The omega-3 levels in farmed salmon seem to have entered a free fall. Today's farmed fillet may contain as little as half of the omega-3s as it did less than a decade ago, according to the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization (IFFO).1
More than half of the fish Americans eat comes from fish farms, which has increased by more than 400 percent in the last 10 years.2
Not only are omega-3 levels dropping, but salmon farmers have recently been caught overstating the omega-3 fat levels of their products, as in the news report above. And not by an insignificant amount—threefold!
The report comes from New Zealand, but if it's happening there, it could easily be occurring in other places as the aquaculture industry begins to worry about losing health-minded consumers.3
Why Are Omega-3 Levels Dropping in Farmed Fish?
The drop in farmed salmon's omega-3 levels has resulted from changes in what the fish are fed. In order to keep their omega-3 levels up, farmed fish have traditionally been fed large quantities of small oily wild fish, such as anchovies, herring, and sardines.
These have now become so overfished that their numbers have dropped precipitously, forcing salmon farmers to resort to other sources of feed that are low in omega-3 fats and high in omega-6s.
Instead of small wild fish high in omega-3s, farmed salmon are now feasting on byproducts of hog and poultry processing, soybeans and soybean oil, canola oil, corn and other grains, most of which are genetically engineered for the animal feed industry.
All of these are loaded with cheap, low quality omega-6 fats and essentially devoid of beneficial omega-3 fats.
Farmed salmon's drop in omega-3 levels is a similar phenomenon to the poor omega fat profile of industrialized meats—grain-fed beef and poultry—compared to animals raised on pasture. Fish farms, even though they're ocean-based, are still confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), replete with all of the problems associated with such.
Farmed Salmon Has Almost Five Times the Omega-6 Fat of Wild Salmon
Fish in the wild, especially oily fish such as salmon, are a rich source of omega-3 fats. Those of particular dietary importance are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Most of the health benefits of omega-3 fats (for your heart, brain, immune system, and other) are linked to the animal- and fish-based EPA and DHA, not the plant-based ALA (alpha-linoleic acid).
"Omega-3s are not labeled, so consumers can't possibly have any idea how much farmed fish contain," says Marion Nestle, author and New York University professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health. Levels can vary from farm to farm, depending on in-house feed recipes and the time of year salmon are harvested.4
Farmed salmon are much fattier than wild salmon. The economic incentive to speed the growth of farmed salmon has led to the use of increasingly high-energy diets, which is why farmed grow so big.
High fat itself is not a problem, but what comprises that fat IS the problem. Farmed salmon are much higher in omega-6 fat—almost five times higher—and the typical American already gets 10 to 20 times too much omega-6 as they need.
Given the fact that farmed salmon's omega-3 levels are falling, its fat profile is likely to continue moving in the wrong direction. The following table, derived from Authority Nutrition,5 shows the omega-3 and omega-6 profiles of wild versus farmed salmon.
Nutrient Half Fillet Wild Salmon Half Fillet Farmed Salmon Total Fat 13 g 27 g Omega-3 Fats 3.4 g 4.2 g Omega-6 Fats 341 mg 1944 mg
How Healthy Can Salmon Be When Raised on a Steady Diet of Chicken Feather Sandwiches?
Farmed and Dangerous6 provides an example of a fish feed label, and the ingredients are very telling in terms of where these excess omega-6 fats are coming from. Skretting's "Winter Plus 3500″ salmon feed lists the first nine ingredients:
"Poultry Meal, Fish Meal, Poultry Fat, Fish Oil, Whole Wheat, Soybean Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Feather Meal, Rapeseed Oil"To this you can add gelatin, swine byproducts and other unsavory protein and fat sources found in common commercial fish feed.7,8 This is a far cry from a species-appropriate diet! However, fish farmers are left with few options.
According to Farmed and Dangerous, it takes 1.5 to eight kilograms of wild fish to produce just one kilogram of farmed salmon, which is why the aquaculture industry is contributing heavily to the depletion of wild fish stocks.9
About 85 percent of global fish stocks are severely overexploited, depleted or in various stages of recovery.10 We are losing species as well as entire ecosystems, and as a result, the overall ecological integrity of our oceans is at risk.
Fish Farms: CAFOs of the Sea
Most fish farms are aquatic versions of CAFOs, and just like cattle and poultry farms, overcrowding makes them breeding grounds for disease. Fish kept in constrained environments become "sea slugs" with health problems similar to humans who don't get enough exercise. The health of farmed fish is further compromised by feeding them an unnatural diet. Farmed salmon suffer from parasites and diseases that can pass directly into wild fish populations, threatening their viability. In order to combat the disease problem, farmed fish are given antibiotics and pesticides (such as endosulfan), and in the case of salmon, synthetic astaxanthin made from petrochemicals not approved for human consumption. Fish farms pump uneaten food and massive amounts of excrement, often containing drugs and pesticides, directly into ocean waters.
Farmed Salmon Is MUCH More Contaminated Than Wild Salmon
Over the course of the last century, thousands of dangerous chemical substances have been poured into the oceans. Fish bioaccumulate these pollutants, and farmed salmon are more susceptible to the accumulation of fat-soluble pollutants, such as PCBs. dioxins, and pesticides. Farmed salmon has much higher concentrations of persistent, bioaccumulative contaminants (polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, and several chlorinated pesticides) than wild salmon.11 Scientists have concluded that:12
"Consumption of farmed salmon at relatively low frequencies results in elevated exposure to dioxins and dioxin-like compounds with commensurate elevation in estimates of health risk."In a global assessment of farmed salmon published in the January 2004 issue of Science,13 13 persistent organic pollutants were found. Some of the most dangerous are PCBs, strongly associated with cancer, reproductive and other health problems. PCB concentrations in farmed salmon were found to be eight times higher than in wild salmon. Those contamination levels are deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but not by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Researchers postulated that if EPA guidelines were applied to the farmed salmon they tested, recommendations would be to restrict salmon to no more than once per month.
Six More Reasons to NOT Eat Farmed Salmon
Salmon raised on fish farms are also creating some serious environmental problems, six of which are summarized below.14
Environmental Risks of Fish Farms 1. Transmission of disease Just as with land-based CAFOs, high stocking densities can fuel a disease outbreak. Vaccines and antibiotics are used to control infections, through medicated baths and feed, but those methods of delivery also increase the chance that antibiotics will pass into the environment, affecting wildlife and other organisms. The use of antibiotics in aquaculture has resulted in a much larger problem: antibiotic resistance. 2. Sea lice One of the most significant threats facing wild salmon populations, a parasite called sea lice, spread rampantly in fish farms.15 Farm infestations significantly increase the number of lice in surrounding waters, infecting wild fish populations. Sea lice can infect very young salmon so that fewer make it out to sea or back to spawn. Combating sea lice requires the use of toxic pesticides, including emamectin benzoate (SLICE),16 which persists in the salmon's tissues and the environment for weeks to months. 3. Escapes and interspecies impacts The majority of salmon are raised in open pens and cages along the coast, where the fish are targeted by predators such as seals and sea birds, who attempt to get through the nets. As a result, many salmon flee from their enclosures. The escape of farmed salmon into the wild population poses a serious threat to indigenous wild salmon species, potentially outcompeting them for habitat and food, as well as spreading disease.17 4. Salmon manure Densely confined salmon produce copious amounts of waste, laced with antibiotics and pesticides, and this excrement can build up under the pens, smothering portions of the ocean bottom, contaminating the marine ecosystem and depriving species of oxygen—like a litter box that never gets changed. Or, the bulk of the waste may be carried away from the farm site by ocean currents, ending up collecting in another place and causing localized pollution. 5. Endangerment of sea life Seals, sea lions, and birds become trapped and drown in salmon farm nets.18 6. Algal blooms Algal blooms are the uncontrolled growth of one or more species of algae. Hundreds of thousands of salmon excreting in the confined area of a farm can cause a localized level of nutrient loading that may not be completely absorbed by the surrounding environment; hence, nutrient loading from salmon farms may be linked to algal blooms.
Genetically Engineered Pseudo-Salmon
As if the problems associated with farmed salmon aren't enough, genetically engineered (GE) salmon may soon be heading to a supermarket near you, if approved by FDA. AquaBounty Technologies Inc. has genetically engineered Atlantic salmon (known as AquAdvantage® salmon) to overexpress a growth-hormone gene, resulting in a fish that grows up to five times faster than normal. The company has been seeking FDA approval for its pseudo-salmon since 1995, which is now opposed by two million Americans, including hundreds of organizations, businesses, fishermen and a large segment of Congress.19
In March 2014, the FDA reported they are still deciding whether or not to approve the GE fish. If they do, it will be the first GE animal product to reach America's dinner plate.
The environmental risks of such a biological nightmare are tremendous. In a Purdue University computer model that tracked the effects of releasing just 60 "Frankenfish" into a population of 60,000, there was a complete extinction of the normal fish in just 40 fish generations. In response to these concerns, several major groceries, including Kroger, Whole Foods, Safeway, Target and Trader Joe's, have committed to not selling GE seafood if it's allowed on the market. And Governor Jerry Brown just signed California law AB 504, which bans commercial production of any GE salmon in state waters.20
Clues for Spotting a Farm-Raised Salmon
Unfortunately, salmon and other fish are often mislabeled—and if GE salmon is approved, it won't be labeled as such. Studies have shown that up to 80 percent of the fish marked as "wild" are actually farmed. This includes restaurants, where 90 to 95 percent of salmon is farmed, yet often listed on the menu as "wild."
Given these inaccuracies, how can you tell whether a salmon really is wild or farmed? The flesh of the salmon will give you a clue. Wild sockeye salmon is bright red, courtesy of its natural astaxanthin content. Sockeye salmon actually has one of the highest concentrations of natural astaxanthin of any food. Wild salmon is also very lean, so the fat marks—those white stripes you see in the meat—are quite thin. If a fish is pale pink with wide fat marks, the salmon is likely farmed. Avoid Atlantic salmon, as salmon bearing this label are almost always farmed.
The two designations you want to look for are: "Alaskan salmon" (or wild Alaskan salmon) and "sockeye salmon." Alaskan sockeye are not allowed to be farmed. Canned salmon labeled "Alaskan salmon" is a good bet, and if you find sockeye, it too is assured to be wild. My favorite brand is Vital Choice Wild Seafood and Organics, which offers a nice variety of high-quality salmon products that test high for omega-3 fats and low for contaminants.
Krill Oil, Another Excellent Source of Omega-3 Fats
Consuming wild Alaskan salmon is an excellent way to boost your omega-3 level, but there is another option if you're concerned you're not getting enough. You can add a krill oil supplement. Krill oil is extracted from tiny shrimp-like crustaceans called krill that live in the pristine waters of Antarctica. Krill feed on plankton floating near the ocean's surface. The special properties of the EPA and DHA in krill oil make it 48 times more potent than fish oil.Please share this.
Krill is highly sustainable because of its enormous biomass, between 170 million to 740 million tons. We are harvesting only about two percent of the precautionary catch limit of 6.6 million tons, set in 2008. We could increase this harvest 50-fold and still be within safe limits. Unlike fish, krill does not accumulate heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants because it's at the bottom of the food chain. Between wild Alaskan salmon, krill oil, and grass pastured meats and dairy, your omega-3 to omega-6 fat ratio should be much more balanced and appropriate for optimal health.