New Zealand King Salmon: On Sustainable Salmon Farming

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno and New Zealand King Salmon Company
May 2010

Some chefs can name over-fished species off the top of their heads, while others are still featuring them on menu specials. That’s because best practices for seafood consumption are not yet globally understood; there is a disconnect of knowledge among chefs—typified by the Rick Moonens versus the Chilean Sea Bass dinner specials of the cooking world—about the use and abuse of conventional (read: outdated) fishing practices.

But there’s one fact that even the most eco-apathetic chef can’t deny: all salmon are not created equal. From species to species, and from net to net, salmon—ubiquitous menu item, eaten raw, seared, poached, flaked, cured, smoked, and even moussed—is an incredibly variable creature, both highly sensitive and highly influential to its surrounding environment. And tucked into the morass of salmon supply and demand is New Zealand King Salmon, a roughly 30-year old company that puts out a mere 1% of the world’s salmon market with practices that approach viable, long term sustainability.

Whether King Salmon is a practical standard bearer for the future of fish farming, and whether the farmed product has as much culinary value as a wild-caught specimen, is, like many issues in the cross-currents of cuisine and aquaculture, up for debate.

Ocean to Table Dining?

The farm-to-table ethic has chefs and waiters describing everything from the feed to the harvesting to the shipping practices of menu items like beef and pork, products that used to be blissfully taken for granted until they reached the diner’s plate. But this is an age in which the culinary ends, no matter how luxurious, no longer justify the means. Diners and chefs alike want to know how the product was developed. And this mindset is spreading from the farm to the ocean.

Compared to barnyard stories behind the day’s beef dish, and beyond spare regional monikers like “Maine Sea Scallop” or “Santa Barbara Uni,” the restaurant menu has had comparatively little to say about its fish items. But all of that is changing. Organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with its Seafood Watch and the Blue Oceans Institute, with its partnership with Chefs Collaborative, are bringing the pressing issues of endangered and over-fished seafood to the attention of culinary professionals. The sourcing and production of fish is more relevant now than ever.

To Farm or Not to Farm?

According to Seafood Watch, approximately half of all fish consumed come from a fish farming operation. And for chefs—who value consistency of product by force of profession—farmed salmon may seem like the ideal culinary solution: year-round product at an affordable price to gratify fish-loving diners. But what is the impact of fish farming? Are all so-called “aquaculture” operations created equal? And what is the quality of the product?

“There are many different ways of farming salmon,” says Alan Duckworth, research scientist of the Blue Ocean Institute. “The most common method is not sustainable. It causes a lot of environmental problems, such as waste pollution, disease, and high levels of sea lice that impact wild populations of salmon.” According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which ranks species on sustainability, farmed Atlantic salmon is to be avoided, however enticing the price point.

But fish farming operations, like their agricultural counterparts, can have regulations in place to mitigate if not entirely avoid harmful consequences. The problem is many of them don’t. Roughly “one hundred and thirty species of fish are farmed, in a sustainable way or not,” says Duckworth. So even if “it’s possible to create sustainably farmed seafood,” according to Seafood Watch, it isn’t (yet) common.

Environmental Impact

Unlike a land-bound farm, the environmental impact of fish farming in an open system is not isolated to the locations of the farms and so can spread across waters and populations of fish. “The biggest concern with salmon farming is the method that’s used to farm is open the environment,” says Duckworth. What happens in the net cages of King Salmon, for instance, will have a wide-ranging impact.

Fish farming can take some of the burden off of over-fished wild species, which is extremely helpful. But when governed by profit and practicality alone, it can also be environmentally and biologically devastating. “The problem with salmon farming in much of the world is it’s done at a high density,” says Duckworth, acting as an incubator for sickness and potential infestations, both within the crowded populations and mixing into the wild as farmed fish escape. This necessitates the use of antibiotics, which spread to the water and remain in the flesh of the fish. And interbreeding between escaped farmed salmon and wild salmon can also corrupt the gene pool of already scarce wild salmon species.

But not all fish farming is detrimental to the environment. “Farmed shellfish, clams, mussels, and oysters can be farmed sustainably,” says Duckworth. “You don’t need any food, so there is less waste and less pollution.” And certain fish species have proven easier to raise in a sustainable way. “There’s farmed tilapia and catfish in the United States,” notes Duckworth. “The water is recycled so all the waste that’s produced is cleaned and reused back on the farm.”

New Zealand King Salmon Practices

“New Zealand has a very strong environmental record compared to other countries,” says Duckworth. “Their fish farming is better than it is in other countries.” And according to Katherine Bryar, Senior Consultant on behalf of New Zealand King Salmon, their practices are “driven as much from a commercial aspect as well as to be good stewards of the environment.”

“King salmon are a notoriously difficult species to raise,” Bryar explains. “They are flighty and easily stressed. This means we need to ensure they are kept in the most stress free environment possible.” To that end, the salmon are kept at a remarkably low stocking density, “extremely low compared to international aquaculture standards,” says Bryar, with strong currents allowing the fish to swim and develop healthy musculature.

The company, which is responsible for 65% of New Zealand’s fin fish farming, is fortunate in that neither disease nor sea lice have infected its salmon populations, meaning it can avoid one of the major pitfalls of fish farming: antibiotics. “New Zealand is the only country in the world that does not use antibiotics or vaccines in the farming of salmon,” says Bryar, “which means there is no discharge from the farms of antibiotics into the New Zealand marine environment.”

The pristine conditions and environmental savvy of New Zealand itself are in part responsible for the minimal environmental impact of King Salmon’s operations. The Resources Management Act, originally passed in 1991, was recently amended to create an encompassing Environmental Protection Agency. And the strong, pure currents of the Marlborough Sound continually flush the waters of the net cages, dispersing waste and encouraging healthy development of the fish.

And while it might seem environmentally risky to import a non-native species, New Zealand King Salmon actually rescued the dwindling King salmon population of the McLeod River in California when it first imported the species at the turn of the century. In fact, the Winnemem Mintu, an American Indian tribe, recently visted the country in hopes to reclaim the species and repopulate the scant stock of the McLeod River. Generally speaking, says Duckworth, "bringing in a new species can be bad because it can invade with existing native species.. But with salmon," he adds, "it doesn’t appear to have a major impact on the eco system." And with roughly 100 years of King salmon in the country, it's likely that any major impact that hasn't occurred probably won't occur.

As for its shipping practices, which can traditionally compromise even the most sustainably-minded companies, New Zealand King Salmon doesn't charter flights to ship to North America, but sends all of its airfreight shipments on commercial passenger flights. The result is a product that maintains global presence without the typically significant carbon footprint.

Culinary Usage

King Salmon has practical motivation to maintain healthy, stress-free stock. “Consumers have become very savvy about their food choices,” Bryar explains. The sustainable practices of the operation are important to King Salmon’s consumers because in the end those practices yield the best quality product. “Most of our King salmon sold in North America ends up in top-end restaurants,” says Bryar, meaning they sell to discerning chefs. “If [the salmon] are stressed or have poor water or feed,” Bryar explains, “then they will not grow to the size or quality that is desired in the marketplace.”

Of course, the feed presents its own problem. For salmon, like many species, the quality of the feed plays a large part in determining the quality of the flesh. And because salmon are carnivorous, their feed must contain a large amount of protein—approximately 45% according to King Salmon’s website—and fat, which usually comes from ground sardines and herring. This means in order to produce a quantity of salmon, an even larger quantity of fish must be consumed.

Many farms are looking for land-bound alternatives, including the use of vegetable oil in place of fish oil to enrich the feed, but the fact of the matter is salmon need to eat other fish in order to develop the best (or the desired) flavor. “All salmon farms have been trying to reduce the amount of fish in their diets,” Duckworth explains, “but what has been found is that salmon do require reasonably high levels of fish in their diets because that improves the taste and it also supplies the Omega fatty acids.”

Feed content is an area of continued research, for salmon and for other farmed species. “There’s a lot of science, a lot of experiments about how much fish meal and fish oil should be given to salmon to reduce the impact while still retaining good levels of Omega-3 and a nice taste,” says Duckworth. The ultimate goal, for King Salmon and every fish farm operation that aspires to sustainability, is to produce more fish protein than is consumed, by way of feed, all the while preserving the incomparable richness and flavor of the product. “King salmon’s major attribute is its taste,” says Bryar. And King Salmon’s sustainable practices just might ensure the integrity of that taste for years to come.