September 20, 2022 - Written by: Nancy Pollard
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How To Play The Game

Salmon color cchart from DSMI must admit to being shocked at the discovery that, similar to the global control of seeds  which is centered on three companies,  the same situation remains true for fish — salmon, in particular. And salmon accounts for a major portion of consumed seafood.

Equally disturbing is that these huge enterprises have embarked on a collision course with open net “farming,” in coves along coastal areas off both hemispheres — subject to questionable supervision.  One would be forgiven for thinking that surely companies invested in this form  of aquaculture, would want to preserve the sources that provide them such a lucrative balance sheet. I’m afraid not so much. Rather, there exists (with only a few interruptions by regulations with teeth and lawsuits from both governmental bodies, outside organizations and communities) a focus on ignoring common sense stewardship of a vast resource and either manipulating or  controlling its regulation. It is a zero sum game. The fact that your farmed salmon’s appearance is chosen from a color wheel should at least raise an eyebrow. 

Salmon Slayers

In  the book Salmon Wars, The Dark Underbelly of Your Favorite Fish, authors Catherine Collins and Douglas FrantzSalmon wars book cover write in precise detail how a few companies have exploited the market for salmon, jiggering its pricing, using science when it supports a profit, and flouting it when that profit is endangered. One has to remember that open net fish farms were justifiably greeted by local governments as an answer to depleted wild fish stocks and depressed economies of coastal regions. Here are just a couple of corporate examples of how this hopeful technology has been turned on its ear. 

Cooke Seafood is a major fish farm player with a portfolio of at least ten subsidiaries and a footprint in the seafood industry throughout the world. It wears some scars on its ethical hide.  In 2013, a Cooke Seafood subsidiary – Kelly Cove Salmon – pled guilty to two counts of using a banned neurotoxin to combat a rampant contaminant in fifteen of its pens in the Bay of Fundy in Canada.  This neurotoxin (Cypermethrin) was used as a pesticide against sea lice and  was considered “harmless” to farmed salmon. According to court records, even though banned in Canada, Cypermethrin was smuggled into New Brunswick, Canada from the state of Maine.

And here is where the rule of unintended consequences played out. An investigation by Environment Canada into the deaths of hundreds of lobsters in traps and containers in nearby coves traced the problem directly to the Kelly Cove Salmon pens. The ultimate penalty of $500,000 – which was the largest environmental fine in Canada at that time — was really a legal negotiation finessed by Cooke Aquaculture from the original nineteen criminal counts charged against Cooke’s owner and two of his executives. Each was punishable by three years in prison and a $1 million fine. Court records were sealed.

Cooke Aquaculture currently participates in a project to reintroduce wild Atlantic Salmon into the Bay of Fundy. I had not realized that one cannot purchase wild Atlantic Salmon, as it is on the Endangered Species List. 


 On the western side of North America, in 2017, a havoc-wreaking event occurred in the Cypress Island farms inCypress Island pen collaps image from Puget Sound, which Cooke had recently purchased. One of the old pens imploded on its moorings, releasing over a quarter of a million Atlantic Salmon into the Pacific Ocean. Cooke’s executives and legal team blamed natural phenomena (including a solar eclipse!). But several investigations ultimately led to a court case in which it was revealed that, while Cooke professed intentions of  replacing the antiquated pens, it had not cleaned the pens on a regular basis and they were “fouled with impenetrable layers of mussels, kelp, and other marine growth.” A video was made available to NPR in this article and podcast.

The amount of filth and neglect was filmed by at least one diver and became a centerpiece for the controversial documentary underwritten by Patagonia – ArtiFishal  In the end,  Cooke was fined only $332,000 and some of its leases were cancelled.  Interesting to note that the Pacific Salmon is not adaptable to open net pen farming, whereas the Atlantic Salmon is. The company is currently trying to pursue other avenues of fish harvesting in the Puget Sound. While an EPA investigation into this debacle was closed after a year with no prosecution and no explanation, Cooke was obliged to pay $2.75 million in a related civil lawsuit to the Wild Fish Conservancy, a non profit organization. That discrepancy in fines is puzzling, to say the least. 

The Throne

But Cooke is not the largest player in lucrative fish-farming ventures to game the system. Mowi in Norway wears the crown. On our shores, a consumer lawsuit was prosecuted against Mowi USA’s Ducktrap Smoked salmon, forcing this subsidiary to remove  the terms “sustainable”, “naturally raised” and “from the coast of Maine” from its packaging, since it was proved these products were not from sustainable sources or even close to being naturally raised on Maine’s seacoast.

Worse was the massive die-off of  almost 3 million salmon in a Mowi subsidary in Newfoundland in 2019. Once againMowi salmon die off image from Seafoodsource websiste, outside natural occurrences were blamed – climate change this time, for warming waters. The fact was that the fish were weakened by chemical treatments for sea lice, and the algae blooms on the sea floor underneath the pens reduced the oxygen necessary for the fish to survive, according to the authors. An apology from the CEO was offered along with his resignation, but  Mowi refused to acknowledge the connection between its practices and the death of millions of fish. 

Even in Norway, itself, which has a troubled history of the fishing industry controlling the agencies that seek to regulate it – often with take-no-prisoners results, five companies, including Mowi, had to write checks for $85 million to settle a salmon price-fixing lawsuit. Catherine Collins wrote me further to say that once again Mowi claimed no wrongdoing, but the US Justice Department investigation is still underway.

A Country As A Corporation

Sometimes it’s a country and not a company that acts with short-sighted malfeasance, endangering its own waterways and its citizens along the way. I was surprised that after what I read about these two companies (and there are others, in Scotland, for example) that it is Chile that supplies about half the farmed salmon eaten in the US. It’s not particularly reassuring to know that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch says that half of the farmed salmon from Chile brought into the US should be avoided due to the excessive presence of chemicals found. As Collins noted in her email, how do you know which half you are purchasing from Chile.  Should you wonder why Chilean fish is so inexpensive, it is due to the free use of the coastal waters and very low labor costs.

Oceana, an organization that works with companies and countries to improve fish farming, states on its website thatChilean salmon farm from Portal University of Texas website Chile’s salmon farms are riddled with foul marine debris, and the fish are doused with loads of chemicals to keep sea lice and disease at bay. The alien salmon escapes from Chilean pens Oceana estimates at about over half a million a year. Further, Oceana currently works with the Chilean government to at least revise their schedule of antibiotics allowed in their salmon farms to exclude quinolones, which are banned in aquaculture in the US due to their negative effect on the human immune system.

The good news is that the new president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, who had a tough election win and had to soften his stance on the current status of Chile’s aquaculture practices, stated before Chile’s parliament that he wants a sustainable and profitable aquaculture presence in Chile. Also encouraging is that Norwegian salmon companies have cleaned up their practices and now offer some of the best examples of farmed salmon currently available.  We should understand that the improvements were certainly not made out of the kindness of their hearts. 

We cannot undo dams, or tear down coastal urban centers and other constraints that have hurt wild seafood stocks, but we should demand to purchase sustainably raised livestock — be it on land or in the sea. We can support organizations that promote best practices and scientific solutions. Knowledge is always key. Explore how to support technologies that operate according to best practices. Watch for state and federal regulations that protect fish and fish consumers, and lend your voice to make sure those rules cannot be easily contravened. A good place to begin is by visiting the ocean stewards linked in this article. They are doing a stellar job of leading us where we need to go. 

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1 year ago

Thank you for the focus on salmon, which for many of us is a preferred protein for health reasons. Little did we know. Will there be another installment identifying sources of “safe/good” farmed salmon in the DC area?