Farmed salmon

Tony Eberts
The Great Outdoors

The world's biggest and most comprehensive study of farmed and wild salmon ever made concludes that the eating of the farmed fish should be sharply restricted to avoid unacceptable cancer risks.

But representatives of B.C.'s multi-national net-cage salmon operations react only with attempts to confuse the issue and smokescreen their polluted and chemical-saturated "farms," trying to paint the wild fishery with the same dirty brush. And, predictably, our big-business-besotted Campbell government has no time for considering public health when there is money to be made.

The report of the study by six U.S. and Canadian researchers with top credentials, was published in the prestigious SCIENCE journal, and disclosed that farmed salmon often contains ten times the pollutants found in wild fish. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises that consumption of more than one meal of farmed salmon per month could be a cause of cancer. Even in areas where the least contaminated Atlantics were found, the testing agency in most cases urged a ceiling of two meals per month. Yet this dangerous farmed fish dominates over the wild varieties in most of the world's retail markets.

The EPA concluded that wild salmon could safely be eaten as often as eight times in a month.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the largest American philanthropies, sponsored the study. Pew has sponsored major research on fisheries, including a number of widely reported recent studies of the deterioration of the marine environment.

While earlier studies have analyzed anywhere from eight to 13 salmon samples from individual salmon farming regions, this major study analyzed fillets from about 700 farmed and wild salmon in eight major farmed salmon producing regions around the world, and purchased in 16 large cities in North America and Europe, including Vancouver. The study's authors represent fields from toxicology to biology and statistics, and they chose samples to be representative of the salmon typically available to consumers around the globe.

The researchers found significantly higher concentrations of contaminants in farmed salmon versus wild. In particular, four substances that have been well studied for their ability to cause cancer---PCBs, dioxins, dieldrin and toxaphene---were much more concentrated in the farmed fish.

"Ultimately, the most important determinant of risk has to do with where the fish is farmed, not where it is purchased," said Dr. David Carpenter, an author of the study and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany. "And because it is a global market, it's hard to be sure what you're getting."

The Pew-sponsored study concluded that the contamination problem is likely related to what salmon are fed when they're in the net-cages. While wild fish diets range from small aquatic organisms like krill to larger fish (like herring), farmed salmon and fed a concentrated and high fat mixture of ground up fish and fish oil. Since chemical contaminants a fish is exposed to during its life are stored in its fat, the high fat the farm-fish food passes along more toxins.

Consumers who want to know whether salmon is wild or farmed should be aware that the word "fresh" on the label doesn't mean the fish is wild-caught from the ocean, and almost all salmon labelled "Atlantic" is farmed. The study's authors recommend that government require clear and prominent labelling of farm and wild salmon as well as the country of origin of all farmed fish.

The response of the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association tries to cloud the issue by claiming that fish is so valuable a food that we shouldn't be concerned about a little toxicity, and also implies that the Pew study is part of a dark conspiracy by "activists" to discredit the net-cage salmon farming operations. Such agencies as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its Canadian equivalent, says a group calling itself Positive Aquaculture Awareness (PAA), have declared farmed salmon a healthy and nutritious product.

But the Pew report has already dealt with that issue. In assessing the human health risks of farmed salmon, the study authors used U.S. EPA consumption guidance for PCBs, toxaphene and dieldrin covering locally sampled fish rather than FDA standards governing commercially-sold fish because EPA's recommendations are based on health effects only.

While FDA is the agency that actually regulates contaminants in commercial fish, unlike EPA, the FDA does not have consumption standards for toxaphene in fish, and the agency's standards for PCBs and dieldrin (based on 20-year-old technology) weren't set using purely health-based criteria.

A PAA press release insists that Pew Charitable Trusts is for some unexplained reason "anti-aquaculture" and the net-cage-raised Atlantics have been okayed by FDA, National Cancer Institute, National Academy of Sciences and other agencies. But it's important to note that any such approval came BEFORE release of the damning evidence of the Pew study--the first truly comprehensive assessment comparing the risks of eating both wild and farmed salmon.

Consumers are left to make their choice between accepting either the silly conspiracy theory and outdated science of the profit-hungry salmon farmers, or the plain and disturbing facts as presented by the Pew-sponsored salmon study.

Unfortunately, we can't expect much help in safeguarding human health and the health of our wild salmon fishery from the current provincial government. When it lifted the moratorium on the spread of salmon farming on the B.C. coast, its move was based on information that was years out of date.


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The Steelheader is a Canadian sport fishing tabloid devoted to sport fishing here in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Steelheader News has subscribers throughout Canada and the United States. Subscriptions to overseas areas are available upon request.In addition to subscriptions, the Steelheader's distribution points include over 400 sites in the Fraser Valley (B.C.) and tackle shops in Canadian provinces and the United States.
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