry growers typically feed their animals antiboitics, so too do aquaculturists. When I first changed my diet to match my health goals, seafood was the one area safe from this practice. With the advent of fish farming, that’s no longer the case.

farmed Atlantic salmon is ubiquitous

Most of these issues above are not unique to farmed Atlantic salmon and aquaculture in general. Many of our processed foods, and even our unprocessed ones, are loaded up with antibiotics, dyes, POPs and more. The EPA is quick to note that even the high levels of PCBs found in farmed salmon is under the limit of what they consider safe.

But as a provider specializing in natural health, which always includes good food choices, I want to make sure this issue was on your radar. It wasn’t on mine for a long time, until it was.

If you’re buying salmon and nothing loudly shouts that the salmon is wild, assume that it’s farmed Atlantic. That means most salmon packaged smoked salmon (think the stuff that goes on East Coast bagels) and what you get at sushi or other restaurants is almost certainly farmed Atlantic.

Now you know.


where to get wild fish:

Wild Alaskan Company offers home-delivered fish boxes on your schedule. (Read their take on the 2017 fish spill here.)

Salmon Sisters of Homer, Alaska, offers 5- and 10-pound boxes of sockeye salmon portions, delivered to you. They also have a nifty cookbook.

Schoolhouse Fish Co. of Petersburg, Alaska, offers the fish equivalent of Community Supported Agriculture. Buy in a group, in advance, and save substantially. This is most of what’s filling my freezer.



Header photo by Tamas Pap on Unsplash.