Wild salmon are amazing creatures. Born in the gravel of freshwater streams and rivers, they gradually make their way to saltwater oceans, undergoing along the way certain physical changes that help them adapt; then, at the end of their lives, they return to their birthplace to spawn. And the cycle continues.
Unfortunately, pollution, dams, and overfishing have severely threatened this cycle of life. The Atlantic salmon, which once migrated up such mighty rivers as the Hudson, Thames, Seine, and Rhine are now severely depleted. In 2004, the discovery of a salmon swimming in the Seine made big news; it had been a century since the last salmon sighting. If you live near the Atlantic Ocean and its tributaries, you are most likely eating farmed salmon.
On the Pacific side of the United States, the situation is better for wild salmon, although they face the same threats and obstacles as in other parts of the world. Wild Pacific salmon continue to run throughout the coastal Pacific Northwest, from Alaska down to northern California. Among the Pacific salmon still putting up a fight are the Chinook (king), coho (silver), and sockeye (red). These can be found in markets from spring through fall.
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Farmed Salmon: A Ranch in the Water
With wild salmon in decline, aquaculture has emerged as an attractive alternative. Farmed salmon has three advantages over wild salmon: it's available year round, it's less expensive, and the supply is plentiful.
However, there is a downside to a large-scale industrial system that packs fish into cramped saltwater pens like feedlots of the sea. Farmed salmon are given pesticides and antibiotics to protect them against the diseases that come from living in such close quarters. But salmon sometimes slip their confines, escaping into the ocean to mingle with wild salmon, corrupting the gene pool and introducing wild salmon to vigorous strains of diseases with which their immune systems cannot cope. Waste and feed problems can also lead to fish and water contamination.
It's been widely reported that farming practices are improving. Naturally, not all aquaculture systems are alike, and there are many producers who impose strict standards to ensure that they are raising salmon in a way that protects salmon, environment, and consumer alike. Likewise, grocers are beginning to set higher standards for the farmed seafood they buy and sell. Ask your grocer for information about the fish-farming practices of the salmon available in your market. And check out the Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector for "fish choices that are good for you and the oceans."
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Salmon is often recommended for its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. So which has more, farmed or wild? As Julie Corliss writes in the Harvard’s Health Blog, “both [wild salmon and farmed salmon] seem to provide similar amounts of omega-3s per serving. But that’s likely because farm-raised salmon tend to have more total fat -- and therefore more omega-3 fat -- than wild ones.”
Meanwhile, wild salmon and farmed salmon both show low levels of mercuryy and PCB contamination.
For more information, see the Washington State Department of Health's break down of the environmental and health issues surrounding salmon.
Hungry for Salmon? For the best ways to prepare salmon, check out How to Cook Salmon Six Ways.
Get the recipe for Grandma's Famous Salmon Cakes.
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See our complete collection of Salmon Recipes.