How to Stop Worrying and Love Farmed Fish
On aquaculture’s image problem and the people who want you to embrace the fish of the future.
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It’s November, and a tinseled Christmas tree graces the restaurant’s entrance. Lacquered wood and golden accents lend the interior a modest refinement, evoking the romance of the steamship terminal once housed in this building overlooking Victoria, British Columbia’s inner harbor. On normal evenings, the menu offers an array of seafood from the Pacific: Saltspring Island mussels, BC rock crab, halibut, and oysters. Tonight, however, is different. The restaurant has closed for a private event, and farmed Atlantic salmon is the star.
The event, staged by the BC Salmon Farmers Association, is a night of networking and carousing aided by the open bar. Throughout the restaurant, guests line up at food stations to sample the industry’s product. At one, a member of an elite cooking team, which plans to travel to Germany in February to compete in the Culinary Olympics, dramatically chars a raw fillet with a blowtorch.
Across the restaurant, fact sheets from the association highlight the overall CAN $1.5-billion contribution that salmon farming now makes to the BC economy—more than any other sector in the province’s huge seafood industry. Tonight, in tacit acknowledgment of this, British Columbia’s minister of agriculture is on hand to tout the “spirit of collaboration” between government and industry. In addition, one of Canada’s best-known chefs, Ned Bell, flits between the food stations and the kitchen, before picking up a mike.
“How’s everybody doing tonight?” Bell asks. A wiry man in a chef coat, he knows how to stir up a crowd. In both the culinary world and the seafood industry, he’s a celebrity: author of the sustainable seafood cookbook Lure; executive chef at the Vancouver Club, a swanky private club near the city’s cruise ship terminal; contestant on Iron Chef Canada; advocate who brought attention to ocean conservation by biking across Canada, an 8,700-kilometer journey that took 72 days. “We are obviously eating some delicious food,” Bell continues. Whoops go out and a woman hollers: “Yeah we are!”
Beyond the restaurant walls, however, many take a darker view of the industry. Alexandra Morton, an independent biologist and vocal critic of salmon farming in British Columbia, has dubbed this sector “the Corporation” and accused it of “using the power of the oceans as a sewer to raise a nomadic fish in a pen.” Others raise concerns about the industry’s goals and rapid growth. “They think that salmon is going to feed the world,” says Corey Peet, a former sustainability director of the Smart Catch program at the James Beard Foundation, in New York City, New York. “It’s not, nor should we want it to.” In Asia, Peet explains, fish have been grown domestically—and cheaply—for decades. Reared in fishponds by small-scale commercial ventures, freshwater species like tilapia, carp, and catfish already feed the world. “It’s us who are slow to catch up,” he says.
In the Pacific Northwest, detractors often point to the spotty environmental record of farmed salmon. In the late summer of 2017, for example, an estimated 243,000 to 263,000 captive Atlantic salmon spilled out into Puget Sound east of Victoria. The fish belonged to a Canadian company, Cooke Aquaculture. A year before the spill, Cooke bought a farm near Bellingham, Washington, with net pens showing their age: corroded infrastructure, weak moorings, nets laden with marine life. When one of the pens finally collapsed, its nets weighed more than five times what they should have. Initially, Cooke blamed the failure on high tides driven by the solar eclipse. The tides that day were normal.
Fishers managed to recapture less than a quarter of these fish, and researchers later tested a small sample of them. The team’s study, published in 2019, suggests that nearly all the salmon in the spill were infected with piscine orthoreovirus, or PRV, a virus linked to a disease that causes inflammation of the heart tissue and other serious conditions. A less malignant strain of PRV occurs naturally in the Pacific, but since the Atlantic strain has been transmitted through water during experiments, some observers fear it could infect native salmon species. This is the last thing the region’s declining wild stocks need.
And yet struggling wild fisheries are the very reason why the call for aquaculture has grown more urgent in recent years. Over 90 percent of the world’s oceans are currently overfished or fished to capacity—a looming crisis in global food supplies. The problem is further compounded by skyrocketing human populations. In 30 years, the world will exceed nine billion people, so the demand for animal protein will only increase. Farmed fish, more than any terrestrial livestock, can sustainably meet that demand. Whereas a cow needs eight kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat, a farmed fish on average requires just 1.5 kilograms.
“Aquaculture done the right way in the right location at the right scale is absolutely one of the most efficient forms of protein production on the planet,” Peet says. “You simply can’t argue with that.” But the public debate around aquaculture and its sustainability rages on. Stepping into the fray are the people who make their livelihood from seafood and who now hope to change skeptical minds.
Increasingly, chefs, whose voices are trusted by the public, are leading the charge.
One of the first cooking shows to air on US television was hosted by James Beard, a portly, genial man whose bald head and seemingly aloof manner came across so poorly on camera that I Love to Eat ended after less than a year, in 1947. By that time, Beard had released three cookbooks spanning appetizers, grilling, and fowl. His ninth book, James Beard’s Fish Cookery, from 1954, was the first to bear his name in the title.
French cuisine had a marked influence on Beard’s cooking (he was, after all, good friends with Julia Child). But for all his emulsions and bouquets garnis, he celebrated, most of all, food prepared simply. His recipes in Fish Cookery reflect this ethos while honoring his upbringing in Oregon, where summer days were often spent catching crayfish with friends using nets, string, and ears of corn for bait. Beard wrote many variations for preparing sardines: grilled, fried, baked in puff pastry. But for him, sardines straight from the tin—with a spray of lemon, served with a chilled glass of wine or beer—were best.
Beard spent the last part of his life in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and since his death in 1985, the neighborhood has changed. Artist haven has become yuppie warren, yet his townhouse, which now houses the James Beard Foundation, reflects an older time. Mounted above the brownstone’s entrance is a fixture resembling a gaslight. Inside, wallpaper is adorned with pineapples—a universal symbol of hospitality. Upstairs, heavy curtains hang from the windows in what used to be Beard’s library. Now, it’s a dining room, where some of the foundation’s 200 events are held annually.
I had come to Manhattan to attend one of those events—Three Cheers for Seafood!—which would highlight sustainably caught and raised species, while headlining three culinary stars: Barton Seaver, a New England chef and cookbook author; Arizona-based chef Danielle Leoni; and Ned Bell.
On the day of the event, I arrive hours before the guests. The chefs are already at work prepping their menus when I walk into the kitchen. Assisting them are two cooks, one of whom has tucked a big spoon, little spoon, and spreader into his breast pocket. When the foundation’s culinary director arrives, she goes over potential allergens in the dishes. Leoni says she once had a diner claim an allergy to ice. Seaver says someone once complained his restaurant served ice that was too cold. When Bell arrives a little later after an errand, he says he wants real allergies, not preferences.
Seaver places a large fish on the counter. It’s encased in plastic and looks like something that could have come from Costco. The species goes by the name kingfish or yellowtail, and the one on the counter comes from a land-based farm in the Netherlands—Kingfish Zeeland. Seaver says the farm is pioneering the highest standards under the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. On top of using organic feed and being 100-percent renewably powered, Kingfish Zeeland also raises its fish with a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS). In such systems, fish are raised in water that’s constantly recycled, filtered, and maintained at optimal oxygen levels and temperatures. By controlling for these factors, and by limiting exposure to sea lice, algae, and other potential contaminants frequently found in open-net pens, RAS is frequently considered the future of fish farming. Seaver frees the kingfish from its package, then begins trimming off its fat. He dices it into small cubes and hands me a few pieces to try. As fatty as foie gras, he boasts. It’s pungent and slightly chewy.
Next, I find myself smelling fish. From the fridge, Bell takes out a slab of sablefish that’s covered in fennel and salt, drawing out the fish’s moisture and giving it a slight sheen. The aroma is pleasant, sweet. Sablefish are native to the northeast Pacific, and Bell tells me it came from a farm called Gindara, which sits in a deep fjord at the tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. For a chef who grew up in Victoria and fondly recalls whipping bull kelp at his siblings on the beach, the fish is practically local.
Ninety minutes before dinner, the waitstaff gather in the kitchen, notepads and pens in hand, awaiting instruction from the chefs. Seaver sets some ground rules. When describing the star component of each dish, don’t use the word fishy—use robust. “We all want you to eat more fish,” Bell adds. In Canada and the United States, the average person eats 22 kilograms of seafood per year—less than half of what’s consumed in Norway (51 kilograms) and South Korea (55 kilograms). Given the nutritional density of fish, and its relatively small carbon footprint, Bell thinks fish deserves a bigger place on menus. For that reason, even dessert will feature some. Bell introduces the dish: a seaweed-laced brownie topped with birch syrup, cranberry jam made with the wine pairing, and Gindara sablefish that he cured and candied. “Why not experiment with people you’re never going to see again?” he quips.
The 50 or so guests begin trickling in just after 7 p.m. After greeting them in the foyer, the maître d’ crosses their names off the list and points to a narrow corridor leading through the kitchen and into the room where the reception is starting. There, glasses of sparkling wine are poured. Hors d’oeuvres are passed and awkwardly consumed. Then we relocate upstairs to the dining room, where a dozen or so tables await us. I sit down at a large round one, where four sets of silverware and three empty wine glasses are laid at each place setting. To my right is Seaver’s wife, and to my left, two men who import seafood for a living, one of whom wears a slightly unbuttoned shirt beneath a gray suit, revealing a gold chain around his neck.
Before dinner begins, a man from the James Beard Foundation stands up and gives a brief speech. He explains that no red-listed seafood—as rated by the foundation’s Smart Catch program—will be served at the meal. Then, in what feels like rapid succession, the savory courses begin to arrive. Seaver’s come out first: a vegetable medley spiked with anchovy, followed by a fillet of mackerel en saor. Both are served at room temperature. Soon, Bell’s course lands in front of guests, steaming, and the room perks up. It’s chinook—“the king of all salmon,” Bell told us earlier. This one comes from a Vancouver Island farm owned by Creative Salmon, which raises fish at densities low enough to achieve organic certification—the first salmon farm in North America to do so. And since chinook is native to the northeast Pacific, it poses less risk to the environment than farmed Atlantic salmon. The next dish, Leoni’s, is brazen: a shrimp and cod mixture encased in pork intestine. It perfectly embodies the chefs’ zealous mission to get people to eat more seafood.
After dessert, which is strangely divine and not too robust, the chefs come out of the kitchen. They briefly introduce themselves before taking questions. One person asks what the biggest hurdle is to making sustainable seafood choices. Confusion, Leoni says. Multiple certification programs, such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, have flooded the market, as have programs like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch that don’t certify fish but instead rate it. None of them quite agree on what seafood you should eat. Then, there are the numerous names under which a single species can be marketed. Sablefish, for instance, also goes by black cod (not a member of the cod family) and butterfish (not to be confused with the butterfish that comes from the Atlantic). Frankly, it’s tough to know what’s what, much less what’s sustainable.
The chefs answer each question directly, but humbly. They’re not scientists, they point out. It’s a departure from how I saw them earlier. In the kitchen, the cooks had shown the chefs a kind of ritualistic respect; every request was answered with a “Yes, chef.” But in the dining room, the chefs offer themselves simply as the folks who made dinner and cared a lot about how they did it.
When the event’s conviviality wanes around midnight, I leave. It’s pouring outside, and for a few blocks I share an umbrella with one of the waitstaff. He’s exhausted but energized, coming off the high of serving, of performing. And that’s what the dinner was: a performance. Each 15-minute interval accounted for, each plate primped before its debut. Improvisation came only with the audience’s questions, but even those covered familiar ground: microplastics, overfishing, sustainability.
Seafood is among the most globally traded foods in the world, with numerous links in supply chains that can stretch thousands of kilometers between fish farms and consumers. In this long-distance commerce, distinguishing good actors from bad can be difficult, especially when restaurants and seafood markets seldom have an opportunity to forge direct relationships with producers overseas. For fishmongers such as Fiona Lewis, who prides herself on sourcing the most sustainable seafood she can find, the solution to the problem lies in finding responsible wholesalers. “My trust has to be in who I’m buying from,” Lewis says.
Her fish counter, The District Fishwife, in Washington, DC, puts a strong emphasis on farmed seafood. On the shop’s website, in bold text, are the words: aquaculture is the fish of the future. “That’s my slogan,” Lewis says. “It’s not a dirty word and it’s something that we can all embrace—when done well. There’s always that caveat.”
On a Sunday morning, I meet Lewis at her stall, a 37-square-meter space inside DC’s Union Market. The brunch crowd has yet to arrive, and the food hall is mostly empty. I watch as Lewis and an employee stock the display cases with a variety of whole fish and fish fillets, crustaceans, bivalves, and a single gelatinous Spanish octopus.
Lewis buys the majority of her seafood from three wholesalers. When she first opened in 2014, she set about searching for the right ones, which meant getting to know everyone in the wholesaling game and letting them know the kind of quality she was after. That meant building a relationship with her suppliers. “You guys send me something that isn’t perfect, I’m going to send it back,” she told them.
One of the people she works with regularly is Stephanie Pazzaglia, business development manager at J. J. McDonnell, a seafood wholesaler in Maryland. Pazzaglia takes the work of locating high-quality seafood seriously. “We really ask a ton of questions when it comes to how the fish are handled,” she says. “If they’re given any antibiotics, if they’re chemical-free, how they’re handled, what’s their life span, how they’re being fed. We ask a lot of questions because, honestly, most of our customers ask a lot of questions.”
Lewis’s clientele can be inquisitive, too. If 10 people grill her about the ethics of farmed fish, she says, only nine of them can be convinced that what she sells is, indeed, ethical. Nothing will change the mind of the last one. Instead of buying fish that’s been raised in a tank on land or a pen in the ocean, that person will walk over to the stall next door and buy a piece of meat—a far more questionable choice when it comes to sustainability. After six years of conversations with customers, she’s found their stances on farmed fish are seldom based on facts or careful consideration. “There’s no actual narrative behind [them] other than, ‘Oh, I heard it’s really bad,’” Lewis says.
Yet when those people order salmon in a restaurant, she adds, they don’t realize “that it’s the same salmon they don’t want to buy from me. Or probably not as good as the salmon that they’re not buying from me.” Lewis’s fish often comes with a seal of approval from Seafood Watch, Ocean Wise, or some other ecolabel, while the salmon people eat in a restaurant might be “something cheap from some dodgy farm out there that isn’t doing the right thing.”
“Aquaculture is the fish of the future,” she continues. “But it has to be responsible aquaculture, not just any aquaculture.”
For Lewis and others, the big question is how to shift the narrative and convince people that farmed fish is part of the solution, not the problem. Organizations that sort through seafood, certifying or rating the best, can help people make more informed choices, but still they’re not the whole answer. Most people simply want to say, “I trust that guy to produce my food,” says Chris Anderson, a fisheries economist at the University of Washington. But getting to that point is difficult.
Anderson recently teamed up with Jessica McCluney, a seafood consultant, on a project called Today’s Farmed Fish. In July of last year, students canvassed nearly a thousand people at farmers’ markets in Seattle, Washington, about their meat and fish preferences. Shoppers were presented with surveys that got to the heart of the researchers’ questions: do people prefer free-range over conventional? Are they willing to pay more for food certified by an ecolabel? Do they base these decisions around taste or the environment? The answers served as the study’s baseline. Then, with the help of a Los Angeles–based marketing firm, the team came up with four posters promoting farmed fish and ran the images past focus groups.
The data from the focus groups suggested that people perceive fish as fragile creatures that are somehow more exposed to environmental pathogens and contaminants than terrestrial livestock are. So, the team developed posters showing fish in a clean blue ocean: one with a fish leaping out of the water, the other with fish schooling in an offshore cage. They “are really meant to say the fish are not swimming around in a bunch of fish poop,” Anderson says.
The other two posters showcased people. In one, a family poses, smiling, on a shore, with the words “From our farm to your table” floating above them. A bearded man appears in the other. He wears a red beanie in a nod to Jacques Cousteau—or perhaps Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He holds two silvery fish in front of his face, their beady eyes covering his own. “The face of a new generation is sustainable farmed fish,” the caption reads. When students returned to the farmers’ markets with posters in hand, survey-takers found this image “the most impactful.” By putting fish producers front and center in their messaging, the researchers found that negative attitudes toward farmed fish declined.
Anderson also found that younger people were more receptive to farmed fish than older folks. He originally thought millennials would be “swayed by some of the negative dialogue around aquaculture.” But that wasn’t the case: millennials were more willing than boomers to change their opinions about aquaculture.
John Paul Fraser, the executive director of the BC Salmon Farmers Association, came to a similar realization and is now revamping the association’s social media campaigns to attract a younger audience. On Twitter, the association highlights stories about fish farm employees (#RaisingOpportunity), while offering information on innovation and technology (#FoodForThought). One video posted under both hashtags boasts that “aquaculture has the youngest workforce of any agriculture sector in Canada.” The new strategy capitalizes on principles many young British Columbians value: food security, Indigenous reconciliation, action on climate change.
Yet there was one other aspect of the market-goers study that was telling: the researchers excluded farmed Atlantic salmon. Anderson’s team asked respondents whether they would buy farm-raised trout, branzino, or hamachi, but they never inquired about farmed Atlantic salmon—a nearly US $17-billion market worldwide, second only to shrimp. The omission was intentional. To say Seattleites have strong views on farmed salmon is an understatement in Anderson’s opinion. He believes some of this negativity likely stems from the Cooke disaster of 2017. “You could almost think about it as a trauma of the fish spill,” he suggests.
What does it say, then, when marketers are reluctant to even touch the subject of farmed salmon? In British Columbia, as in Washington State, hostility still surrounds the industry.
Bell has experienced that hostility firsthand. In mid-October, the day after the James Beard event, he posted a declaration to his website. After putting in hundreds of hours on marine and freshwater farms, asking questions of owners and employees, he felt he couldn’t stay silent any longer. “My name is Ned Bell, and I support responsible fish farming,” he wrote. “Publicly supporting salmon farming can be controversial. But, with broad knowledge gained from studying all sides of the issue, I am sure in my decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with Canadian fishermen and fish farmers, showing support every step of the way.”
His post touched a nerve, coming as it did during a particularly rancorous federal election in Canada. Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau had promised to develop a plan in British Columbia to transition away from open-net pens and toward closed-containment systems—firing up support from environmentalists. “I probably posted that article knowing in my gut that it was going to cause some turmoil,” Bell tells me, as we sit in a café overlooking Victoria’s harbor. “Did I think it was going to cause the turmoil it did? No.”
The backlash started within days. SeaChoice, an organization supported in part by the David Suzuki Foundation, a prominent environmental nonprofit based in Vancouver, cut Bell loose. In a terse email, it asked Bell to leave them out of his work in the future. An outcry on social media followed, leading Bell to post his phone number on Twitter. “I’m not here to hide anything,” he says.
Detractors interpreted his statement as an endorsement of the salmon farming industry, but Bell says that wasn’t the case. “My endorsement is valuable to them,” he tells me. “And if I give them that, then what?” His job, he says, is to be a disruptor—to challenge the industry to improve. One way to make sure of that is by visiting farms and meeting with their operators. “The more I’m at the goddamn table, the more I can learn,” and understand what progress the industry is making, he says.
For Bell, however, the fallout wasn’t over. In late 2019, Ocean Wise decided against renewing his contract as the organization’s executive chef. When I asked Ocean Wise to comment on this decision, Sarah Ellam, the organization’s communications and social media manager, told me Bell “was a leader in his role” and “continues to do great work in the sustainable seafood space.” Then, she added that Ocean Wise “has tried to be very clear on our position about open-net pen farmed Atlantic salmon in Canada and that is, at this time, Ocean Wise does not recommend it based on the science of how these farms are impacting ocean ecosystems.”
Bell thinks his online statement, and the controversy that ensued, made him undesirable to Ocean Wise. Though the organization drew a line in the sand when it came to salmon farming, the real fight is about much more than that, he says. It’s about getting the public to embrace all responsible aquaculture, including the dozens of finfish and shellfish species currently raised in Canada. “By 2030, 65 percent of the seafood we consume is going to be farmed,” he says. “I want to make damn sure that that farmed seafood is at the highest standards possible.”
But what might that future look like in the best of all possible worlds? On a bright sunny October day, Lewis and I head out on an old government boat into the Chesapeake Bay, in Maryland. Two of Lewis’s suppliers, Jason Ruth, owner of Harris Seafood Company, and his cousin J. R. Thomas, the company’s general manager, plan to seed one of the bay’s many oyster beds. A mound of old discarded shells taller than a person sits out on deck—attached to each shell is a sprinkling of tiny oyster larvae known as spat.
The Chesapeake has long been famous for its oyster fishery. But by the mid-20th century, two microscopic pathogens, Perkinsus marinus and Haplosporidium nelsoni, wreaked havoc in the bay, wiping out 90 percent of the wild oysters in high-salinity areas. To restore these beds and keep the oyster industry afloat, the University of Maryland now operates an oyster hatchery on land overlooking the bay. Each year, companies approved by the county receive an allotment of spat to replenish the wild population: Harris Seafood receives around 140 million larvae annually. Today, Ruth and Thomas are ferrying spat out to a privately owned natural bed.
Heavy rain has fallen in the region, carrying sediment from nearby rivers into the Chesapeake. That mud and debris can bury the wild oysters, making it harder for them to grow. Seeding the bed with spat, then, becomes all the more important. The bed, says Thomas, is “almost like a farm field. You need to cultivate it.”
Here, in mid-bay, wild oysters have been lucky. The Susquehanna River discharges nearby, and the continuous influx of fresh water lowers the salinity, keeping salt-loving pathogens away. Even so, Ruth knows Mother Nature can’t be counted on to supply all the oysters his company needs. As an insurance policy, he has added a line of farmed oysters to the wild ones his company harvests. But unlike some oyster farmers who raise their shellfish in cages suspended in the water column, he likes keeping things simple. Harris Seafood grows theirs on the bottom of leased plots—far from any natural oyster bar, as stipulated by Maryland code—for three years.
Thomas takes a hose to the deck, washing the spat into the water and onto the bed below. As he does this, Ruth gestures toward the water. “If you catch an oyster from here,” he says, pointing, “you can theoretically distinguish [it from] an oyster that’s grown over there.” Just as soil, climate, and geography contribute to the terroir of a wine—differentiating a Malbec grown in Argentina, say, from one grown in France—gradations in salinity can alter the taste of oysters. In the Chesapeake, salt concentrations in the water vary widely, giving the bay multiple flavor profiles, or merroirs. In DC, Ruth tells me, raw bars will put 10 different oysters on the menu, like a beer flight. “Every oyster now is different.”
It’s a marketing concept tailor-made for people who go out of their way to find food that’s local and different—and Ruth and Thomas clearly welcome this oyster renaissance. Yet they continue to operate much as oystermen long have in the Chesapeake: seeding a bit of the ocean floor with spat. Their operation straddles the past and the future—not the future that’s promised by RAS technology or that’s found in ocean pens in remote fjords. The future represented by the two men here is almost quaint by comparison: resembling a family farm more than its industrial equivalent.
Later, at a restaurant overlooking the bay, Lewis and I order half a dozen raw oysters that were sourced from Harris. We eat them with a bit of horseradish to cut through the butteriness. I have no idea whether these oysters are wild or farmed. Staring out at the bay, I wonder if that distinction matters, or if it’s one more thing to divide and distract us from what really does: to do our best to eat with care.