Eat To Live: Farmed or wild salmon?

By JULIA WATSON, UPI Food Writer  |  March 21, 2007 at 1:23 PM
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EDINBURGH, Scotland, March 21 (UPI) -- Some alarming news for brunch fans: Wild Scottish salmon have lost up to one-third of their body weight in the last 10 years. This means more will be required to cover the cream cheese mounded on that weekend bagel.

While customers in England watch with dismay as cod supplies -- the national favorite for fish and chips -- diminish, salmon so far has not raised much concern, at least in England.

The same is not true for the Scots. Salmon are to Scotland what hamburgers and hot dogs are to the United States.

Scientists at St. Andrews, Scotland's oldest university, have found the weight of wild salmon returning to freshwater spawning grounds from the sea has dropped by 15 percent since 1997. The female grilse salmon -- fish that have only spent one year out in the ocean and weigh an average of 4 pounds -- have lost one-quarter of their fat content.

Some blame global warming: Warmer sea temperatures are driving plankton into the cooler waters towards Scandinavia, starving salmon of a vital food source. Smoked salmon, particularly from the wild, is a special treat for any food connoisseur. All salmon, fresh or smoked, is a fatty fish increasingly in demand by consumers looking for a diet high in omega-3s, those good fatty acids that elevate good mood and reduce the risk of heart disease.

But the number of fish returning to spawn is also thought to have dropped by half since the 1970s. Now conservationists are pressing for a moratorium on Scottish salmon fishing both by rod and net. This is a major move: Salmon fishing is a national sport.

Fishing enthusiasts can still flock with their rods to the rivers Tweed and Spey and to fishing resorts on the east coast of Scotland, where netting has been prohibited and fish farms don't exist. But on the west coast, where fish farms abound, the situation is dire. Lochs and rivers once teeming with wild salmon these days are now almost barren.

Food agencies worldwide are promoting more fish, an easily digestible protein, into our diets. Along with those omega-3s, they are high in other nutrients from minerals to calcium, yet low in cholesterol. But it looks as though natural supplies are becoming hard to sustain.

That's why fish farming now accounts for almost half the seafood consumed globally. As reported by UPI's Eat to Live last week, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has called for doubling the U.S. aquaculture industry over the coming decades by allowing the operation of conventional fish farms up to 200 miles out to sea.

Yet increased awareness of the negative impact of conventionally farmed fish upon the environment is encouraging consumers to look to organic fish farming for supplies of fish they consider healthier to eat and healthier to breed. But fish farming can deplete fish stock in its own way, since the salmon living in pens need to eat fish meal to survive -- creating a vicious cycle of dependency.

In Scotland, which depends heavily on the fishing industry, organic farming of salmon is being touted as a solution to preserving wild stocks while tamping down consumers' concerns over the safety of conventionally farmed salmon.

But the difference between the two methods of farming seems tenuous. A conventional farming cage will contain up to 70,000 fish; an organic farming cage, around 30,000. Parasitic sea lice are attracted to fish with limited mobility. To keep disease at bay, organic fish farms are allowed to use the same chemicals as conventional fish farms, though only twice in the 30-month life of an organic salmon. If necessary, they can dose them with three courses of appropriate medicines over this time.

Under organic certification guidelines, the fish are also allowed to be fattened on a feed that includes fish oil and matter from fish that haven't themselves been raised on an organic diet. In both methods of fish farming, feed and feces fall through the cages to the ocean or river bed, polluting the waters.

In the United Kingdom, the Soil Association is the certifying body behind any "organic" labeling. Its reputation over fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, chicken, eggs and dairy produce is pretty much impeccable. It uses its own independent inspectors for certification. But in the case of Scottish organic salmon, it has given the job over to an organization set up and manned by conventional salmon farmers to assess the organic fish-farming industry.

In the United States, there is no Department of Agriculture certification behind the "wild-caught" label. Fishermen in Alaska, still free of fish farms, would like to be able to label their wild-caught salmon "organic" for sale. It would be an unnecessary gilding of the lily: So far, wild Alaskan salmon is believed sustainable, therefore it is organic.

But it seems the same can't be said for the glorious salmon of Scotland.

Stretch your brunch budget with this hot smoked Alaskan salmon recipe that will feed a hungry weekend crew of 8-10.

-- 8 ounces hot smoked salmon

-- 1 pound plain Philadelphia or other cream cheese

-- juice 1 large lemon

-- 2 tablespoons bottled creamed horseradish or 1 tablespoon fresh grated horseradish

-- several grinds of fresh black pepper

-- salt to taste

-- Blend everything thoroughly together and chill for a couple of hours to develop the flavors, then serve on bagels or pumpernickel bread.

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