Should we eat salmon at all?


We know salmon is one of the healthiest fish out there – chock full of omega 3 fatty acids, but if we keep eating them now, will there be any left for our kids to eat when they grow up?

I just got back from the farmer's market, one of my favourite weekend activities. I love the variety of produce that one simply can't find in the grocery store – last week after my farmer's market excursion, I made a "purple meal" with purple potatoes, purple beets, purple kale, purple cabbage and purple tomatoes along with some beef tenderloin. I didn't find the purple carrots or purple broccoli last week, but if I had found them, they would have been part of the meal too. What fun! And the food is so fresh and tasty compared to the grocery store produce which is picked weeks early for shipping and then frequently ripened with chemicals when the time is right.

Well today, my last purchase was two wild coho salmon fillets, caught in the deep ocean off the coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands in northern British Columbia. I haven’t bought salmon in a while, because I find myself feeling guilty every time I think about it. All over the news have been reports about how the sockeye salmon run this year was expected to be fantastic, but very few salmon came back to spawn. None of the salmon runs are as good as they used to be, and year after year the trend seems to be worse and worse. I asked the people at the booth at the market today if we should really be buying salmon at all. She told me that that was a difficult question to answer – she said that their fish is caught in a sustainable way, no where near the mouths of rivers, but it was obvious that she was very worried about the future of this fabulous fish, and was wrestling with the same question. The cod fishery collapsed on the east coast of Canada 17 years ago and still has not recovered. If we don’t stop eating salmon now, can we expect the same thing on the west coast? In the States last year, the West Coast Salmon Fishery was considered a failure and labelled a Federal disaster. In Canada, the sockeye fishery is closed completely this year due to the near total collapse on the Fraser River, the most important salmon estuary in BC. Nine to 11 million fish that were expected to return this year did not show up.

One might make the argument that this is a reason to eat farmed salmon rather than wild, but the problem with that theory is that the farmed salmon industry is heavily implicated in the decline of the wild salmon stocks, as the fish farms are on the rivers where the wild salmon spawn, and the wild salmon smolts (baby fish) as they swim by the fish farms on their way to the ocean get covered in sea lice, which weakens and kills them. The government still has not forced the farmed salmon industry to use closed containers on land, to prevent the diseased fish from contaminating the wild salmon. I think that what we choose to purchase is a political act. We are either choosing to sustain the planet and its living organisms or we are not, and the fastest way to change methods of food production is to refuse to purchase food that comes from unsustainable, planet damaging, unhealthy practises. Consumers are usually way ahead of governments, and it is up to consumers to force change at the check-out stand. So, please don't eat farmed salmon!

Salmon need cold water to survive, and the ocean and rivers are warming, which is probably also playing a big roll in the declining stocks. And of course, chemical spills into important salmon rivers, such as what happened to the Cheakamus River in 2005 killing every living thing, doesn’t help. The experts say it will take more than 50 years for the fish to come back in the same numbers as before the spill. And of course, no fish means no eagles and other predators that rely on the salmon for food too, and so on up the food chain we go.

So, what do you think? Did I make the right decision this morning when I bought my salmon? I’m not too sure, but I will try not to feel guilty about my decision as I can't change it now. Instead, I do feel grateful that I can enjoy it at this time, and I will revere it as the precious item it is. I may not be eating salmon for a while, and if on occasion I do decide to treat myself, I'll make sure I buy it from someone like the person at the market today, who only catches the fish out in the deep ocean waters. Hopefully between closing fisheries, moving to closed-container fish farming, restoring the habitat in salmon streams, and doing what we can to slow global warming, one day the salmon will come back in abundance, and I'll feel good about enjoying salmon regularly again.

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Parasites & Disease SEA LICE David Suzuki Foundation.

Martin Krkosek et al. Declining Wild Salmon Populations in Relation to Parasites from Farm Salmon Science 14 December 2007:
Vol. 318. no. 5857, pp. 1772 – 1775

B.M Connors et al. Sea lice escape predation on their host Biology Letters 23 October 2008 vol. 4 no. 5 455-457

Martin Krkošek et al. Sea lice and salmon population dynamics: effects of exposure time for migratory fish Proc. R. Soc. B 7 August 2009 vol. 276 no. 1668 2819-2828

Mark J. Costello How sea lice from salmon farms may cause wild salmonid declines in Europe and North America and be a threat to fishes elsewhere July 8, 2009, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0771

Jeff Nagel Demise of Fraser sockeye salmon a puzzle Aug. 14, 2009.

Sea Lice Parasites Save our Salmon Website

Watershed Watch Wild Salmon in Trouble Video: The Link Between Farmed Salmon, Sea Lice and Wild Salmon

Watershed Watch Sea Lice and Salmon – Elevating the dialogue on the farmed-wild salmon story

Global Warming Heats Up Urgency Of Salmon Recovery Efforts Science Daily April 2008.

Protect Pacific salmon from global warming, Fisheries Council report advises federal and provincial governments Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council

M. Nelitz, K et al. Helping Pacific Salmon Survive the Impact of Climate Change on Freshwater Habitats Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council 10/04/2007

Copyright 2009 Vreni Gurd

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1 Comment

  1. Vin - NaturalBias said,

    August 28, 2009 @ 8:26 am

    Hi Vreni! This is a very thought provoking article!

    As I’m sure you know from Weston Price’s work, salmon was a staple food that provided excellent health for many primitive cultures. I personally eat salmon (from Vital Choice) about 3 or 4 times per month. I definitely don’t want to contribute to the decline of the salmon population, but at the same time, I have to wonder how much people like you and I who are buying a limited amount of salmon from reputable sources are really contributing to the problem. The scope of necessary change is much bigger than that, and as such, I’m hesitant to discontinue doing something that I consider to be important to my health.

    Great article, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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