The conventional salmon farming industry has never had it so tough.
In an unprecedented policy shift, the Target Corporation – one of the largest retailers in the United States and a direct competitor with Walmart – has just today announced the elimination of all farmed salmon products from its stores. Fresh, frozen, shelf-stable, and smoked items will from here on out exclusively be made with wild Alaskan salmon — no exceptions. Even its sushi department, which is notoriously the most stubborn part of this industry when it comes to change (thus the existence of this website), is in the process of phasing out the last bits of its farmed salmon.
While this act is truly staggering in its magnitude and its implications for the seafood retail industry, of equal importance are the reasons behind Target’s decision. The company does not mince words when it comes to why they have made this transition — Target’s communications department clearly states that the company is not interested in supporting an industry that has done such harm to our marine ecosystems. Their press release spells it out quite simply: “Target is taking this important step to ensure that its salmon offerings are sourced in a sustainable way that helps to preserve abundance, species health and doesn’t harm local habitats… Many salmon farms impact the environment in numerous ways – pollution, chemicals, parasites and non-native farmed fish that escape from salmon farms all affect the natural habitat and the native salmon in the surrounding areas.”
This move will undoubtedly shake the salmon farming industry to its very core. Target, after all, is not exactly a high-end gourmet market – rather, it’s a price leader that specializes in providing quality products for low prices. How, then, does a market that worships price-driven competition manage to eschew an item that embodies the very concept of bargain seafood?
With help from Greenpeace and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Target has opened the door to a new era of seafood – one that dares to question tired old paradigms that cannot withstand this kind of innovation. Retailers which have parroted the weary excuse of farmed salmon filling an otherwise unattainable price point will now be exposed as complacent rather than pragmatic. If a low-cost hypermarket like Target, which needs to sell salmon for $6.99 a pound, can manage to transition entirely to wild, sustainable product, how can the Whole Foods clones of the world defend their reliance on environmentally dubious farmed products that sell for over twice the price?
To make matters even more difficult for the industry, a new threat has arisen in the form of legitimate and economically viable closed-containment salmon. Earlier this month, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program took another swipe at the open-net nightmares that festoon the Canadian and Chilean coasts by giving the “Best Choice” green light to a new closed-containment salmon farm in Washington State. This operation, lovingly termed “Sweet Spring” by its proprietor Per Heggelund, raises coho (silver) salmon in a sealed recirculating system located many miles inland, far from the fragile habitats of the Pacific Northwest’s wild salmon populations. The feed component of this operation is still not perfect as it does exceed an even fish-in-to-fish-out ratio, but compared to the parasite-riddled, antibiotic-laden concentration camps that provide much of the world’s farmed salmon, Heggelund’s facility is a beacon of progress.
Conventional farmed salmon is caught between a rock and a hard place, and it is not a moment too soon. Salmon farms have been the source of countless problems over the past decade – diseases in Chilean farms rip through penned animals like hot knives through butter; parasite swarms in Canadian farms threaten the very survival of co-habiting wild salmon runs, not to mention the essence of Pacific Northwest cultural integrity.
Salmon are the backbone of who we are here on the west coast. It is the wild salmon runs that bring nutrients from the sea to the land, that fertilize the river banks and feed the yawning bears. If we allow this, our greatest legacy, to perish at the hands of a small group of cash-blinded eco-criminals, it is doubtful that we will ever find another source of such selfless bounty.
We need courage, innovation, and foresight if we are to create a wise and responsible seafood industry that can steward our oceans in the coming decades, and it’s companies like Target and entrepreneurs like Per Heggelund that are leading the charge. Remember this day — this was the day that we took our salmon back.