Alongside shrimp and tuna, salmon is one of the most eaten seafood products in the United States. In order to keep eating salmon in the future, it’s important to know where to get sustainable salmon from. Let’s take a look at why and where we can source salmon sustainably.
Why is Sustainable Salmon Important?
Salmon is considered to be a “keystone species.” What does this mean? Salmon directly and indirectly influences the survival of many other marine and land-based species. Salmon provides nutrients for both animals and plants. In fact, you might be surprised to know that nutrients connected to salmon are found in the tops of old-growth trees in rainforests in British Columbia, Canada!
They also help to keep things in a perfect balance. Pacific salmon, for instance, gets roughly 50% of its food in the form of insects that fall from surrounding trees. Without hungry salmon, it’s expected that there would be an explosion of these insects. Likewise, the carcasses of dead salmon provide organic matter that supports the surrounding ecosystem.
Throughout their entire life cycle, salmon serve as both predator and prey, supporting their local—and not-so-local—ecosystems with services and nutrients.
Bears, wolves, and killer whales depend on salmon as a significant, if not primary, food source. That’s why, when salmon is our food source, we need to be sure that it’s sustainable salmon sourced from in a way that won’t disrupt an ecosystem.
Sustainable Sources for Wild-Caught Salmon
Wild salmon are typically caught in the United States, Canada, Russia, and—in smaller amounts—Europe. Formerly, Atlantic salmon used to keep up with Alaskan salmon, but overfishing and climate- and industry-induced changes have disrupted habitats there.
Now, Alaska is the epicenter of wild salmon, catching more than 850,000 tons of salmon every year, more than any other area in the world. It’s also one of the best sustainable sources for wild-caught salmon.
1. Bristol Bay (Alaska)
Bristol Bay is North America’s most productive salmon ecosystem, containing all five species of Pacific salmon—Chinook, Coho, Chum, Sockeye, and Pink. In fact, it’s actually known as “America’s Fish Basket” and is also home to the world’s largest salmon fishery and is responsible for 46% of globally produced wild sockeye salmon!
Here, for more than a century, salmon has been abundant and the area has been resilient to climate change and a thriving fishing industry. Because of the various fish species and complexity of the ecosystem, the area can better withstand shocks.
In addition, communities there are in opposition of many forms of development that may threaten their homes, salmon stocks, and their livelihoods. The Alaskan government also has many practices in place to support healthy population sizes, rather than focusing on maximizing yield.
2. Copper River (Alaska)
In the Copper River ecosystem, salmon are considered “natural capital” that support local communities and ecosystems, and in turn, must be supported themselves. Every year, around three million sockeye, Chinook, and Coho salmon make their migration to the region, with roughly half being harvested—providing revenue to permit holders and local communities.
The area has long-term resilience in mind, one that supports the wild salmon, the vibrant salmon economy, the watershed and its inhabitants, and the diverse human communities of the area. Many actors have come together—non-governmental organizations, scientists, academics, Alaska Natives, and community leaders—to ensure that this is one of the best sources for sustainable Copper River salmon—now and in the future.
3. Columbia River (Washington & Oregon)
The four Columbia River treaty tribes are known for their stewardship of both the river and the salmon. Both historically and currently, the tribes of the area remain some of the strongest advocates for the ecosystem, and as such are committed to sustainable harvesting of salmon.
Certain regulations, like limits on gear, locations, and fishing day, help to ensure that the river and fish are protected. Catches are monitored and data is collected to support long-term sustainability. Further support from the state of Washington and Oregon support abundance-based management systems, which protect the fish when stocks are low and allow for more harvesting when numbers are high.
Sustainable Sources for Farmed Salmon
Most salmon farming occurs in the United Kingdom, Canada, Chile, and Norway, and it’s mostly Atlantic salmon that is farmed, along with lesser amounts of Coho and steelhead salmon.
Unfortunately, in most of these areas, farmed salmon is rarely sustainable salmon, and should be avoided. According to Seafood Watch recommendations, these include many aquaculture operations in Scotland, Chile, Canada, Norway, and the Shetland Islands.
Fortunately, better options exist. These include farmed salmon operations that use indoor recirculating tanks (equipped with wastewater treatment), or those that have been certified by organizations like the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).
Additionally, there are a few specific locations that tend to be a more sustainable source for farmed Atlantic salmon.
1. Faroe Islands (located close to Iceland)
The Faroe Islands have never been home to wild salmon populations, so there’s no risk for genetic impacts from escapes here. In addition, the salmon is farmed in marine net pens where pollution is minimal. Additionally, rates of bacterial and viral diseases here are lower than in other areas.
One thing to consider with farmed salmon here is the potential use of pesticides to address sea lice.
2. Orkney Islands (United Kingdom)
Also using marine net pens, Orkney Island is considered a “good alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The area is known to have lower rates of sea lice, meaning less requirements for pesticides.
Unfortunately, escapes are more common here, and do have the potential to impact native salmon populations in the region.
3. Maine (United States)
Maine farmed salmon is the only farmed salmon in the U.S. to have earned a “good alternative” rating. Maine fares better than other aquaculture areas given its lower rates of escape and salmon disease and mortality.
Unfortunately, chemical use is relatively high here, particularly antibiotics and pesticides.
4. British Columbia (Canada)
The biggest concern with Canadian farmed salmon is the potential for them to impact wild salmon species, especially because escapees can threaten the populations there that are already listed as endangered or threatened.
With this in mind, we can expect to look towards Canada as a source of more sustainable farmed salmon in the future. The country recently passed their first-ever Aquaculture Act and they’re already beginning to phase out open marine net-pen farms so that by 2025, they have more land-based, closed-containment systems. This will eliminate any potential impacts from escaped salmon, and will curb effluent waste that goes directly into waterways.