by MICHAEL MILSTEIN
But they roam only within a 100-foot cage packed with some 40,000 fish, in
a floating farm that outproduces many known salmon rivers. Their flesh will
turn rosy because of artificial color in their only feed: pellets that put
them on a fast track to the dinner table.
Barely 15 years ago, most of North America's salmon dinners came from the
open ocean of the Northwest and Alaska. Now most come from salmon farms
such as this one in British Columbia and others in Chile.
Farmed salmon are now the chicken of the sea, no more wild than cattle or
sheep. They live an assembly-line life that manufactures the biggest fish,
in the least time, at the least cost. And their transformation from wild
predator to domestic subject represents one of the fastest revolutions in
food production worldwide.
Computers decide their birth dates so they will mature in time to meet the
seasonal appetites of supermarket chains. Intensive breeding pushes them to
full size three times faster than wild salmon. Floodlights fool them into
eating when wild salmon would swim up rivers to spawn.
Cattle and chicken farms across the country use similar methods to make
more burgers and nuggets -- and have for so long that few in the modern
world dine on a wild bull or wild fowl. But fish farmers have made salmon
into mass-market livestock in a sliver of the time it took to domesticate
cattle, pigs and sheep.
"They have created an entirely new animal that lives for an entirely new
purpose," says Mart Gross, a professor of conservation biology and
fisheries at the University of Toronto. "They probably did in three decades
what it took three centuries to do with other animals."
It happened so fast that farms deliver 40 times more salmon than they did
20 years ago. They do so under a ruling class of European, Chilean and
Japanese conglomerates. Result: cheaper salmon, more abundant than ever.
But those gains come only by squeezing every cent from every fish through
feedlot-style mass production.
In a pen, a salmon gets about two bathtubs of water to itself. They endure
blinding cataracts, tattered fins and warped backbones. Penned salmon
gobble so many fish-oil-heavy pellets that they soon will outstrip the
world supply of such oil, extracted from natural prey such as anchovies and
mackerel. All while workers processing the fish for as little as $160 a
month in Chile suffer injury rates double that country's norm.
But the young industry is still finding its way, struggling financially
while investing millions to grow more efficient.
"You farm fish for two reasons," says Karl Shearer, a fish nutritionist at
NOAA-Fisheries who earlier worked for farming companies. "The first is to
produce food. The second is to make money. There will be large improvements
yet, because the market forces you to improve."
In less than three years, a handful of crimson-orange eggs at a fish
hatchery on British Columbia's Vancouver Island will develop into a ton of
salmon worth perhaps $10,000 in stores.
A salmon egg in the wild may have a 5 percent chance of maturing into an
adult fish. On farms, its chances improve tenfold.
The hatchery owned by Heritage Salmon at forested Little Bear Bay is a
patchwork of hospital-like clean rooms, tanks and climate-controlled
buildings down miles of jaw-rattling logging roads. Visitors don white
boots and step through disinfectant to kill any hitchhiking disease.
"You have to know the health of your stock, because that's your future,"
says manager Mike McMann.
His hatchery pumps out 1.9 million young salmon each year on a schedule
planned two years in advance. Those fish, once fattened in pens, will be
worth more than $50 million on supermarket shelves.
In a dim room as hushed as a library, workers tend the crop. Newborn
Atlantic salmon smaller than the cap of a pen lie still on the floor of
metal tanks under protective screens so nothing will disturb them.
"They just sit there," McMann says. "If they don't use their energy to move
around, they grow faster."
The value of the tiny creatures lies in their turbocharged growth, bestowed
by more than 10 generations of breeding.
Researchers at the University of Washington were among the first to try to
build a better salmon. They did it with Union Carbide, and later Campbell
Soup, which began farming the Northwest's silver coho salmon in Puget Sound
close to 30 years ago.
Just as breeders cross the fastest horses in hopes of a Triple Crown
winner, fish farmers select salmon that grow fastest with the least food,
display the most pleasing colors and bear the most eggs. Salmon proved far
more malleable than livestock such as chickens. The coho that began at the
University of Washington today grow five times faster than wild fish.
A private Seattle company, Aquaseed, owns their prized bloodline and sells
eggs to farms around the world.
"We've probably been more successful in doing this than anyone ever
imagined," says Robert Iwamoto, who oversaw the coho genetics program and
now works for NOAA-Fisheries.
Farmers in Chile bought their first coho eggs from Washington and Oregon
hatcheries. The eggs fueled a booming Chilean industry that stole from
Northwest fishermen the Japanese coho market. Now Chile raises more coho
than fishermen catch in the Northwest.
But about nine of every 10 farmed salmon in the world are Atlantic salmon,
first raised on a large scale in Norway during the 1970s. Atlantics took to
farm life more readily than such Pacific Ocean species as coho and chinook.
They hover calmly in pens, expending less energy swimming about. Each
pellet they swallow adds weight -- and dollar value -- to their frame.
"They're the sheep of the salmonid family," McCann declares. "They're the
ideal farm animal."
That's why his hatchery raises them. But to tall and lean McCann, they
could never measure up to the wild Pacific salmon he catches in nearby
waters with his family. Snapshots of those trophy fish paper the wall of
He and his staff of 21 keep fish growing on schedule by manipulating light
and water temperature. Warmer water and bright lights grow fish faster,
like plants in a greenhouse.
"What we're doing here is raising a food product," McCann says. "You're
doing it in a way that's no different from any other livestock."
Perfected breeds worth millions of dollars yield farm salmon that approach
10 pounds in less than three years -- half the time of wild fish. They eat
about a quarter pound less for each pound they gain, a net savings of about
$200 million worth of food each year worldwide.
Farmed salmon mature later, giving them more time to gain profitable
inches. They are more disease resistant and docile -- without the
territorial nature of wild fish. But the breeding has had side effects,
producing fish with smaller fins, distorted jaws and little interest in
There are now more Atlantic salmon in the world than ever. But 95 percent
live on the hundreds of salmon farms around the world.
In 2000, the federal government declared wild Atlantics an endangered
To underline the difference, Gross, the Toronto professor, has proposed
labeling the farmed fish as a new species -- Salmo domesticus. The domestic
When wild fish would leave their home river for the ocean, farmed salmon
leave their hatchery for the farm -- aboard a boat.
A crew pipes them into pens -- a floating lattice of metal walkways framing
a dozen squares of sea as much as 100 feet on a side. From each frame a net
hangs more than 50 feet into the water like an immense french fry basket.
Thousands of salmon circle idly within, a few occasionally jumping clear of
the water. Computers inside a floating building track the number in each
pen and their expected growth rate given the season.
At regular intervals, pressurized tubes spray pellets across each pen, and
salmon boil to the surface.
It is what they live for. Unlike wild salmon, they will never dodge
predators or migrate up a frothy river. They will never spawn. All they do
Their pellets satisfy both a predator's hunger for the protein-rich flesh
of other fish and the farmer's interest in getting salmon big, fast. Feed
consumes more than half the cost of farming, so no one wants to waste it.
Even the shape of the pellets is crafted to zigzag through the water --
helping fish spot and gulp the pellet before it sinks.
They do, voraciously: A large salmon farm, according to a federal study,
produces as much waste as a city of 65,000 people.
The contents of feed shift depending on price, but may include wheat,
ground-up chicken, beef blood and vitamins and minerals to defend against
disease. The bulk, however, is a blend of fish meal and oil made from small
prey fish such as anchovies and jack mackerel.
But anchovies and mackerel collect chemical contaminants such as PCBs and
flame retardant as they travel the ocean. PCBs concentrate in their oils
and end up in salmon feed. Farm salmon eating the pellets then collect the
same pollutants in their oils.
Trial studies suggest that farmed salmon accumulate higher levels of PCBs
-- polychlorinated biphenyls, linked with cancer -- than wild salmon from
places such as the Columbia River. But experts disagree about the overall
risk, when balanced against the health benefits of fish -- wild or farmed.
Salmon feed is usually laden with more oil than the fish need, assuring
them a fat-rich diet that, like junk food, puts pounds on fast. Combined
with their lazy lifestyle, that yields farmed fish with some 50 percent
more fat than wild fish, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But it also means farmed fish hold slightly more beneficial omega-3 fatty
acids than wild fish.
Automated feeding and breeding let farms raise more fish with fewer people.
Norway more than doubled its farmed salmon volume from 1994 to 2000 but cut
its work force by 25 percent. Three people living on a farm may oversee
more than 500,000 salmon.
They do what cowhands do on a ranch, checking for illness, seeing the fish
eat just enough and driving off predators such as sea lions that break into
pens or frighten fish into losing weight. Floodlights that mimic summer
sunshine keep the fish growing far into fall, when wild salmon shift their
energy toward developing reproductive organs they need to spawn.
Testes and ovaries have no market value, however.
"We're going to keep them growing in the most efficient way to maximize our
product," says Jennifer Woodland, environmental and lease manager for
Salmon that do not gain pounds look like midgets among giants. Workers
label these "non-performers" and kill them. It does not pay to buy pellets
for a fish that doesn't perform.
Penned fish endure more stress in tight quarters, studies show. Some 70
percent of fish at some farms in Norway had cataracts, making it tougher
for them to spot food. Others suffer deformed spines known as "broken back
Atlantic salmon raised in the Pacific also face diseases that did not exist
in their home waters, leading to massive epidemics.
Salmon farms in British Columbia add antibiotics to between 2 percent and 3
percent of feed, compared with the more than 50 percent of U.S. pig feed
that holds antibiotics. Vaccines helped Norway cut antibiotic use by 98
percent in 10 years, and British Columbia reduced use per fish by more than
60 percent since 1995.
But there are other drugs. Farmers feed fish rising quantities of the
pesticide emamectin benzoate -- brand-named Slice -- to kill sea lice that
latch onto all salmon but converge in great swarms on those bunched in
As salmon near market size, farms feed them artificial coloring to tint
their gray flesh the same rose hue wild salmon get from their marine diet.
The color, manufactured by Swiss drug giant F. Hoffmann-LaRoche through a
patented method the company will not discuss, is one of the costliest feed
Five to 10 cents of the cost of each U.S. dinner of farmed salmon goes to
the drug company, calculates George Lockwood, a former president of the
World Aquaculture Society.
About a week before slaughter, salmon eat their last meal. Starving them
empties their guts, making them easier to clean, and forces them to burn
fat, firming up their meat.
Vacuum tubes the width of a basketball suck the adult salmon into a ship
that hauls 120 tons to a processing plant such as Englewood Packing on
northern Vancouver Island. At the plant, they loll in a holding pen until
another pipe sucks them out -- gently, so as not to mar their iridescent
scales or bruise their flesh.
A blast of carbon dioxide stuns them, though they may flop around for
several seconds. Norwegian researchers are working out a form of
electrocution that kills them faster, so the flopping does no bruising.
White-aproned workers slice out their gills to drain blood that otherwise
shortens shelf life. A conveyor slides the fish toward the Pisces 9000, a
gleaming steel box the size of a large outdoor grill.
Metal arms gauge each salmon as it glides inside. Software keyed to the
uniform size of fish coming from each farm predicts the center of its belly
and guides a whirring blade the size and shape of a compact disc through it
A suction tube plunges into the fish and slurps out its organs as another
fish rolls in -- 16 fish, averaging 13 to 14 pounds each, gutted every
At more than 1,000 fish an hour, the warehouse-size plant cleans, boxes and
ships out close to 12,000 fish a day, year-round. Few human hands touch
them. Tanks automatically chill the fish to near-freezing. Computers weigh
them; belts carry them into boxes. Nearly all go south to the United
Fish with scrapes or missing scales, which would not look ideal in a fish
case, head for the "value-added" line. A machine whacks off their heads
like a guillotine, whizzing band saws slice off the offending skin, and
rods wedge out pin bones, creating an oven-ready filet.
A fish swimming at noon can be on a truck bound for Oregon by 2 p.m.
The 140 workers at Englewood earn about $12 an hour, a good wage in rural
British Columbia. They get stretching breaks and ergonomic training.
Plant workers in Chile may not enjoy the same benefits. Many earn a minimum
wage of $160 a month based on how fast they work. An investigation by the
Chile labor division found accident rates double the average. About 30
percent to 40 percent of plants lack basic safety measures, such as
protections around machinery.
Rodrigo Infante of the Chile Salmon Producers Association said the industry
is working to improve worker training and safety.
With about 400 farms, Chile is close to producing more salmon than Norway,
long the leader in the world's newest -- and fastest growing -- livestock
"It's like they're coming out of a cookie cutter," says Brian Mencke, who
raises Atlantic salmon in a hatchery at Winlock, Wash., for sale around the
world. "They're all the same."