Those of us associated with the fishing industry often use the term "regime shift" to try to explain change in the ocean.
It now appears there may be a regime shift headed our way at the water's edge, with respect to how environmentalists, seafood label advocates, and ultimately, the public view farmed salmon.
A session entitled "Is It Time for a New Conversation About Farmed Salmon," at the Seafood Summit in New Orleans yesterday, highlighted the progress salmon farmers have made and the challenges they still face in their quest to earn broad consensus that their product is sustainable.
Salmon farmers contend with sea lice and pollution, consumers are wary of antibiotic use, and advocates for sustainability worry about the fish-in, fish-out ratio, which is how they describe the amount of fish meal consumed in producing farmed salmon.
But the reality is that salmon farmers are making progress. Scott Nichols, director of Verlasso, the only farmed salmon producer to have received a "good alternative" endorsement from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch consumer guide, talked about his company's one-to-one fish-in, fish-out ratio and lower pen density, both better than worldwide averages.
And Alf-Gøran Knutsen of Norway's Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett, talked about how his company is using lumpfish to combat the persistent issue of sea lice: they eat them. Not only are lumpfish preferable to pesticides, but over the years sea lice have become resistant to them.
If Seafood Watch is resistant to farmed salmon, Whole Foods made a decision to market farmed salmon that met its standards for production and traceability and embarked on a yearlong study to develop those standards.
"We could have said, 'There are too many things to worry about with farmed salmon, we shouldn't sell it,'" said Carrie Brownstein, the company's seafood standards quality coordinator. "But our model at Whole Foods is to create change."
Salmon, wild and farmed, is Whole Foods' largest selling seafood, Brownstein said.
Those of you who have read me over the years know that while I vastly prefer wild salmon to farmed, I am not offended by farmed salmon's very existence. I am convinced that farmed salmon paved the way for wild salmon to reach new markets by introducing salmon to Americans outside the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
Nor should we feel threatened by the ascendance of farmed salmon. Fish consumption will continue to grow in this country, even if per capita consumption remains flat, which is unlikely in these health-conscious times.
By the same token, there will always be folks debating wild salmon vs. farmed. Some of them will likely be at today's session, "How Wild is Wild?" which will raise the issue of the relationship between wild, hatchery, and farmed salmon.
Indeed, the question came up at yesterday's session. "It's a complicated debate," said Peter Bridson, who is representing the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program at the summit.