Feel-good salmon farms


Standing on a grated metal platform above a fiberglass tank, I’m entranced by silvery salmon gliding through a current of recycled freshwater. The salmon are lively and occasionally jump when a large feed bin, meticulously set with a timer, rains down an exact amount of feed pellets.

Everything is designed to help the fish grow up fast. The lights even stay on at night so the fish think they are in a perpetual Arctic summer.

This building, with its whooshing water treatment system and aquarium smell, is a laboratory of the non-profit Freshwater Institute, which operates in the wooded hills of West Virginia, not far from the winding Potomac River and the battlefield of Antietam. One of its goals is finding better ways to farm fish, and in recent years researchers here have focused on salmon. Salmon meat is widely popular, but how it’s obtained is controversial. Farming it in ocean net pens, like those in British Columbia, puts wild salmon at risk of disease, parasites and competition with escaped farm fish. And while wild-caught fillets help support healthy salmon runs, they are too expensive for many consumers. Plus, wild fisheries are maxed out, thanks to growing salmon demand.

Atlantic salmon swim in a 40,000 gallon aquaculture tank at the Freshwater Institute in West Virginia. By Benita Keller.

“Our objective here is to make it simple and say, ‘You can feel good about farmed seafood, you can feel good about local,’” Joseph Hankins, the institute’s director, tells me. “You shouldn’t have to worry about contamination and safety and country of origin.”

Unlike their counterparts in ocean salmon pens, the Freshwater Institute’s Atlantic salmon are free from the bacteria, viruses and parasites that require antibiotic and pesticide treatments. And there’s no chance of their non-native salmon escaping to harm wild salmon. Hankins and his colleagues hope their technology, known as closed containment aquaculture, will provide a way to farm salmon with minimal environmental impact, if they can get consumers and investors to bite.

This spring they were selling 5,000 pounds of salmon weekly around Washington, D.C. They sold out those harvests in two months, and when I visited in late April, Hankins had just told a major seafood distributor that another batch—those I watched in the tank—would be ready in 10 months.

Joseph Hankins, the Freshwater Institute's director. By Benita Keller.

That’s a big change from 2011, when there were no commercial systems raising land-raised salmon for food. Now there are nine such operations around the world, preparing to produce 5,000 metric tons of salmon annually. The Freshwater Institute shares what they’ve learned about the potential of growing salmon for food in tanks, including research on growth rate, survival, diet, fish quality and market research. That work recently helped launch the first commercial operation of its kind in North America, “Kuterra” salmon, which hit Safeways in parts of western Canada in April.

Both the Kuterra and Freshwater Institute fillets are less expensive than wild salmon, but more expensive than the net-pen variety by 20 and 44 percent, respectively. “If you don’t care about anything but price, then this isn’t going to work for you,” Hankins says. “But if you care about other things, then we start to have answers that people are increasingly willing to pay for.”

But even if you care about more that just price, there are still challenges to growing salmon on land.

A key to making the tanks work is to avoid flushing millions of gallons of dirty water daily.

And though the institute developed a sophisticated biological water treatment system that removes solid waste, dissolves it, and feeds it to water-cleaning bacteria with 99.7 percent efficiency, the volume of water moving through it is similar to a small municipal wastewater treatment system. That creates a larger carbon footprint than if the fish were raised in net pens, or in closed containment farms near hydropower or renewables as major energy sources.

The Freshwater Institute's salmon in a Washington, D.C-area grocery store this March. By Scott Tsukuda, the Conservation Fund.

And there’s always the question of diet. Even on farms, salmon eat marine life lower on the food chain in the form of fishmeal and oil. The Freshwater Institute’s “fish in-fish out” ratio is 20 percent better than the industry standard.  They use 1.3 pounds of marine fish, for their oil and protein, to grow one pound of salmon. Next year the institute’s researchers will try to reduce salmon’s impact on ocean life by raising 20 metric tons of them on a vegetarian feed and fish oil harvested from fish processing plant trimmings.

As Hankins and his colleagues continue to improve the system, they hope to eliminate an attitude summed up by a common bumper sticker in the Pacific Northwest:  “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon.”

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News correspondent based in Bozeman, MT. She tweets @sjanekeller.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the Freshwater Institute's "fish in-fish out" ratio saying, "it still requires 1.3 pounds of fish oil to grow one pound of salmon. And it can take multiple pounds of fish to make a pound of fish oil." It's been updated to reflect that the Freshwater Institute uses 1.3 pounds of marine fish to grow a pound of salmon.