LA Chef Editorial – Salmon from the wild to the test tube

(Originally published November 21, 2015 on

In this amazing video, ABOVE ILIAMNA by Jason Ching, fast forward to the one minute-twenty mark and just LOOK at all the salmon returning to Alaskan waters to breed! Once upon a time before waterways were damned, polluted, and diverted, there were this many (and more) salmon in the Columbia, Snake, Sacramento, Klamath and San Joaquin River systems on West Coast as well as in the many river systems on the East Coast of the United States. These rivers have been damned for hydroelectric power and artificial lakes, have been polluted by industries including industrial agricultural, and have had their waters diverted for both consumption and irrigation. Yes wild salmon have also been over-fished, but populations could recover if the river systems to which salmon returned, bred, and were born in again- to repeat the cycle- weren’t made inaccessible, diverted or destroyed by pollutants.

 The salmon fry that first traveled down these rivers to the oceans and returned three or so years later as mature fish to breed and then die not only provided food for indigenous people and animals like eagles and bears but also fertilizer rich with minerals from the sea for trees and soils through the salmon’s rotting corpses after spawning and through the manure of the animals that ate these returning fish. Thus salmon were part of a much larger distribution system of nutrients that re-nourished the earth’s animals, plants and soil

But now Alaska’s Bristol Bay is one of the few remaining places in the world where the salmon still run freely. Elsewhere in the lower forty-eight on the west coast hatcheries are required to keep wild populations of salmon from going extinct. These salmon no longer contribute what they did to the nutrient cycle of the vast ecosystem’s wildlife, vegetation and soil. Plus now two-thirds of Alaska’s salmon is exported abroad so they aren’t even consumed here by people in our own country, the United States.

Furthermore fresh wild salmon is seasonal. Out of season salmon can be dried (think jerky), smoked, frozen or canned. But now people have forgotten about seasonality, so instead they expect fresh salmon year round on their restaurant menus and in their grocery stores. Thus now much of the salmon consumed has been farmed in ecologically detrimental pens off the coasts of Scotland, Norway, Chile, Canada and the United States. Such fish have been selectively bred to grow faster and better convert feed.

These aren’t the same fish as wild salmon. They don’t get the same exercise and don’t eat all the same food so the texture and fat composition of the meat is very different. Plus just as importantly farmed salmon don’t enhance or contribute to the ecosystems from which wild salmon once came, went and returned. Such farmed salmon compete with wild salmon for food since a lot of the feed for farmed fish is bait fish that wild salmon would otherwise eat. Such farmed salmon also undermine the waterways where wild salmon live with fish lice and pollutants from the pens where these farmed salmon are kept. In Chile, escaped salmon have become an invasive species adversely impacting ecosystems where salmon never previously existed in the Southern hemisphere.

Rather than restore rivers and estuaries so more wild salmon populations can be replenished over time, even more manipulation with salmon genetics are being explored to enhance feed conversion and increase growth rates. This manipulation includes transgenic creations where DNA that produces anti-freeze proteins from the Ocean Pout is inserted into the DNA of Atlantic Salmon to enhance growth hormone production of this farmed fish. The FDA, despite numerous petitions and protests, just approved such GMO transgenic salmon. Who really knows what the health ramifications of such fish will be especially since such fish won’t be labeled as transgenically altered and therefore won’t easily be traceable for any nutritional studies. Though these transgenically altered salmon on paper have some advantages like better feed conversion and can be reared in tanks rather than the ocean, what happens if these fish end up in river pens when fry is sold by the company that owns the patent on these life forms.

Plus there is the larger ethical question of should any animal be patented in the first place. What’s next genetically patented cattle that doesn’t emit methane, and genetically modified pigs that grow full size in three months? If corn and soy are a precedent for what could happen, how could such patent holders then, in turn, control the food supply?

Regardless, such transgenic salmon do nothing to restore the nutrient cycle of the ecosystems where salmon come from and return to, so shouldn’t we first restore what naturally evolved before we turn to a transgenic alternative that is further removed from the context of nature? Do we really need to create possibly even more problematic solutions to the problems that we, mankind, have created? Besides when the United States is currently exporting two-thirds of its wild salmon, why does it even need to import transgenic salmon from tanks in Canada and Panama where these GMO fish are born and raised? Again, wild populations of salmon could recover if the estuaries and river systems to which salmon returned, bred, and were born in again- to repeat the cycle- were made more accessible, were less polluted and less diverted. This would restore balance rather than the alternatives which reductively over simplify while creating imbalance that will need yet another technological magic bullet sometime in the future to again temporarily fix.

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