Does Land-Based Salmon Farming Make Sense for the Northwest?


Metaphorically, a fish out of water is awkward, self-conscious, stuck in the wrong milieu. In the real world, a fish out of water is probably dead.  But some people think that fish out of water – or at least salmon out of Puget Sound and raised in land-based pens  – are the wave of the future.

On April 13, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz – the former long-shot candidate for governor, the current shorter-shot candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives – announced that her department had signed a letter of Intent with Nova-Scotia-based Sustainable Blue to explore sites for land-based salmon aquaculture on land managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Salmon swim in Puget Sound, in the oceans, in the rivers, and in lakes.  Sometimes, they swim around inside floating net pens.  And sometimes, these days, they swim around in tanks located on dry land. The water has to keep flowing, so it has to be pumped which means energy costs and carbon footprints.  The fish produce waste, which can impose another cost or create opportunities.  

Recently, there has been  media attention for land-based salmon culture – notably last October’s New York Times’  The Salmon on Your Plate Has a Troubling Cost. These Farms Offer Hope. piece that highlighted a company called  LocalCoho, raising salmon in tanks in upstate New York. Clearly “there’s a lot of interest now,” says University of Washington  economist Chris Anderson, “especially in the U.S.”

Once upon a time, raising salmon in floating net pens – in Puget Sound and elsewhere — looked like the wave of the future, and that practice remains very much the wave of the present. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF): “Salmon consumption worldwide is three times higher than it was in 1980. What was once a luxury food is among the most popular fish species in the US, Europe, and Japan. Salmon aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world—accounting for 70% (2.5 million metric tons) of the market.” It is done on a massive scale in Norway and Chile; it has been done in both eastern and western Canada; it has been done in Scotland – and in Puget Sound.

The politics pivoted against Puget Sound net pens in 2017, when a pen off Cypress Island failed epically, turning what state agencies estimated at a quarter million Atlantic salmon loose in Puget Sound.  (Cooke, the big Canadian company that by then owned all the pens in Puget Sound, disputed the figure.  But the pen’s failure clearly liberated a lot of fish.)

Before long, it became illegal to raise non-native fin fish in Washington waters, and UW economist Anderson guesses “it will be a while before we see another push to do that.”  

As it happens, Washington isn’t the only place where fish farms have fallen out of favor. 

British Columbia has been a center of net pen aquaculture.  A lot of the pens have stood between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland.  Some scientists have fingered them as a reason for the historical decline of the great Fraser River sockeye runs.  During his 2019 campaign for re-election, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he’d shift all the province’s salmon aquaculture on-shore by 2025.  Odds are, that won’t happen, but obviously, in many circles, Atlantic salmon pens have become politically toxic.  Canada’s federal government has announced it will shut down 15 B.C. aquaculture operations, but one private company and two First Nations have sued to block the order.

The escape of Atlantic salmon into Pacific waters had been one of the environmental nightmares – although some say it was actually not likely to cause any serious harm.  Dozens of efforts to establish Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound have failed over the years, so fears that escaped fish would crowd out or breed with native fish were sometimes dismissed as implausible.  The ability of farmed fish to pass on parasites or diseases to wild fish in adjacent waters was harder to dismiss.  And then there was the problem of wastes accumulating under the pens.

Add to this the NIMBY problem. People have long opposed not only salmon net pens but also floating structures designed to raise oysters and kelp. They don’t want to see floating Styrofoam or nighttime lights from their expensive houses. They don’t want to navigate their speedboats around obstructions.   But frank NIMBYism isn’t popular.  So they can’t just say this, and instead find environmental reasons to oppose the projects.

Ditto for the commercial fishers who don’t want competition from cheaper farmed fish.  Again, it’s not the kind of thing that people say publicly.  So instead, they say things like “friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish.”  Many consumers – and many stores – have come to think there’s something wrong with farmed fish.  I avoid farmed fish myself. But why?  Logically, how is eating farmed fish any worse than, say, eating farmed pork instead of hunting wild boar?

Raising Atlantic salmon in Pacific waters is a special case, but aquaculture in general isn’t going away.  There’s no real alternative.  “With 33% of wild-caught fisheries already overexploited and another 60% at capacity,” WWF explains, “seafood farming, or aquaculture, can help meet rising demand for nutritious protein. Globally, aquaculture—both marine and freshwater—now produces more seafood than do wild fisheries.”

Here in the Northwest, Anderson explains, we get a skewed impression of people’s salmon choices.  Here, in addition to farmed Atlantic salmon, possibly fish pen-raised in Norway or Chile, or farmed steelhead, you can buy chinook, sockeye, pink, coho, and chum. In most of the county – except, say, for pricey Copper River sockeye flown in every spring or frozen filets –a fish buyer doesn’t have that wide choice.  It’s the farmed fish or nothing (or canned fish, which once upon a time was ubiquitous and cheap.)

Cooke, which owned the big Puget Sound pens, uses on-shore tanks in lieu of hatcheries.  But Cooke has said that raising salmon to market size on shore just isn’t economically viable. That hasn’t kept a number of smaller companies from trying it.  UW’s Anderson, who is all for land-based aquaculture, says he doesn’t think anyone is making a go of it without some kind of subsidy.

While he says that technological improvements have been driving down costs, “the products have to compete on the global stage” – which means against farm-raised fish from Norway and Chile – and “I don’t think the science supports the idea” that shore-based aquaculture can do that yet.

Of course, shore-based aquaculture raising salmon sustainably is an attractive idea, and whether or not it can compete with farmed salmon from South America on price, there is certainly a boutique market out there.  One company, Lummi Island Wild, ships frozen filets of reef-net-caught coho at a price that works out to $48 a pound.  A company called Superior Fresh, raising salmon in central Wisconsin, uses the waste to raise salad greens, which it then sells.  That’s one way to do it.  

And if you start calculating energy costs, this side business may all look a lot more compelling.  It takes a lot of jet fuel to fly those fish filets here from Norway or Chile, and even to the heartland from the coasts.  Small operations in improbable places eliminate a lot of that cost.  

But why do it here?  On DNR land?  With an announcement that comes out of the blue?  In the form of a contract with a single Canadian company? It’s all pretty unclear.  And what are the chances that Nova Scotia’s Sustainable Blue will come up with something in the near future?  The company has announced that the failure of a carbon dioxide filter at its Nova Scotia operation has killed $5 million worth of Atlantic salmon and has delayed deliveries of fish for the next seven months. The company’s president has said that the failure won’t affect its progress in Washington.  But the Undercurrent News site reported that its success in Washington seemed “far from a slam dunk.”

These developments have no bearing on the question of whether or not shore-based aquaculture is a good idea.  Or whether or not anyone can raise salmon in tanks at a competitive price.

Price matters, of course; “When fish become more expensive,“ Anderson observes, “people buy things that are not fish.”  That may not be good for the planet (or for consumers’ health).  “If you go buy a hamburger,” Anderson says, “you have not done the right thing for the environment.”



  1. I can’t make out what this article is really about, but at the beginning it seems to be about Sustainable Blue on-land aquaculture. So allow me to contribute the minimal info that I got by looking them up on the web:

    They raise Atlantic salmon in closed, on land tank systems. Closed meaning, they don’t cycle water from nearby marine environments.

    They don’t use hormones. They don’t use antibiotics.

    It sounds almost too good to be true, but it would be pretty bold for them to lie about it. From the looks of their “where to buy” page, it’s a pretty small operation.

  2. Joseph Campbell said “salmon were an important Native American myth in the Northwest.” They are a “giver of life.”
    We have come a long way since then.
    Now salmon are a white man’s political/biological football.
    We all “prize” the native salmon but we over fish them to the point of listing them as threatened or endangered. Native Americans don’t see it like that: Salmon are the giver of life. The “ESA” listings are our construct for what we have destroyed.
    Now the “wild salmon” are prized as food for Puget Sound Orcas. And they are expensive.
    So we turn to aqua culture or land based options.
    Its not as expensive.
    Society needs “myths,” Joseph Campbell was right, and we are working hard to destroy ours.

  3. In the 70’s, Weyerhaeuser invested 10’s of millions exploring aquaculture in Washington and Oregon. I believe it was based on the creation of massive hatcheries and the expectation that the salmon would return.

    From UPI Archives: ‘What we’ve really been doing is feeding the birds,’ said Bill McNeil, president of Oregon Aqua Foods, a wholly owned subsidiary Weyerhhaeuser Co. and the largest private salmon hatchery operation in the state. End quote.

    Weyco was ahead of its time and discovered what wouldn’t work.


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