Farmed and dangerous?

Target’s ban of farmed salmon has local retailers reconsidering wild fish

Eat me raw, of course. But eat me farmed?

Eat me raw, of course. But eat me farmed?

Each spring, executive chef Michael Tuohy at downtown’s Grange restaurant eagerly awaits the arrival of wild Columbia River chinook salmon. Never, he said, does he fill in the off-season at his restaurant with farmed salmon.

Except, that is, when Tuohy prepares banquets for The Citizen Hotel, in which his restaurant is located. On such occasions, the chef must sometimes purchase farmed fish to fill clientele demand.

Patrick Mulvaney, chef and owner at Mulvaney’s Building and Loan, also prefers wild West Coast salmon, but for his year-round house-smoked salmon, he too turns to farmed fish, usually from British Columbia.

Recently, corporate giant Target decided to pull farmed salmon from store shelves, however, as a gesture of environmental awareness. And although many local restaurants and retailers remain firm supporters of the farmed-salmon industry, farming has had devastating effects on wild salmon runs, according to a near-consensus of biologists.

Farms, they say, produce an overabundance of fish that in turn produces an excess of a natural marine parasite called sea lice. These beetle-sized creatures breed in profuse densities within crowded salmon pens and cloud surrounding waters.

On and around Vancouver Island, many streams have seen rapid declines of their wild pink-salmon runs since local farming operations began, most during the last two decades. Several runs have gone extinct. British Columbia’s once-massive Fraser River sockeye runs also collapsed disastrously last year. In 2009, fishery managers expected 10 million sockeyes to spawn, but only 1 million turned up—a record low. Scientists blame salmon farms and sea lice.

In response to the many controversies associated with the farmed-salmon industry, buyers are looking to an esteemed farm in Sutherland, Scotland, called Loch Duart, which promotes its product as clean and sustainably raised.

It is Loch Duart where Grange’s chef Tuohy resorts to if he must buy farmed salmon.

“I would never buy Chilean farmed salmon, because it has a terrible reputation, but the Loch Duart salmon is a respectable product,” Tuohy said.

However, records from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency show that the farm applies the same routine chemical treatments used by most other salmon farms, sometimes including heavy use of Slice, Panacur and Excis, all parasite treatments.

Representatives of CleanFish, a San Francisco seafood distributor that formally represented the Scottish farm, declined to respond to multiple phone calls and e-mails asking whether the farm feeds coloring agents to its fish. Canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, red-hued carotenoids, are commonly used on salmon farms around the world. Without these supplements, farmed salmon’s flesh would remain a dull, pasty gray.

Although the Sacramento River’s collapse of chinook salmon is unrelated to fish-farming practices, some California fishermen fear that a consumer base satisfied with farmed salmon will lose interest in preserving wild runs.

Target’s decision in January is a promising sign—though perhaps it’s more symbolic than effective. While 60,000 tons of farmed salmon come into the United States annually from British Columbia alone, Target sold just 250 tons of farmed salmon nationwide in 2009.

So the deluge of farmed fish continues. Fins Market & Grill carries it. So does Café Rolle. Safeway, Costco and Trader Joe’s sell it.

The Citizen Hotel’s clientele sometimes demand it, but on Grange’s restaurant menu, says Chef Tuohy, he will offer no salmon until the Columbia River wild chinook arrives—expected any day, he said.

“I like not serving salmon for seven months of the year,” Tuohy said. “That keeps it seasonal and natural, and then, when the first fish arrives from the Northwest, it’s special, because the salmon are back.”