A bit more Alphamax on your salmon, sir?


A couple of my closer acquaintances work in the aquaculture business. That, and the fact that the aquaculture in this region employs at least 2000 or more people, makes me reluctant to cast a critical eye on the industry. Aquaculture is now principal contributor to the East Coast economy.

So how did this industry get here? There are two main factors: the decline of wild fin-fish stocks due to over fishing, and the potential for applying modern farming technology to ocean resources. Both of these conditions were, in large part, influenced by government involvement.

The Canadian government is directly responsible for monitoring the health coastal ocean resources and presided over the dramatic decline of the wild fishery. At the same time, government invested heavily in aquaculture science and development to lay the foundations for Canadian aquaculture. Arguably, both initiatives were fuelled by economic considerations over the environment. Without being overly cynical, voters with jobs vote, fish do not.

Today, Cooke Aquaculture, which bills itself as North America’s largest independent integrated aquaculture business, produces 115 million pounds of Atlantic Salmon a year and 35 million pounds of trout.

At $3 a pound, wholesale, that’s $450 million annually from its operations in New Brunswick, Maine, Newfoundland and Chile. And that doesn’t account for income from other sources, which include its fish nutrition and transportation business units.

There are problems running this kind of globalized business. In Chile, for example, an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia reduced Chilean salmon exports to just 20 percent of its former production in recent years.

So, when we start to question the use of pesticides to combat epidemics of sea lice—and protect millions of dollars of farmed salmon in cages—we’re also dealing with some much larger socio-economic issues, including impacts on national economies. It’s not as simple as “let’s just not use pesticides.”

Just how safe are these pesticides? Alphamax is based on deltamethrin, which is a replacement to DDT, and has been around in some form since the 1970s. It is a neurotoxin, and is not soluble in water, and is deadly to fish in high concentrations, and especially to crustaceans such as lobsters. It can also be hazardous to the humans who handle it. Deltamethrin is used on everything from pet parasites to bed bugs, and recent studies show that some parasites are quickly building up a genetic resistance to the chemical due to its over-use.

As far as I know, there are no long-term studies on the health risks of deltamethrin use on the environment. This reminds me a lot of old newsreel films showing German death camp survivors being generously dusted with DDT to kill lice—and the new evidence of DDT’s affect on the reproductive systems of polar bears. Fortunately, I guess, deltamethrin breaks down rather rapidly in the environment.

Still, we are playing God with our food supply. And what affect does that have on the actual quality of our food? Well, some. Farmed salmon, according to government information, don’t naturally produce much Omega 3, one of those essential fatty acids we humans require for brain development. Farmed salmon typically produce greater quantities of less desirable Omega 6, and have a higher level of body fat than do wild salmon. So, aqua-farmers add Omega 3 to the salmon food. Organic food websites also contend that farmed salmon lacks the flavour of wild salmon.

As salmon are carnivores, there is also food production efficiency issue. According to various sources, it takes between 2 and 4 kilograms of wild forage fish (such as anchovies) to produce one kilogram of salmon. Given that the wild fish stocks—that depend on these forage fish—are rapidly depleting worldwide this should be a serious international concern. But it isn’t. Because there is simply no existing, binding global governance to regulate industry—any industry. Though, to be fair, industry is trying to reduce the amount of forage fish products in its feed.

Here, on Passamaquoddy Bay, we are blessed with one of the most productive fisheries in the northern hemisphere thanks to the daily churning of the tides and nutrient-rich waters. Granted, the fin-fish fishery has declined. But our lobster and shellfish industries are thriving. The use of Alphamax, which drifts as solid particles on the tides, is a real risk to those industries, as both levels of governments already recognize in their strict restriction of Alphamax use.

So now we have a real dilemma. Salmon aquaculture, as it’s currently practiced, is not an environmentally sustainable industry, its critics contend. Yet we’ve invented this industry we can’t allow to fail—because we need the profits and the jobs. At the same time we have an ancient industry—fishing, that is rapidly disappearing due to intensive industrial practices.

Do I have any solutions? Not really. I buy farmed Atlantic salmon. Our family eats it once or twice a month. We like the taste and the price is reasonable. I support my friends who work in the aquaculture business. I support local jobs.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that all this wrong can’t possibly add up to a right. Do we really need another morally-conflicted multinational industry we can call our own?


  1. There is a solution! Out here on Canada's Wet Coast we are pushing to get the salmon farming industry out of open net-pens and into closed tanks so as to protect our wild salmon and marine environment. The salmon farming industry has fought it all the way - they claim it would cost too much. Of course, they're getting a free ride on the marine environment right now because they don't have to shovel their $h!t like every other farmer. Factor in these externalized costs and closed containment is competitive. All that's needed is for our governments to help this industry evolve by dedicating funds to closed containment R&D. Find out more at www.livingoceans.org or www.farmedanddangerous.org. It can be a win - win - win. Industry can grow with renewed social licence, you can feel good about feeding farmed salmon to your family and we can continue to enjoy our wild salmon in BC. Cheers.

  2. Thanks Will. I like that approach, a lot. Helps give perspective when one considers the ocean is a convenient tank and refuse disposal system for today's aquaculture. In a closed system would the tanks have to be land-based? Also, love wild salmon and trout and will choose that first if it's on the shelf... and heard that BC had a great year. Cheers for now.

  3. There's an outfit that makes floating tanks. The first one will be installed shortly and stocked with Chinook salmon (Pacific). A collection system will deliver wastes onshore where it will be processed into fertilizer. Find out more at; http://agrimarine.com/projects/canada-middlebay. There are other land-based projects in the design stages including one by Marine Harvest Canada, the largest salmon farmer on the Left Coast. And yes, BC had lots of sockeye return to the Fraser River last summer - a reversal of 2009 which was a complete collapse.

  4. Thanks Will. I've forwarded your suggestion to one of my contacts at Cooke Aquaculture; one might hope they have some interest...

  5. And thank you Gerald for your honest and forthright opinion. All the best to you and yours.

  6. You know, I have to say that I’m actually incredibly relieved that some salmon farms are finally taking an initiative into a more sustainable direction and away from past practices, such as the ones recently outlined online in the press (http://www.pressdisplay.com/pressdisplay/showlink.aspx?bookmarkid=CUECRUKZDUO1&preview=article&linkid=dd75b2ba-428b-47fc-b155-6cf49dbfdef4&pdaffid=ZVFwBG5jk4Kvl9OaBJc5%2bg%3d%3d). Still, with the increasing population and thus demand, it will take more than lukewarm measures to ensure a good, stable source of salmon and other seafood.

    Well anyway, some food for thought :]


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