Depending on where you are in the world — and what species of marine life you’re talking about — aquaculture can mean very different things. Alaskans even use the word “mariculture” to distinguish between salmon aquaculture and other marine life. But Alaskan aquaculture is very different from the rest of the global aquaculture industry.
Elsewhere in the world, fish farms take salmon from egg to market. Generally, Pacific salmon species are wild-caught while fish farms mostly produce Atlantic salmon. Atlantic and Pacific salmon aren’t even in the same biological genus. Each region of the world has a different approach to salmon, and each face its own set of challenges.
Alaskan fish hatcheries
In Alaska, salmon hatcheries enhance fisheries using existing wild stocks. State law restricts hatcheries from mixing genetic stock from one region to another. Also by law, salmon from other states or countries will never be introduced here.
Alaskan hatcheries raise salmon in egg incubators, raceways, and net pens until they are old enough to transition to adulthood in the open seas. They also maintain a system of counting weirs to track salmon returning to spawn. This helps fisheries managers understand historical trends and set goals for future fisheries.
In fact, fish hatcheries release around 25 percent of all salmon caught in Alaska commercial fisheries, according to a 2022 report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Altogether, Alaska salmon aquaculture programs account for $163 million value to Alaska fishermen.
The state permits fish farms to raise and market invertebrates and marine vegetation in an industry called mariculture. These commercial operations tend to be centered in Southeast Alaska and include oysters, sea cucumbers, geoducks, crab, and kelp. Southcentral Alaska is seeing a rise in mariculture including oysters and kelp farms.
Canadian fish farming in transition
Canadian fish farmers raise Atlantic salmon in British Columbia, as well as the maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. On the west coast, these fish farms occupy the same waters as the Canadian wild-caught Pacific salmon fisheries.
In British Columbia, fish farms employ around 4,700 people who work a series of open-net pens that raise salmon from fry to adulthood. Environmental activists point to research that shows that sea lice and other pathogens spread freely from the pens to the sea, where they can infect wild Pacific salmon.
During his 2019 campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised he would phase out open-net farms by 2025, replacing them with land-based controlled enclosures that protect wild salmon from disease. The Canadian government is leading talks to determine how to balance the needs of the fish farming industry with concerns over contaminating wild stocks.
Scottish salmon: Similar to Canada
The Scottish salmon industry proudly connects its salmon to its beef and lamb farms. Like Canada, Scotland raises salmon in open-net pens in its lochs and bays. The industry markets itself as a safe, sustainable example of global aquaculture.
More than 200 farms produce 150,000 tons of salmon a year. According to a 2019 BBC report, farmers feed Scottish salmon processed feed and treat them with medicines that control sea lice. The industry recently reduced production to address these public health concerns over disease. Meanwhile, Scottish wild salmon stocks have dwindled to record lows.
Norway: The dominant player in fish farming
The Norwegian Atlantic salmon industry is by far the world’s leading producer with exports of $7.6 billion in 2021. By comparison, Alaska salmon catches were valued at $720 million in 2022.
Sweden buys almost all its salmon from Norway, and Swedes have similar public health questions as Canada and the UK. To address these concerns, the Swedish Fisheries Association commissioned an independent research agency RISE to investigate the Norwegian salmon industry.
Here are some of its findings:
- Still more nutritious than meat — Because Norwegian salmon eat more feed made from vegetables, its nutritional value is lower. It’s still higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and other key nutrients than beef or pork.
- Dioxins give nutritionists pause — Farmed salmon contain dioxins, trace substances that can lead to weakened immunity, lower fertility, and increased cancer risk. Plant-based feeds reduce dioxin risk, but researchers seek more information.
- Antibiotics and pesticides do not pose much risk — Despite concerns about medications and pesticides fed to farmed salmon, this study did not find levels of these substances high enough to pose health concerns.
- Low climate footprint — Activists claim that farmed salmon produces massive greenhouse gas emissions, but the study found the climate footprint of farmed salmon to be comparable to chicken and pork, and much lower than beef.
Chilean salmon: The No. 1 source of farmed salmon in the U.S. market
Alaska commercial salmon fishermen compete head-to-head with Chilean salmon farmers. They raised more than a million tons of Atlantic salmon in 2019 and remain the leading source of farmed salmon sold in the U.S. In fact, more than 50% of salmon imported into the U.S. comes from Chile.
The salmon industry is a cornerstone of the Chilean economy. It’s the leading agricultural export and the second export of any kind, behind copper mining. In 2021, Chilean salmon exports were valued at more than $4.8 billion.
Chilean salmon farms are usually located in the cold southern waters of the Patagonia region, where conditions are similar to Norway and Alaska.
In northern countries, fish diseases tend to be viral — which means they can’t be treated with antibiotics. In Chile, however, salmon are susceptible to a bacterial disease called septicemia rickettial salmonídea (SRS), a bacterial infection. While fish farmers do not use antibiotics to prevent SRS, they do use antibiotics to manage outbreaks.
The industry works with international certification programs to reduce antibiotic use.
Faroe Island salmon: A boutique industry
Atlantic salmon from the Faroe Islands fetches a strong price in the U.S. market due to its reputation for safety and quality. The Faroe Islands are a self-governing territory of Denmark between Norway and Iceland.
Salmon aquaculture got its start in the Faroe Islands in the 1980s and has grown to a third of the Islands’ entire gross domestic product. The Faroe Islands are the fifth-largest salmon producer in the world.