Salmon Farming Catching On but Powerful Alaska Lobby Opposes It


The history of salmon-fishing in the stormy North Pacific is filled with tales of brave fishermen riding the wild seas, but its future is being shaped in calmer waters.

Thousands of salmon in this sheltered arm of Puget Sound are captives in sunken pens the size of basketball courts. Crowded fin to fin, they swim endless laps, gobbling feed pellets and being fattened toward the day when they will be scooped up and whisked to market.

But while the crenulated coastline and pristine waters that stretch from Washington’s Puget Sound to southeastern Alaska might be ideal for fish farming, the political climate is not so welcoming.

In Alaska, where commercial fishermen are a powerful lobby, bumper stickers in fishing towns proclaim “Real Fish Don’t Eat Pellets,” and the Legislature is considering a permanent ban on fish farms when a two-year moratorium expires in July.

In Washington state, salmon farmers have the official blessing of the Legislature, but that has helped little in the face of challenges from fishermen and environmental groups, which have defeated several proposed farms.


The fish waste produced by a two-acre salmon farm is equivalent to the sewage produced by a town of 5,000 people, claims a Washington citizens’ group called the Marine Environmental Consortium.

Environmentalists also fear that introduced species such as Atlantic salmon--favored because they are more docile than Pacific salmon and fetch a higher price--and will corrupt the local gene pool and spread disease. Wealthy owners of shoreside homes, meanwhile, don’t want fish farms spoiling their views.

Promoters call fish farming an efficient way to help meet the world’s growing appetite for fish. Not only does it provide a year-round supply of fresh salmon to supplement the seasonal wild catch, they say, it also creates jobs free of the hazards of commercial fishing, one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations.

They also contend that salmon-farming provides an economic incentive to preserve clean water.

“We’re the best environmentalists of all, because we’re dependent on it,” said Jerry Polley, site manager for Global Aqua, the nation’s largest salmon farm. “If something’s wrong with the water quality, we’re going to be the first to complain.”

Production of farmed salmon, here and abroad, has boomed in five years, flooding markets traditionally held by wild salmon and driving down prices.

“For the first couple of years, as more salmon (were) around on a year-round basis, the farmed fish seemed to help the wild market,” said Randy Babich, a commercial fisherman. “Now it’s a battle at the retail counter.”

Fish farming, or aquaculture, is hardly a new concept. For years, farmers have raised oysters in the Northwest, rainbow trout in Idaho and catfish in the Southeast. But techniques have developed more slowly in domesticating salmon, the mainstay of fisheries off Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska.

For years, it was practiced only by the Norwegians, forced into salmon farming by their declining wild fish populations. But interest has spread quickly since 1985, after Norway refined methods to raise salmon cheaply enough to compete with the wild catch.

In 1983, world production of farmed salmon was 23,500 metric tons, just 3% of the 670,000-ton wild salmon catch. By last year, farmed salmon production had soared to an estimated 202,000 tons, or 30% of the relatively constant wild catch.

Norway still leads the pack, producing about 75% of the world’s farmed salmon, but other places, including Scotland, Chile, Canada and Iceland, are catching up. The United States, with 50 fish farms in Washington state and Maine, lags far behind, producing 1% of the total.

Many of the U.S. salmon farms are run by Norwegian companies, including Global Aqua’s four-acre operation in Rich Passage, 10 miles west of Seattle.

Global Aqua’s farm is fairly typical: a huge raft anchored offshore holds 40 pens, each lined with a net holding up to 15 tons of fish, which range from finger-size smolts to fat-bellied salmon 2 feet long.

Half a dozen workers tend the pens from metal walkways, filling automatic feeders and mending nets. At harvest, workers herd fish into one end of the pens, scoop them out with an oversize dip-net and load them onto a boat. The salmon are still flipping when they reach a Seattle processing plant 30 minutes away.

In the three years it takes to raise salmon to harvest, farmers contend with prowling otters, hungry sea lions and diseases that can wipe out whole farms if left unchecked.

Aquaculturists say their operations will never be a major blot on the coastline.

“It would take just 40 acres of farms to produce all of the salmon that was imported into the United States in 1988,” said Chris Gibson of Sea Farm Washington in Port Angeles. “The industry does not need a lot of space.”

It may need even less space in coming months. Worldwide growth of salmon farming and recent overproduction in Norway have glutted the market with fish. Prices have plunged, and many farms are selling below cost just to keep cash flowing.

In British Columbia, lax regulation and a surge of Norwegian investment capital helped the number of fish farms soar from five to 135 in the last six years. But now many are in trouble. Nineteen have filed for receivership in the last year, and small businesses are being bought out by large investors better able to outlast the lull in prices.

Aquaculture boosters profess confidence in their long-term place in the salmon trade.

Declining stocks of wild salmon already have forced Northwest fishermen to rely more heavily on fish that are started in shoreside hatcheries and released at sea. About 23% of Alaska’s “wild” catch now comes from hatcheries, while some salmon populations off Washington’s coast are 60% hatchery-reared.

“We’re not going to re-establish the wild resource. You just don’t have the habitat for them to come back to,” said John Pitts, who promotes aquaculture for the Washington Department of Agriculture. “Future generations will become more dependent on aquaculture.”

Perhaps. But as long as any wild salmon remain, some independent-minded fishermen will take their chances on the high seas rather than turn in their rain slickers for bags of fish chow.

“It’s the Cro-Magnon in us,” said Randy Babich. “Fishing is one of the last hunting-gathering professions in the world. Tossing feed into a pond just doesn’t provide the same adventure.”