Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Repeating the Farmed Salmon PCB Smear ... Again

Over at US News and World Report, environmental blogger Maura Judkis is passing along a list of "10 Risky Foods," that have been compiled by Sprig, one of those helpful environmental groups trying to create some hysteria in the wake of the recent peanut butter recall.

As it turns out, we've dealt with this issue before, most recently in January. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's a greater risk from PCBs from salted butter, homemade brown gravy and -- wait for it -- roasted chicken. Mitigating the risk further is the fact that Americans consume so little seafood, setting up a situation where overall diet of Americans would be better off if they consumed more, not less, fish.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ian Roberts on Dining Around in San Francisco

Back on January 17, our buddy Ian Roberts was in San Francisco for a seafood show, and he stopped by the studios of KGO Radio to be a guest on Dining Around with Gene Burns. Give it a listen.

The Color of Farmed Salmon is No Dye Job

A couple of days ago, USA Today printed a story regarding counterfeit foods. That's essentially the practice of taking a product and labeling it as something else in the supermarket. Here's an interesting explantion that includes a quote from our friend Gavin Gibbons at the National Fisheries Institute:
Fish is the most frequently faked food Americans buy. In the business, it's called "species adulteration" — selling a cheaper fish such as pen-raised Atlantic salmon as wild Alaska salmon.

When Consumer Reports tested 23 supposedly wild-caught salmon fillets bought nationwide in 2005-2006, only 10 were wild salmon. The rest were farmed. In 2004, University of North Carolina scientists found 77% of fish labeled red snapper was actually something else. Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times tested fish at 17 sushi restaurants and found that fish being sold as red snapper actually was mostly tilapia.

"It's really just fraud, plain and simple," says Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, an industry group.
When SOTA members (salmon producers from North and South America) ship their product, it's labeled as farmed, and that's the way it should stay. But the problems with the story began with the following quote. Due to some editing error at the paper, the person who said the following was not correctly identified, but a little digging and a conversation with the reporter, USA Today's Elizabeth Weise, revealed that the person in question is Spring Randolph, a safety officer with the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition:
"When you cook it, the wild salmon retains its color, and in the aquaculture salmon, the color tends to leak out," she says. Suspicious consumers can call the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition hotline at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.
Huh? We should back up here for a moment. In the wild, salmon consume this natural pigment -- called a carotenoid -- while feeding on krill. Salmon flesh, like trout, retains this pigment, giving it the pleasing pink flesh the fish is famous for. Besides changing the color of the flesh, this carotenoid is also a powerful antioxidant and pro-vitamin A source. The industry maintains that it also influences the growth and survival of young salmon.

In salmon aquaculture, the industry endeavors to mimic the diet that salmon would normally get in the wild, so it supplements salmon feed with a synthetic replacement. It's called astaxanthin, and chemically, it's identical to the pigment that salmon get in the wild. Biologically, it's processed and absorbed by wild and farmed fish in exactly the same manner, though some species retain more color than others.

The bottom line is simple here: we're not talking about the sort of food coloring you buy at the supermarket and use in a cake mix. The color of salmon flesh, no matter how it's raised, can't leak. It's physiologically impossible.

So how did that quote get into USA Today? As I mentioned earlier, I got hold of the reporter, Elizabeth Weise, via phone on Wednesday evening. I explained the science to her and asked how Ms. Randolph had backed up her preposterous claim and if she had cited any study that might back it up. At the time, Weise said that Randolph had told her she had observed this phenomenon while cooking salmon in her own kitchen. Weise added that because Randolph was an employee of the FDA, she had no reason not to doubt her expertise.

To say the least, I was taken aback, and I pressed Weise to contact FDA again to see if they could produce any evidence to buttress Randolph's claim. Late at home on Thursday evening, I received the following response from Weise:
FDA says that Spring Randolph was speaking from her own experience, not FDAs. So there's no research paper she can point to to support her statement. However it doesn't call for a correction, because we did not quote the FDA expert incorrectly, that's exactly what she said.. I think the best way for you to make your point would be to send in a letter to the editor.
I disagreed and insisted that the paper was obligated to print a correction or a clarification. Instead of a letter to the editor, I'll be sending talking to her editor at the paper, Sue Kelly. Stay tuned for further developments.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An Update on the "Go Wild" Kayaking Expedition

Back on January 13, Mary Ellen Walling of BC Salmon reached out to Phil Magistro and Apryle Craig, a couple planning on taking a canoe expedition along the coast of Washington state and British Columbia to survey the health of wild salmon stocks. After reading of the plans for their expedition, Mary Ellen offered to give the couple a tour of a salmon farm in British Columbia, as well as provide an opportunity for them to meet some of the folks who work on the farms.

Just a few hours after Mary Ellen sent that message, this is what she received in return:
Mary Ellen,

Thank you for your email and for your work in the coastal community. I immediately recognized your name from the Salmon Farmers Association website, where I learned there are tours available. There is a lot of controversial information out there and we definitely want to get a full picture of the situation for the survival of the salmon, ecosystem, and community.

We are very interested and grateful for your offer to visit a farm and to speak with your aquaculture scientists. It sounds like a great chance to ask questions to folks who have first-hand experience and knowledge. Thank you for suggesting this opportunity.

We have not yet outlined exactly where we expect to be and when. I don't think I was able to find on the website which location the salmon tours are at, but if you could let me know, we would look forward to putting this on our itinerary.

Thanks, again, for the email and please be in touch,

Though the trip isn't scheduled for a number of months, we promise to keep our readers looped on the progress. Please stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Facts About Salmon and PCBs

Over the past few days, newspapers in both Canada and the U.S. have been passing along the results of a study that claims that killer whales living off the coasts of Washington state and British Columbia are slowly being poisoned by PCBs carried by wild salmon stocks in the region. Though the study obviously doesn't refer to the farmed Atlantic salmon produced by facilities in Chile and British Columbia, the folks at SOTA thought it was important to put some facts into play that activists often obscure when it comes to this issue.

Though the use of PCBs has been banned since the 1970s, they still persist in the food chain to this day, though at steadily decreasing levels. But as the chart from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sourced from the U.S. FDA shows, the level of PCBs in salmon found in supermarket seafood sections and served in restaurants is lower than you find in a staple like salted butter or other common dinnertime fare like meatloaf, chicken breast and even brown gravy. Please keep this in mind whenever you hear media reports about this issue.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Challenging Monterey Bay on the Facts About Farmed Salmon

When you take a look at Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch FAQ, they list the following reasons why farmed salmon is on their red list. We'll address them one at a time:
Currently, farmed salmon are raised in coastal net pens, where they’re in direct contact with the surrounding marine environment. This open access results in at least five distinct problems when farming salmon, that often aren’t native to the area:

When farmed salmon escape from ocean pens, they threaten wild salmon and other fish by competing with them for food and spawning grounds.
A 2006 study by The Fraser Institute, Escaped Farmed Salmon: A Threat to BC's Wild Salmon?, came to some starkly opposite conclusions:
  • There is little risk of Atlantic salmon establishing viable populations in the Pacific northwest;
  • The number of escaped salmon has not increased radically as the production of Atlantic salmon has increased;
  • Cross breeding of Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon is highly unlikely, as they are different species (Onchorynchus vs Salmo)
  • The numbers of public hatchery releases far exceed the accidental release of farmed Pacific salmon and will have a great impact; and
  • The transfer of disease between escaped farmed salmon and wild salmon is unlikely.
A 2006 study published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science concluded the following: "Exceptional marine survival of pink salmon that entered the marine environment in 2003 suggests that farmed Atlantic salmon and pacific salmon can coexist successfully in a marine ecosystem on the Pacific coast of Canada."

The authors noted that even with the fallowing that occurred in 2003 the biomass of farmed salmon in the Broughton during this period was consistent with levels in the preceding years. Climate regime shift and environmental conditions may have contributed to increased sea lice production as well. Their overall conclusion: conditions in the marine ecosystem around salmon farms in the study area in 2003 suggest that it is possible to have sustainable wild and farmed salmon in a common ecosystem.

Finally, Escaped Farm Salmon: Environmental and Ecological Concerns, a report compiled by Natural Resources Consultants Inc. for the Salmon Aquaculture Review (SAR) concluded:
  • The potential establishment of Atlantic salmon populations in Pacific rivers and streams as a result of reproductive success and survival of progeny in a series of years is considered unlikely.
  • Existing farm technology and practices have probably contributed to the recent reduction in the number of reported fish escaping from farms. Nevertheless, a standard process for preventing escapes, recapture or escaped fish, and more comprehensive reporting could lead to further escape reductions.
It's important to note that report’s conclusions were arrived at in the mid-nineties, prior to the implementation of the recommendations of the SAR and that since this time, the number of escapes have continued to decline despite an increase in overall production.

Next up, fish poop:
  • Waste from most salmon farms is released directly into the ocean.
  • As the result of a study completed for the Salmon Aquaculture Review, the province of British Columbia enacted the Finfish Aquaculture Waste Control Regulation (FAWCR). The regulation acts to mitigate and monitor the impacts of wastes from salmon farms:
    The regulation includes provisions for farm registration, pre-stocking sampling, domestic sewage handling, best management practices, monitoring and reporting, remediation, offences and penalties.

    Farm registration under the regulation has been completed, and compliance and inspection programs conducted by MOE and MAL are underway.

    The standards are “performance-based,” meaning that specific thresholds for defined chemical and biological indicators should not be exceeded at any time during production (previously, production levels and feed usage were regulated, rather than their actual impact on the environment).

    Farmers must carry out specific monitoring/remediation activities on the farm if the indicator levels are exceeded.
    That's certainly a lot different than the picture Monterey Bay painted of salmon farms directly releasing waste into the ocean and not caring. Instead, the province relies on scientifically-derived regulation to protect the environment.
  • Parasites and diseases from farmed salmon can spread to wild fish swimming near the farms.
  • Indeed, this is a concern (and it can go both ways). That's why all salmon culture operations both public and private must have a Fish Health Management Plan (FHMP) which is reviewed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. Upon return to the company, the fish health staff of each are trained using the procedures developed in the manual and enforce its use across the organization.

    The majority of culture operations in BC maintain a broodstock program where all milt and egg donor fish are screened for pathogens and disease to ensure that any possible illnesses are not passed to the next generation. Fish are vaccinated prior to seawater entry against common fish disease – this not protects the farmed fish from getting infections from the environment and wild fish but also obviously protects the wild fish from getting infected from the farmed salmon.

    Additional protection against introduction of exotic pathogens is provided for in the National Code on Introductions and Transfers of Aquatic Organisms.
  • Salmon farmers may use pesticides and antibiotics to control outbreaks of disease among the fish. When consumers eat this fish, the residues from the chemicals may affect their health or interfere with medicines they’re taking.
  • To answer this question, we consulted with Dr. Sonja Saksida at the Centre for Aquatic Health Sciences. She passed the following onto us in a note.

    "In BC we don't use pesticides - we just use medicines - all currently used products in Canada (antibiotics and sea lice products) are licensed and regulated by the Veterinary Drug Directorate (VDD) of Health Canada, not the Pest Management Regulatory Agency which regulates pesticides," Saksida wrote in a note to BC Salmon's Mary Ellen Walling.

    She continued:
    SLICE® is an approved drug in most other major salmon aquaculture countries including Norway, Scotland, Ireland and Chile. In Canada SLICE® has been in the drug registration process since 2000 and as of mid-2008 is still unregistered. As a result, access to the therapeutant has only been available under a special release (an emergency drug release - EDR) from the Veterinary Drug Directorate (VDD) - a branch of Health Canada. The veterinarian responsible for a particular fish farm must submit a written request to VDD for an emergency drug release to Ottawa. The veterinarian must specify the location of the farm, the number of fish to be treated, the size of the fish and the amount of drug required. After verifying the information, VDD evaluates the request and upon approval authorize the manufacturer of the drug to sell a specified quantity of a drug (e.g., SLICE®) to the veterinarian to medicate the infested fish. Only veterinarians can access veterinary drugs through the EDR program. The treatment regime for SLICE® is the same as that used in other regions (seven day treatment at 0.05 mg/kg fish/day).
    The following is from the Health Canada website:
    Health Canada has recently amended its policy on permitted SLICE residues after completing a reassessment of available data. SLICE continues to be approved for limited use under the EDR program. Under the program, the modified Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) of 42 parts per billion (ppb) has been established. This compares to established MRLs in the European Union of 100 ppb. In addition, a revised WP has been established at 68 days from the latest treatment when used at a water temperature of 5 °C or greater.
    "So in Canada the permitted residue levels is lower than in Europe, and withdrawal periods are longer," wrote Dr. Saksida. "For comparison, withdrawl levels in Europe for SLICE are 0 days (Scotland and Ireland), 175 degree days (i.e. 7.5days at 10C water temperature). In Canada the withdrawal period is 68 days," she wrote.

    "With regard to antibiotic usage – all antibiotics used in aquaculture are only available through prescriptions obtained by a veterinarian. There are stringent withdrawal periods associated with all antibiotics used in aquaculture in Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) closely monitors and routinely tests fish to ensure that they are clear of residues."

    Thanks to Dr. Saksida for that clarifying information.
  • It takes three pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed salmon. As a result, farming salmon actually uses more fish than it produces, which puts more pressure on wild populations.
  • Simply put, that figure is old news. Currently, farmed salmon operations are converting fish meal to edible protein at a rate closer to 1.2:1. Due to protein substitutes, this will soon be less than 1:1, which means salmon farms will be a net protein producer -- a detail that has escaped Monterey Bay's Seafood Watch program since they last looked at the industry in 2004. Lastly, this feed is only taken from sustainable sources.

    We've passed research buttressing these claims onto MBA, but we've yet to get a response. When and if we do, we'll pass it on.

    Reaching Out to the "Go Wild" Kayaking Expedition

    A couple of days back, an employee at one of BC Salmon's member companies passed along a blog post from Phil Magistro and Apryle Craig, a married couple from Colorado who are planning to take a kayaking adventure this Spring that will take them from the coast of Washington state, up the British Columbia coastline and eventually to Alaska.

    But Craig and Apryle aren't there just to have fun, they're also looking to, "examine and document the effects of salmon farming on the environment and coastal communities."

    Here's more:
    As part of their investigation, Craig and Magistro are making plans to:

    * Document the salmon farms and surrounding environment through photography, videography, and written reports.
    * Attend a salmon farm tour.
    * Interview First Nations and Canadian residents from various industries along the route regarding their knowledge about and stance on salmon farming.
    * Actively participate in salmon research.
    * Promote sustainable seafood choices and encourage people to “Go Wild,” by supporting sustainable fishing and ocean-use practices.
    * Build awareness for “The Eyes and Ears of the Coast” program and encourage the coastal community to participate.
    * Educate the community about the threatened state of pink and chum salmon.
    * Raise donations for Living Oceans Society with funds going towards the preservation of the magnificent coastal environment.
    As you might imagine, BC Salmon has taken note of the trip and wanted to reach out to the couple. The following is a note Mary Ellen Walling of BC Salmon sent to them just a few minutes ago.
    January 13, 2009

    Dear Phil and Apryle:

    Earlier this week an employee at one of the salmon farms here in British Columbia passed along a link to the post on your blog announcing your plan to kayak your way from Washington state along the British Columbia coast all the way to Alaska. It sounds like a wonderful adventure, and as someone who moved to the west coast of Canada many decades ago in part because of the incredible natural beauty in this region, I know that your trip will be filled with memories that will last a lifetime.

    Like you both, my industry shares your concern about the local wild salmon population. At the same time, we also believe strongly that decisions about our environment not be based on emotional appeals and anecdotal evidence, but on a solid foundation of scientific research. I saw in your blog post that your trip will include a trip to a local salmon farm here in BC, and I'd like to offer you not only an opportunity to visit one of our farms, but also to get a personal briefing from some of our aquaculture scientists on the latest developments in our industry.

    Needless to say while the salmon farming business shares many of the goals of local environmental preservation advocates, we often differ significantly when it comes to how we go about achieving those goals. In many cases, we believe that our operations have been characterized unfairly, and we'd like the opportunity to set the record straight.

    Here's hoping that you take us up on our offer. In the meantime, good luck with your planning and best wishes for a safe journey.


    Mary Ellen
    If and when we hear anything back from the couple -- and whether or not they take Mary Ellen up on her offer -- we'll let you know.