Wild salmon eat mostly wild fish, pink krill and plankton, but that’s not on the menu for the salmon that will be grown inside buildings at two new midcoast aquaculture facilities that are on the drawing board in Belfast and Bucksport.
When salmon aquaculture started in the 1980s, salmon was a luxury meal on the weekend. Now, it is the fastest growing food production system in the world, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
There is big money to be made, too. Shareholders in salmon aquaculture saw returns of 45 to 60 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to the Financial Times, as demand went up and algae blooms, mass mortalities of salmon, and invasions of sea lice hit the sea-pen industry, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Those returns have weakened in 2018 as more salmon farms started up, but financial returns still look strong ahead, according to the FAO.
With those kinds of returns, investment has followed and technology, too, that may be sophisticated enough to reduce the environmental impact of large indoor, onshore salmon aquaculture facilities.
Often referred to as an RAS — a recirculating aquaculture system — the proposed indoor aquaculture facility in Belfast will produce 66 million pounds a year. That is small compared to just up the road in Bucksport where a competitor will produce 110 million pounds a year. A proposed RAS in Florida will produce 198 million pounds of Atlantic salmon, or about five percent of fresh salmon consumed in America each year, according to Seafood Source.
Local impacts of a large-scale aquaculture facility are one concern, but on the global scale, growing salmon in a contained RAS system has many supporters in the environmental community.
The Bucksport facility is headed up by a board member of The Nature Conservancy, for example, and Seafood Watch gives a cautious thumbs up to RAS because it produces protein efficiently and can do so with lower environmental impacts than sea pens.
For one thing, RAS is designed to use water and energy efficiently.
There is also research indicating that onshore, indoor RAS salmon farms have a lower carbon footprint and are cost competitive with ocean-pen farming, as a 2016 paper from SINTEF, Norway’s largest research institute for energy and climate technology, indicates.
But there is a big unanswered question.
It is perhaps the most important question in terms of sustainability of salmon aquaculture, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.
The IUCN is made up of government and civil-society organizations.
What are the salmon going to eat?
Even though the percentage of wild forage fish used in feed has dropped from 90 percent in the 1980s to roughly 20 percent today (it varies depending on the growth stage of the salmon), the forage fish are under pressure from over-fishing.
The challenge is feeding salmon nutritionally rich food that is affordable and environmentally sustainable, according to the IUCN.
Because salmon aren’t the only thing that eats forage fish. Everything eats those big schools of fatty little fish, from penguins to puffins, striped bass to swordfish, whales to dolphins. Krill, half a notch lower on the food chain, are what give wild salmon that rich red color. They are in the spotlight, too, along with the herring, menhaden, capelin and other forage fish that give salmon its Omega-3 health boost and rich taste.
I asked Erik Heim, CEO of the Nordic Aquafarms project in Belfast, if his fish food was going to be sustainable.
I was, of course, referring to the fate of the fatty little forage fish.
But Heim directed his answer to two other concerns: whether the feed would be genetically modified and whether it would be certified as organic.
Heim said the feed would be non-GMO (genetically modified organism) and perhaps organic.
“We are definitely going to make sure the feed is non-GMO and we are looking into organic-certified fish feed,” said Heim. “It costs more, and we want to make sure it makes economic sense to do that.”
“Not much of the salmon feed in the industry is organic,” said Heim. “The big feed suppliers in Norway generally are not.”
“GMO feed is not really an issue, there,” he said. “There is no GMO source in Europe, so it doesn’t really come up. There is more in the U.S. and it’s a different dialogue here in the U.S. because of that.”
Actually, it will come up.
And it will come up because of those fatty little forage fish.
I asked Erik Heim the question again, a bit differently.
“What about sustainability when it comes to using wild fish in the feed?” I asked.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch updated its sustainability standards in 2016 to ding salmon aquaculture producers who were relying too heavily on forage fish in their feed. They even dinged them if they didn’t supply the data about forage fish or if the data wasn’t very useful. The Best Choice stamp from Seafood Watch can bring a premium price for salmon on the fresh fish market since sustainability matters to many salmon consumers. Salmon aquaculture generally also still has a public relations problem related to practices that were common decades ago when heavy antiobiotics and mismanaged waste led headlines.