The New York Times

May 28, 2003

Issues of Purity and Pollution Leave Farmed Salmon Looking Less Rosy


The images of salmon farming that the industry promotes seem pristine and natural, of fish frisking in icy cold clean waters, of wise management saving an endangered species while providing shoppers with the fish they love.

But critics say that image of the regal salmon, America's most popular fresh fish, is not the whole reality. Recent lawsuits accuse the industry of polluting the ocean, endangering dwindling stocks of wild salmon and failing to tell shoppers that they use artificial colors to make the fish red.

The criticisms echo many of those leveled at huge corporate farms on land.

"We've come to the point where we view these farms as hog lots or feedlots of the ocean," said Jeff Reardon, the New England conservation director of Trout Unlimited, which has worked with salmon farmers in Maine to reduce the number of fish that escape, to protect wild trout and salmon. "They breed disease and parasites. Like other big animal feedlots there are lots of problems. Some of their practices are beginning to improve, but over all the impact is not lessening."

Industry officials say that some problems have been dealt with and that critics exaggerate others.

"Mistakes were made originally, but to damn the industry on the basis of the early years is unfair," said Des Fitzgerald, the former chief executive of Atlantic Salmon of Maine. "I would never suggest there are no pollution problems." He added, "I maintain that salmon farms that are well run leave very little pollution."

Last week, a judge in Maine accused one of the largest salmon farming operations in the country of putting its profits ahead of environmental concerns, and of violating an order not to stock its pens with more fish until those concerns were addressed. Earlier this month, a group of Indian tribes in Canada sued salmon farmers in British Columbia, accusing them of practices that have killed millions of wild salmon. And last month, markets around the country began scurrying to relabel their farmed salmon after a class-action lawsuit in Washington State accused retailers of failing to tell shoppers that artificial color was added to fish feed.

As wild salmon have grown more scarce, the industry has increasingly used pens in coastal waters to raise salmon, growing them twice as quickly as fish in the wild. Eighty percent of the salmon sold in the United States were raised on farms.

While all salmon in the store may look similar, the Department of Agriculture says farmed salmon contains almost twice the total fat, more than twice the saturated fat and fewer beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than wild salmon.

Last month, consumers learned about another difference, when the class-action lawsuit in Washington called attention to the little-known fact that farmed salmon are not naturally salmon pink or red, and that if they were not fed artificial colors they would range from gray or khaki to pale yellow or pale pink. Wild salmon turn pink from the krill and shrimp they eat. (Farmed salmon eat a fishmeal diet.) The lawsuit accused three supermarket chains of violating Food and Drug Administration regulations by not telling shoppers that farmed salmon were artificially colored, thus leading them to think they were buying wild fish.

The federal government says that local officials are supposed to enforce the labeling law, but that until now no one has bothered to do so. Since the lawsuit was filed, the chains, Safeway, Albertsons and the Kroger Company, which have 6,000 stores in more than 30 states, have said they would label the fish. Whole Foods, the largest natural food chain, said it is following the label rules now.

In New York, an official for Food Emporium said the information is being added to labels but is not necessarily in the stores yet. Officials at Gristede's and D'Agostino say labeling is under discussion. The owners of Citarella and Central Fish Market said they did not know about the requirement.

Hoffmann-La Roche, one company that makes the dyes, canthaxanthin and the more expensive astaxanthin, from petrochemicals, offers salmon farmers the SalmoFan, a sort of paint wheel with assorted shades of pink, to help them create the color they think their customers want.

The Washington State lawsuit does not address whether the chemicals are harmful. But European Union officials are reducing the permissible levels of canthaxanthin in fish and poultry from 80 parts per million per kilogram of feed — the levels permitted in this country — to 25 parts per million because there is some concern that high levels may cause retinal damage. In Canada the permissible level is 30 parts per million.

The F.D.A. has concluded that 80 parts per million would not damage the eye.

While the lawsuit says farmed salmon have more antibiotics and pesticides than wild salmon, environmentalists and the farmed salmon industry agree that antibiotic use has been drastically reduced. The two sides disagree, however, about the amount of pesticides and other contaminants.

In a pilot study conducted in 2000 by Dr. Michael Easton of International EcoGenInc in British Columbia, a company that specializes in the effects of contaminants and pollutants on animals, found that farmed salmon had "consistently higher levels" of toxic contaminants compared with wild salmon, including 10 times the level of PCB's. PCB's are far more concentrated in fish feed, particularly in the fish oil added to the feed, than in the natural diet of the fish. The findings were reported in 2002 in Chemosphere, a peer-reviewed international environmental journal, and the study was paid for by the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental group. The findings have been confirmed in several larger studies, including one by the University of Surrey in England, reported in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Contaminants and pollutants are at the center of a lawsuit filed in Maine in 2000 by the National Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit center dedicated to enforcing antipollution laws.

The lawsuit accused Maine's three largest salmon farms of operating without the permits the Clean Water Act requires of companies that intend to add pollutants to navigable waters. For years, neither the federal or state government got around to issuing the permits. The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged that it had no idea of the extent of the pollution, from waste, pesticides, antibiotics and other chemicals, in the early days of salmon farming. In 2000, Maine took over the permitting process and was given a year to come up with final rules, a process it is only now completing.

The lawsuit also charges that the companies have degraded the water with fish waste, uneaten feed and the toxic chemicals used to kill pests and protect nets. The typical fish farm in Maine has 250,000 fish in about 20 pens. Each pen produces about two metric tons of waste, a volume of waste that surpasses that of a small city, according to Josh Kratka, a senior lawyer with the National Environmental Law Center.

Sebastian Bell, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, a trade group, said: "Aquaculture is in the cross hairs" because well-heeled people who live on the coast where there are several salmon farms are also environmentalists. "Do we have a lot to learn? You betcha. Are we as bad as our critics say? Absolutely not."

The suit also says the companies continued to stock their pens with European salmon even after they were told not to, to prevent interbreeding. Many of these farmed salmon escape and compete for food and habitat, further weakening the tiny population of wild Atlantic salmon that are on the endangered species list in Maine. Two years ago, 100,000 farmed salmon escaped from Atlantic Salmon of Maine, one of the firms being sued. But the companies say they now have better safeguards in place.

Steve Page, the environmental compliance officer for Atlantic Salmon, said, "Every one of these situations has been remediated."

He disagreed with the scientists, including those from the Fish and Wildlife Service, who say the European salmon that escape weaken wild Atlantic salmon stocks through interbreeding. He said that interbreeding instead strengthens the wild salmon.

One of the three companies, Heritage Salmon, owned by George Weston, a Canadian firm, settled the lawsuit, paying a $375,000 penalty that is financing salmon restoration projects. The company agreed to limit the discharge of toxic chemicals and excess feed and to grow only North American strains of salmon.

Judge Gene Carter of the United States District Court in Portland, Me., ruled in June 2002 that the two other companies, Atlantic Salmon, owned by Fjord Seafood of Norway, the third-largest aquaculture company in the world, and Stolt Sea Farm, owned by Stolt-Nielsen of Norway, had illegally discharged pollutants without a permit. Judge Carter is expected to decide on penalties this week.

In February, Judge Carter ordered Atlantic Salmon not to restock its pens with new fish until he decided the case, but they did anyway. On May 9, he held the company in contempt of court. "It is the court's perception that A.S.M.'s leadership has single-mindedly pursued a policy, in the interests of the company's economic well-being and future profitability, of frustrating the fruition of all efforts by the regulatory authorities, such as they have been, and by this Court to secure and ensure its compliance with" the Clean Water Act, the judge said in a later ruling, rejecting the company's request to delay an injunction on restocking.

Last Wednesday, the company decided to drop its appeal and try to settle out of court.

The State of Maine, meanwhile, is expected to introduce new rules for fish farming permits that prohibit the introduction of the European strains and require the marking of farmed fish, to track them when they escape. Details are being worked on.

In April, in British Columbia, a lawsuit was filed by four Indian tribes against the provincial government and Stolts Sea Farm and Heritage Acquaculture, which operate in the Broughton Archipelago, near Vancouver Island.

The lawsuit said that heavy infestations of sea lice from salmon farms attached themselves to wild pink salmon as they swam near the farms and killed them, sharply reducing the run this spring from the expected 3.5 million to 147,000.

Environmentalists blame the salmon farms. Salmon farmers say there is no proof.

But David Rideout, the executive director of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance in Ottawa, does not deny that lice from farmed salmon may be to blame for the decimation of the wild salmon run. But, he said: "At certain levels sea lice contamination at farms can be easily managed, but after a certain level they can have an effect on the wild stock and we have no surveillance data.

"We need to find out a way to manage. In the intervening period we can't put the wild stock at risk."

Alaska has banned fish farms to protect its wild stocks.

Farmed salmon are here to stay, and Rebecca Goldberg, a senior scientist with Environmental Defense, said there are ways to make the process more environmentally friendly: raising the salmon in floating tanks that catch the waste, using second crops like oysters, mussels and seaweed that would make use of the waste. Others have suggested raising salmon in closed systems, and not in the ocean.

But first, the environmentalists say, the authorities have to enforce the laws.