Eating Salmon? Are you safe or sorry?

Salmon leaping
Pacific salmon leaping at Willamette Falls, Oregon, 1950s. Image: Wikipedia

Does farmed salmon (סַלמוֹן – salamon) deserve the bad reputation it has? While there are many environmental and health issues regarding farmed salmon, organizations, companies, and countries are taking steps to improve the quality of the fish and lessen the environmental impact of the farms. Some aquaculture organizations are certifying the companies and farms which follow their guidelines.

Because all salmon sold in Israel is imported, much of it farm raised, Nourishing Israel decided to take a closer look at the industry to learn which salmon is safe to eat and which is not. 

In The Low-Down on Buying Fresh Fish in Israel we discussed the state of domestic fish farming and also noted many of the countries from which fresh fish are imported into Israel. Except for some sea bream which are farmed in cages in the Port of Ashdod, fish grown in Israel are raised in ponds; the ponds and the fish live in a fairly natural environment, appear to be well cared for, and safe to eat.

The same may not be true for the fresh, frozen, and canned fish that are imported into the country for consumption by the Israeli public. Fish are imported from many different countries which have different methods of aquaculture, as well as different government regulations and health and environmental concerns regarding the fish and the farms. In addition, the farming situation and status of any country can quickly change, both because of unanticipated problems as well as changes in the farming methods, both good and bad.

This is especially true of salmon – one of the most popular fish consumed today. In Israel, fresh salmon is imported from Norway and Scotland; frozen salmon is imported from a variety of different countries (as indicated on each package). While Israeli aquaculture includes growing salmonids, a family of fish that includes trout, arctic char, and salmon, there aren’t any salmon farms in Israel.

In their natural habitat:

Salmon spend their early life in rivers, and then swim out to sea where they live their adult lives and gain most of their body mass. When they have matured, they return to the rivers to spawn. Usually they return with uncanny precision to the natal river where they were born, and even to the very spawning ground of their birth. It is thought that, when they are in the ocean, they use magnetoception to locate the general position of their natal river, and once close to the river, that they use their sense of smell to home in on the river entrance and even their natal spawning ground. [1]

Salmon feeding on their natural diet of other fish, squid, prawns, and eels have a favorable omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acid ratio and are high in vitamin D. Because they are swimming for several years in the cold ocean waters and then migrate back to their birth rivers to spawn, they have a firm flesh; it is the healthier and stronger ones that survive this journey. Farmed salmon do not get the same exercise as salmon raised in their natural habitat and are fed a diet that is very different from their natural one. As a result, their flesh is flaccid and they have an inferior nutritional profile. [2]

Farmed salmon are usually held off the coast in enclosed cages or pens and more recently, although still less common, are being grown in closed containment in the sea and on land.

Because of the large amount of fish that salmon eat, feeding farmed salmon a fish diet created concerns regarding the sustainability of the marine population of small fish. In an October 2016 article in the Huffington Post, Everything you should know about salmon farming, Kathy Schuller, an associate professor who researches omega-3 fatty acid metabolism and oxidative stability in aquaculture species at Flinders University, explains the situation.

Around the world, where fish are being farmed, they’re being fed ingredients that are derived from terrestrial plants and animals. And those ingredients are partially replacing ingredients that would originally have come from small fish in the marine environment…”

“The aim in doing that is to reduce the pressure on the populations of the small fish in the marine environment. By changing the diets that are fed to the farmed fish, we can reduce the pressure on, for example, sardines that are normally caught to feed larger fish.”

One of the reasons salmon is generally considered a very healthy food is because of the presence of long-chain omega 3 fatty acids. The farmed fish are initially given canola oil in their feed, which has omega 3 fatty acids but not the long-chain type. Therefore, Schuller says:

“…for a short time before they send their fish to market, they transfer their fish back to a feed that contains mostly fish oil,” …

“That means that the flesh of the farmed fish then take on the same fatty acid profiles as the wild caught fish. So you can boost the levels of these long chain omega 3 fatty acids in the flesh of the farmed fish.”

Aquaculture in Chile
Aquaculture installations in southern Chile

Another nutrition related issue is how the salmon gets its distinctive red/orange color. In the wild the color is derived from the astaxanthin in the algae and seaweed that the fish eat. Farmed fish, however,  are usually fed chemically synthesized astaxanthin to get their salmon-like coloring.

Other environmental and health problems associated with open net and caged farmed salmon include: parasites and diseases that proliferate and can spread to the wild population, thereby decimating it; feed and fecal matter that drop to the ocean floor below the farms, polluting the water and depriving it of oxygen; chemicals, insecticides, and other toxins which are used in fish farming and can accumulate in the fish’s flesh.

As the problems associated with these methods of farming in coastal and fresh waters became more recognized as a major marine and health problem, environmental organizations have pushed for change. Ultimately companies and countries began seeking alternative solutions.

Two solutions that are being implemented are the switch to closed containment sea and land based systems and stricter farming guidelines for open net and caged farms to improve the health of the fish and lessen the environmental impact.

Closed containment systems are becoming a popular method of salmon farming since they prevent the farmed fish from coming in contact with wild fish and don’t impact the marine environment.

According to the website Farmed and Dangerous:

Whether sited on water or land, closed containment systems can:

  • eliminate or significantly reduce water column pollution from feed, feces and chemical waste and contamination of the seabed under farms;
  • eliminate escapes from the rearing facility;
  • eliminate marine mammal deaths due to interactions with farmed fish and nets;
  • eliminate or greatly reduce the risk of disease and parasite transfer to wild salmon; and
  • significantly reduce the need for antibiotics and chemical treatments in raising fish.[3]

An example of a commercial-scale, land-based salmon farm is Kuttera, in British Columbia, Canada. One of the few of its type in the world, it is held as a model for sustainable aquaculture. Kuterra recycles its water, converts its waste into fertilizer and avoids use of pesticides and antibiotics, and the fish in the tanks swim against a continuous current. Their feed is predominantly grains, soy, and chicken with only 8% of the feed being wild caught forage fish.

The success of Kuttera and the preference for land based aquaculture is putting pressure on Canadian and US farms to move inland.[4]

Another land based system where fish are held in tanks is the Danish system where recirculated aquaculture allows for 100% controlled conditions. The water is also filtered, and the environmental impact is low. While they also feed their fish a non-traditional diet, they do not allow the use of GMOs or mammal by-products. [5]

According to the website Fish and Fly, Norway has recently announced that they will no longer allow new cages and pens. Instead, they will use closed containment sea-based (where there is an actual “tub” placed into the sea) or land-based systems (where the fish are raised in tanks) so that there is no danger of fish escaping into the wild population and the sea environment is not harmed.

To improve net and cage fish farming around the world, a number of organizations have been instrumental in providing guidelines for environmentally sustainable fish farming.

One such organization is the Aquaculture Standards Council which certifies both sea and land based farms. Their steering committee is formed of individuals from environmental organizations and industry from several countries across the globe. Their guidelines for salmon farming were most recently updated in April 2017, ASC Salmon Standard, Version 1.1.

Among their many requirements is the prohibition against using transgenic salmon because their impact on the wild environment is not known. Genetic enhancement (selective breeding) is allowed as long as any foreign genes are not inserted into the genome of the fish. Feed requirements call for a limited amount of fish feed and fish oil in the diet; the non-fish component must be 100% soy by June 2017.

The organization provides certification for those companies that abide by their guidelines, and a list of certified companies. Because all food products sold in Israel must list the product’s country of origin, it can be possible to identify frozen salmon that has been certified.

The list of certified suppliers includes the certificate holder and trade names of the companies certified as well as their locations and period for which certification is valid. (The country names are abbreviated on this list. Go here for a list of countries and their abbreviations.) There is also a list of  the farms they have certified on their website updated as of May 2017; it is probably best to check both lists.

Label from Tnuva salmon package

This package marketed by Tnuva, although it doesn’t have the ASC logo, lists the Chilean producer, Productos Del Mar Ventisqueros S.A. which is one of the certified companies as indicated on the ASC list of certificate holders.

On the other hand, this smoked salmon was packaged in Poland by Limito (see the arrows), as per the Package of smoked salmonlabel; however as indicated on the package below the bar code, it was farmed in Norway. A check of the ASC list indicates that Limito is indeed a certified supplier.

Ikea’s Norwegian Salmon is popular with Israeli consumers. That, too, is certified by ASC.

Consumers buying fresh salmon should ask the seller to see the crate that the fish came in order to find out where the fish came from and the date, which should be within a day or two.

For those interested in wild-caught salmon, several different brands of United States canned wild-caught Alaskan salmon can find can be found in some stores in Israel.

Tomer brand has pink Alaskan salmon and can be found in all Yaynot Bitan and Victory Supermarkets, Zol b’Zol in Jerusalem, and other stores. Call Tomer at 848-202-2122 to find out if they are carried in a store near you.

can of Icy Point salmonPillar Rock and Icy Point (02-990-8001) brands, both produced by Ocean Beauty, have pink and red sockeye salmon. Red Sockeye Salmon is a premium salmon and can cost twice as much as the pink variety. Ocean Beauty’s processing plants are BRC certified (British Retail Consortium) for food safety and other manufacturing considerations.

It is also possible to find other brands of canned salmon in Israel, including imported from Russia, with kosher certification, in Israeli Russian supermarkets.

While wild caught Alaskan salmon is the best choice because of the naturally healthier lives the fish lead which results in a better quality fish, if you do purchase farmed salmon, make sure it comes from certified companies. However, depending on individual health and environmental concerns, whether or not you should eat farmed salmon can be a rather simple or difficult decision to make.


[2] Wild Salmon vs. Farmed: Nutritional Distinctions
[3] Farmed and Dangerous: Closed Containment
[4] Is Salmon Raised on Land the Future of Seafood?
[5] Danish Salmon, Land-Based Aquaculture

Related articles:

Eating fish helps you live longer
Wild Alaskan Salmon is a Powerhouse of Nutrition that May Help You Live Longer
Your wild salmon is probably farmed (if you’re eating fresh salmon in the US that is)

Please note: Since the farmed fish methods are continuously changing and government and certifying regulations are subject to change, articles and information can quickly become obsolete, so be sure to look at the date of articles and evaluations when reading about farmed fish.