The conundrum of organic salmon


Izetta Chambers

Published on
April 28, 2010

A couple of years back, there was an effort by our state congressional delegation to secure “organic” classification for wild Alaskan salmon.  This effort was unsuccessful, largely due to the argument that wild salmon feed out in the waters and their food cannot be controlled or monitored.  However, during my trip to the International Boston Seafood Show in March, I had an interesting discussion with a representative from a company peddling “organic” farm-raised salmon from overseas.  I asked him explicitly about the “organic” label, and pointedly inquired about the type of feed that they use. He indicated to me that some of their feed consists of organically grown vegetable sources, and some of it consists of wild-caught fish, such as sardines and other small fishes. 
How is it that farm-raised salmon, who have been shown to have a detrimental environmental impact on the coastal environs where they live in large netpens, are able to be labeled as “organic” while our wild salmon from pristine Alaskan waters are denied this classification?  Both consume wild feed, yet one has negative environmental consequences and the other actually contributes to a healthy ecosystem and upriver environment.  The salmon, after they spawn and die, are consumed by small isopods and other carrion feeders who disperse these vital nutrients and essential minerals all throughout the upriver and downstream environment, their bodies further degraded by mycelium, and the nutrients released throughout the riverine ecosystem.  All one needs to do is take a birds-eye look at Alaska’s river systems to see the impact that the protein-rich salmon have had on the coastal and upriver ecosystems, to see that the salmon play a very important function in enriching our Alaskan environment. 
There is a small movement currently to undermine the strength of the Alaska salmon brand by labeling salmon harvesting as “salmon ranching” and trying to portray all of Alaska’s salmon fisheries as hatchery-raised.  The hatchery plays a limited role in Alaska’s wild salmon, and in some areas, it is completely absent.  For instance, the Bristol Bay region is composed entirely of wild salmon that are born in Alaska’s rivers and streams, go out to the ocean to mature, and then make their return to the exact stream or creek where they were spawned.  This is the rule, rather than the exception.  Bristol Bay hosts the world’s largest natural wild sockeye salmon run and the second largest wild Chinook (King) salmon run.  Neither of these Bristol Bay wild Alaskan salmon are augmented by hatchery-raised spawn. 
Bottom line: although the internet maybe full of negative information on all sides of an issue, do your homework to find out all of the details that matter to you when making your seafood purchases.  The “gold standard” for seafood guides remains the Montery Bay Aquarium’s Guide to Sustainable Seafood.

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