Farmed Salmon: Marinated in Toxics, Stuffed with Profits

The farmed salmon industry has recently been dealt yet another blow as the world learns about the contaminated product it offers for the public’s dinner plates.  In June, 2005, a multi-national aquaculture company, Stolt Sea Farms, confirmed that nearly 320,000 of its farmed salmon from British Columbia were contaminated with the illegal fungicide “malachite green” — 80,000 pounds of which has already reached markets in the United States, Canada, China, Japan, and other Asian nations (Farmed and Dangerous, “Banned Chemical Found in Stolt’s Farmed Salmon,” 2 June 2005).  A brief look at the fish-farming industry reveals the contradictions of this rapidly emerging, global industry: the only thing “green” about this chemical is its color, the only force propelling this industry is profits. 

Malachite green1 has been used in the aquaculture industry since the time of Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring.  Malachite green has long been suspected of causing genetic mutations that can lead to malignant tumors in humans, and the pen-raised salmon industry has been aware of its carcinogenic effects since the 1960s.  Lest they forget, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (2001) issued the following warning about malachite green:

Because of its effectiveness this chemical is considered to have a high probability of abuse . . . the use of the product could result in significant worker exposure and the effluent from the aquaculture facility could enter the water supply resulting in exposure of the general public through recreational activities and drinking water.  Finally, the use of malachite green in food fish could result in human consumption of malachite green residues.

The use of malachite green is not permitted on farmed fish destined for human consumption. Yet, the salmon-farming industry has continually jeopardized the health of its workers, the natural environment, and unsuspecting consumers by applying malachite green to the eggs of farmed fish. Aquaculture companies in Ireland, New Zealand, the Faroe Islands, and Norway have previously been found guilty of illegally using malachite green.  These are not isolated incidents, but involve the entire industry.  The most recent Stolt Sea Farms exposé indicts a company that just completed a merger process to become the world’s largest aquaculture conglomerate.  Considering that this is an industry dominated by six multi-national firms, there is little doubt that illegal contamination of “Pharmed” fish is widespread.

The salmon-farming industry has thrived with the expansion of the world economy.  Unlike wild salmon fisheries, which consist of individual boats and their owners operating under a highly regulated system of harvest permits, the aquaculture industry is relatively unregulated and consists of vertically integrated feed, hatchery, grow-out, distribution, and value-added processing companies.  Following in the imperialist footsteps of the Green Revolution, the fish-farming industry, hailed as the “Blue Revolution,” boasts a similar mantra of production “advances” through intensification, labor efficiency, feeding the world, and economic opportunity for developing nations.  Considering the true social and ecological consequences of the Green Revolution, a closer look at aquaculture’s claims is warranted:

Intensified Production — at What Cost?  To achieve maximum output of product, the aquaculture industry packs huge numbers of artificially propagated, non-native salmon into confined net pens.  With the pen’s unnatural high density, sea lice and disease spread quickly throughout the farmed fish populations and may infect other marine species in adjacent waters.  Aquaculture companies protect their “investment” by pumping high doses of antibiotics and pesticides into the farmed fish. The genetic altering of fish for faster growth is already underway. Penned salmon often escape, invading and compromising nearby native salmon habitat. The so-called efficiency of intensified fish production comes at the expense of many externalized environmental costs.

Labor Efficiency — or Labor Displacement?  Technological innovation for mechanized production is spurred by the need to increase profits by decreasing labor inputs.  The Robofeeder is one such example, a device that mechanically dispenses fish food pellets to the penned farmed salmon, thereby reducing the need for human labor.  Commercial fishermen who catch wild salmon cannot compete with the artificially low price of farmed fish and eventually are forced out of traditional livelihoods.

Feeding the World — Says Who?  Salmon are carnivorous and eat high on the food chain.  This means many tons of “little fish” (sardines, krill, anchovy) from the global South must be ground into fishmeal in order to grow high-value salmon for gourmet consumers. The result is a net loss of marine derived protein.  Taking fish from protein-poor Third World countries’ fisheries to produce salmon for North American and European markets raises concerns not only about ecosystem integrity, but also about social justice.

Development Opportunity — aka Privatization?  Multi-national aquaculture firms that locate in developing nations exhibit significant disregard for traditional and subsistence fishing communities.  Often, the introduction of aquaculture transforms what had been multiple-user fishing areas into privately owned property.  Aquaculture encourages capital-intensive technology and the expansion of private property around the globe — disguised as a development strategy. In the US, a regulatory framework to privatize the ocean commons is currently under Congressional review.

In Rachel Carson’s less well-known book The Sea Around Us (1951), she marvels at the wonders of the ocean.  A half-century later, the extension of agri-business into the realm of fish-farming has transformed the ocean into another medium for contamination and exploitation in the pursuit of profit.  Recognizing the forces of production that are required to achieve the aquaculture industry’s goals demonstrates that this industry is nothing more than the latest example of capitalist enterprise widening the rift between humans and the natural world.


1 The information in this essay about malachite green comes from Don Staniford’s essay “Silent Spring of the Sea” (pp. 145-198) in A Stain Upon the Sea (2004), S. Hume, A. Morton, B. Keller & R. Leslie, O. Langer, and D. Staniford (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing).

Rebecca Clausen is a doctoral student studying Environmental Sociology at the University of Oregon.