Seafood Watch upgrades rating of salmon from British Columbia, Canada

Published on
September 19, 2017

Salmon farmers and fishermen in British Columbia, Canada received good news on Monday thanks to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The aquarium’s Seafood Watch program released updated what-to-buy rankings for the fish, and those ratings included upgrades for farmed-raised Atlantic salmon throughout the province as well as for wild chinook and coho salmon caught off the northern part of Vancouver Island. 

In its 2014 report, Seafood Watch listed all of those fish as ones for consumers to avoid, but new data indicates they’re now a good alternative. On the red-to-green scale, they moved from red to yellow. Ryan Bigelow, the program engagement manager for Seafood Watch, said that while there were still some concerns, there has also been substantial progress made.

“In Canada and the United States, salmon is an iconic species,” he said. “So, to have more choices available is huge for our business partners.”

Not everyone agreed with the upgrade. SeaChoice, a Canadian seafood watchdog group, disagreed with the Seafood Watch’s assessment on the spread of sea lice.

“We don’t see conclusive scientific evidence in the report to justify the ranking change,” said Karen Wristen, a SeaChoice steering committee member. “Peer-reviewed science indicates significant concerns remain in this respect.”

However, while Seafood Watch’s report indicates there is a need for some level of concern, the data the group received indicates that the disease spread is not having a population level impact, Bigelow said. It’s that new data that helped Seafood Watch improve the rankings for B.C. salmon. The lack of such data previously led to the “avoid” ranking.

British Columbia isn’t a major salmon producer. According to Jeremy Dunn of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association, the province processes about 76,000 metric tons annually, with 70 percent of that total coming from farmed fish. By comparison, Norway processes about 1.2 million metric tons annually.

Still, B.C. is a major source for the American market, as it exports about two-thirds of its harvest to the United States, he noted.

While Seafood Watch’s rankings are meant for consumers, Dunn said the rating upgrade might have a more profound impact on other aspects of the industry.

“We haven’t had a challenge selling it,” he said. “I think you might find some new customers through this ranking, but it’s certainly not going to necessarily see significant volumes heading into the United States because we simply don’t have the fish.”

Dunn said local farmers achieving third-party certifications led to the data that allowed Seafood Watch to bump up its rating. Now, they hope they can convince government and tribal leaders that the salmon farms are sustainable and environmentally friendly, allowing them to develop more locations for farms and produce more fish.

As more products shift from red to yellow on Seafood Watch’s scale, Bigelow said it allows the group to shift its focus, too. Now, that more areas are producing sustainable products they can work with them to get on the green list, which represents the best products to buy. 

“That’s really where we want these products to be,” he said.

The B.C. salmon upgrades represented three of the four improvements noted in Seafood Watch’s report. Atlantic salmon farmed in Scotland’s Orkney Isles also received an upgrade as researchers determined the farms in that region had fewer issues with sea lice and needed fewer chemicals that farms elsewhere in that country.

Bigelow said consumers who want to know they’re buying and eating a sustainable product should use the Seafood Watch application to find out specifics on how the fish was raised and caught.

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