Salmon Farming Politics and the Fish Health Professional
IAAAM Archive
Hugh Mitchell
Aquatic NW Veterinary Services
Bothell, WA, USA


Salmon farming has had remarkable growth since its beginnings in the early 1970's. Today, global production exceeds 1.3 million metric tons with Chile and Norway accounting for three-quarters of this total. North American salmon farming is minute in comparison. Occurring primarily in Maine, Washington, New Brunswick and British Columbia (excluding stock enhancement production for the Alaskan salmon fishery), annual production is around 125,000 MT. The rapid growth has also been responsible for the creation of employment opportunities for many veterinarians and fish health professionals--arguably more than any other commercial aquatic sector. Farmed salmon success, however, has caused many challenges that are not atypical of many other industries. Escalating supplies have resulted in intense intra- and interregional competition, shrinking farmgate prices and margins, globalization and consolidation of companies, and greater public visibility. Salmon farming has drastically impacted the North American salmon fishery, with competition, especially from Chile, often cited as the main reason behind the decline in the Alaskan fishery value from 500 million to 130 million in the past four years.

One of the greatest challenges facing the industry today, especially in North America, has been the emergence of the anti-salmon farming movement. Organized opposition includes several NGO's (Non-governmental organizations) whose membership and source funding comes from: anti-globalization and anti-intensive animal husbandry activists, commercial salmon fishermen, stock enhancement agency workers and researchers, riparian land owners, and individuals who are ethically against salmon domestication from a moral basis. Allegations against salmon farming include: excessive organic pollution, negative biological, genetic and disease interactions with wild populations, excessive use of chemicals, net drain on ocean's wild fishery through fish meal and oil used in feed, lower relative food wholesomeness / safety issues, aesthetic problems, and public resource usage conflicts.

Often accusations appear in the media as very sensationalistic, non-quantitative statements, with an apparent goal of shedding negative light on salmon farming versus working towards cooperative and sustainable solutions. True science and facts behind prominent issues can become confusing for the fish health professional, who is often caught in the middle of the controversy. Political and regulatory consequences can greatly impact on the short- and long-term options available for maintaining the health and welfare of farmed salmon. Affected fish health strategies include: disease diagnostic and treatment options, pathogen-load reducing practices, husbandry risk-reducing practices, and genetics programs. Resultant legal actions against salmon farms can sometimes leave fish health professionals bewildered as to the rationale behind decisions. Some of this is obviously due to the complexity of biology and aquatic ecosystems. Often controversial in the scientific community, this can provide for poor policy making decisions in the public sector. As a recent issue of Scientific American points out (Anon, 2003): "Ironically, science may be its own worst enemy. Scientists love to keep questioning things and that inquisitiveness makes judges nervous. You can manufacture uncertainty because scientists don't always agree. Lawyers take differences among scientists and magnify them ..." Anti-salmon farming activists have been much more astute and efficient at using this strategy than salmon farming proponents. Familiar "prove-the-negative" tactics are rampant and there are striking examples of published junk science-with-an-agenda that has apparently escaped the peer-review process.

Although rarely made, comparisons between the sensationalist qualitative accusations with available quantitative information are a useful exercise for the responsible fish health professional to undertake. Using information from Mitchell, 2003a, Mitchell, 2003b, and prosalmon farming website:, there is an alterative point of view to the current anti-salmon farming hysteria that aquatic animal health professionals should consider. This proposes that the prime motives against salmon farming may be more social, economic, emotional and moral, than scientific. If all the available information is considered in a scientific context, salmon farming might be seen as one of the most sustainable and environmentally benign industries that we know of today.


1.  Anon. 2003. Science V. Law. Scientific American, Dec. 2003.

2.  Mitchell H, J Brackett, B Hicks. 2003a. Relaxing perspectives: the environmental impact of salmon farms. 11th Annual New England Farmed Fish Health Workshop. University of Maine Machias, Machias, Maine, April 4, 2003.

3.  Mitchell H. 2003b. Assessing the risk of PCB levels in farmed salmon. 27th Annual Conference of the Seafood Science and Technology Society. Biloxi, MS, Nov. 3-6, 2003.

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Hugh Mitchell

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