Posted on July 20, 2011 - by

How to Be a Salmon Savvy Gourmet

Photo: Karen Miller/Creative Commons

Today’s guest post is courtesy of Ana Simeon from Sierra Club BC and Seachoice.

Figuring out the right salmon to eat is maybe the biggest challenge when it comes to sustainable seafood. There are Pacific and Atlantic, farmed and wild. Then there are all the individual species – sockeye, chinook, coho, chum, and pink – which further divide into “runs,” populations that spawn in the same stream. To complicate matters even further, not all farmed salmon was created equal – there is “open net” and “closed containment”, with very different ecological impacts. If all this makes your head spin, worry not! Follow our Salmon Ladder, an easy step-by-step process to help you navigate the diversity of salmon on the market and the conflicting claims of suppliers. The Salmon Ladder is based on Seachoice’s science-based ranking system developed in collaboration with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Meet the Hero: Pacific Salmon

These fish are absolutely amazing and more than worth the effort to get to know, even if they weren’t such a healthy and delicious seafood treat. Salmon are a creature of contrast: they spend most of their lives in the ocean, yet they play a key role in the ecology of the coastal forest. They are delicious and full of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids which sustains bald eagle populations, allows bears to fatten up for the winter, and provides up to half the nitrogen needed by the giant trees of the coastal rainforests. Thanks to instinctual abilities that are still not fully understood, each individual fish comes back to its native stream to spawn. This means that each river and stream has its own genetically distinct population or “run.” This genetic diversity is part of what makes wild salmon such amazing survival artists.

Meet the Villain: Salmon Farms in the Ocean

If you look at a map of the West Coast from Alaska to California, you will see hundreds of sheltered bays and inlets. This is where young salmon fry like to hang out and fatten up before swimming out into the open ocean. Unfortunately, these same bays and inlets are dotted with hundreds of giant salmon feedlots.

Imagine tens of thousands of fish held in net pens in the ocean. Because of overcrowding, they are swarming with parasites and disease and require constant application of chemicals. Wild salmon fry on their migration routes have to run the gauntlet of these farms and are no match for such an assault of parasites, particularly the notorious sea louse. As has been repeatedly demonstrated by research from scientists around the world, sea lice from fish farms are a key factor in killing off young fry. This process has already wiped out the plentiful salmon runs of Scotland, Ireland, Norway and other northern European counties. It will happen in North America, too, unless we, as consumers, stand up for wild salmon by boycotting open-net farmed salmon and demanding sustainable industry practices.

Farms Belong on Land

This doesn’t mean we must abandon the idea of salmon farming altogether. Impact on wild fish can be eliminated by keeping the farms on land, like any freshwater aquaculture. This is called closed-containment technology and has been successfully pioneered in Washington State. Look for the SweetSpring brand freshwater Coho, grown and harvested at a land-based closed containment salmon farm. SweetSpring Salmon is rated a SeaChoice “Best Choice.”

Large salmon farming conglomerates don’t like the idea of closed containment because they would rather have the ocean perform the service of cleaning and aerating the pens for free. This is where you and I come in with our magic cloak: customer power. Please vote with your wallet and tell your friends – withholding your dollar is the kind of feedback that ultimately the industry will not be able to ignore.

The Salmon Ladder

Step 1: If a fish is labelled “Farmed Salmon” or “Atlantic salmon,” leave it alone. Atlantic salmon has been fished practically to extinction in the wild so any Atlantic salmon sold commercially comes from open-net feedlots. The fish raised in closed containment are Pacific coho, not Atlantic.

Step 2: Choose “Farmed Salmon – Closed Containment” if you’re in a rush and don’t have time to investigate various wild salmon options. This is an ocean-friendly, sustainable choice.

Step 3: With wild salmon, play detective. Your efforts will be amply rewarded by the unbeatably delicious taste. Ask your server where your salmon was caught, then consult your SeaChoice guide or iPhone app for the most up-to-date rankings. The rankings can be different from fishery to fishery, and from species to species, depending on how they were caught and where.

Download Additional Resources:

Wait there’s more! Our wild Alaskan salmon are under threat: To learn more about how to protect one of our most valuable sustainable fisheries, check out the FRESH campaign to halt the construction of Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay. We are pressuring the EPA to protect this sensitive watershed, rather than supporting corporate interests.

Ana Simeon works as communications coordinator and grassroots organizer for Sierra Club BC and Seachoice, a coalition of five internationally respected Canadian conservation organizations working to shift the market to sustainable seafood. Ana also writes for BC print and online media on environmental topics. Providing social media and online content for Seachoice taps into her passion for local food, food security and all things culinary.

Ana enjoys hiking, bird-watching, and grows a sizeable vegetable garden with her husband Tom. On cold, rainy days, she keeps to her fireside with a book from her extensive collection of 1930 British detective fiction.



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  1. Visit My Website

    August 5, 2011


    joe bassett said:

    The oceans they are dumping nuclear waste in and this will destroy the oceans in time. There are farmed raised fish, but you don’t want what comes from Asia.

  2. Visit My Website

    August 5, 2011


    Alison Richards said:

    Thanks for a great post complete with guidelines for purchasing salmon. We all need to do our part to spread the word about genetically modified salmon and the damage that open water farming does.

  3. Visit My Website

    August 5, 2011


    meg farness said:

    This website seems to be dedicated to the freshest and the bestest, but what do you know about canned salmon?

  4. Visit My Website

    August 12, 2011


    Crystal Cun said:

    Hi Meg, thank you for your great question! I consulted our experts and did some research and have come up with the following conclusions for canned salmon. In general, I would look first to whether it’s wild; secondly, prioritize Alaskan salmon. The sustainably farmed closed-containment salmon is not being canned at this time, so any canned farmed salmon would be Atlantic, and therefore ranked “Red (Avoid)”. Some sources of sustainably-caught wild canned salmon include:

    – Whole Foods’ in-house brand, and Trader Joe’s Red.

    – Goldseal Wild Alaskan and BC salmon:

    – Vital Choice Wild Red Alaskan Sockeye Salmon (online only unfortunately):

    I hope that helps!