At Issue: What Is More Sustainable, Farmed or Wild Salmon?

Usually, my takeout sushi order experience is about as mundane as it gets. I know what I want (almost always two rolls—spicy tuna and salmon avocado), and I trust my preferred neighbourhood spot on Commercial Drive to execute efficiently. But, recently, I was pressed into a decision I didn’t see coming. 

“Wild or farmed?” asked the voice on the other end of the call in reference to the salmon in the order. 

It’s a debate that’s long been held in the restaurant industry, one that two legendary B.C. chefs find themselves differing on. But Ned Bell and Robert Clark do agree on the big picture. 

“We both want the same result, the same future,” says Clark, co-founder of non-profit conservation organization Ocean Wise and chief culinary officer of commercial fishery Organic Ocean.

“[Rob’s] the reason I’m in sustainability,” offers Bell, former Ocean Wise executive chef and partner at the Okanagan’s Naramata Inn. 

But where they diverge is on how that sustainable future is achieved. “The difference between us is that he thinks we can achieve that with properly farmed salmon,” says Clark. “And I disagree.”

His former protégé bristles at the simplicity of that description. The friction started for Bell a couple of years ago, when he took heat for a web post he wrote advocating for responsible aquaculture. 

“I lost friends and peers over it,” says Bell, who believes that climate change, habitat degradation, urban pollution and the over-fishing of certain runs are harming our local salmon populations. 

Farmed salmon refers to fish that, instead of being caught here, are born in a hatchery and raised on land or in the ocean. It covers a range of things, including steelhead trout, chinook or Atlantic salmon. 

Ocean Wise has been known to recommend certain salmon farms, like Kuterra, a First Nations-owned land-based salmon farm on northern Vancouver Island. At Kuterra, farmed salmon don’t interact with or spread disease to wild salmon—a common argument against the practice of farming. 

As reported by Business in Vancouver, 22 million Pacific salmon were caught by commercial fishermen in 2020, accounting for 606,000 metric tonnes—the lowest haul since 1982. 

“As a chef, my goal is to get my hands on, celebrate and pay a fair price for the best ingredients I can possibly find, whether it’s wild B.C. salmon, wild Pacific halibut, apples, peaches, cherries, etc.,” says Bell. “I want to celebrate wild B.C. salmon, but we can’t only eat wild fish and still consume at the rate we’ve been consuming globally and in North America.”

He argues that the common perception of farmed salmon is misplaced: “There’s a generation of people who have been raised listening to the news, reading the paper, hearing that farmed fish is a four-letter word. It’s just not that simple.” 

Clark may have had a hand in that very reputation. He started fighting salmon farms in the late ’90s. “The majority of the industry said, ‘We want something fresh, consistent and available 365 days a year,’” recalls Clark.

“So we’ll use wild in season when it’s cheap, but when tourists come to B.C. in April because they hear about our famous wild salmon, they’re going to get farmed and they’re not going to be told the difference. You could take any menu from 1992 in Vancouver: all had grilled B.C. salmon in a chardonnay cream sauce or whatever it was, and it was all farmed Atlantic. None of it was wild. That’s fraud.” 

From a sustainability perspective, Clark isn’t convinced that farming salmon is the solution. “The beauty of wild Pacific salmon is that this high-quality, super healthy food source, this protein, for its entire life it will take care of itself,” he says.

“It will reproduce by itself, find its way to the breeding grounds by itself, fatten itself up. And it will come home to the exact spot in the river it was born. We harvest it at the river’s mouth, so now we have a nutrient-rich protein on the table. To get a farmed salmon on that same table, you have to use a tremendous amount of carbon.” 

There’s also the oft-used argument that, for every farmed salmon eaten, a wild salmon is saved. Clark does not like that angle. “Nothing could be further from the truth, because the two are not connected,” he says, pointing out that scientists working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada determine how much wild salmon can be taken sustainably, based on current science and volume of the salmon runs. “We’re not taking any more than what’s considered sustainable. But that salmon is going to be taken from the wild either way.” 

Bell argues that he bases his decisions on science as well: “It’s my belief that if we lay off certain runs for a year or two—or even 10—they can recover. Wild salmon is incredibly resilient, but we can’t keep hammering it forever. Let’s not forget the cod fishery collapse of the ’90s, decades in the making, that devastated communities up and down the east coast. I don’t want to repeat that here in B.C.”

There are also the non-humans that need to be fed. “My goal is to leave enough fish in the ocean so that the entire ecosystem thrives,” Bell says. “And the other species that need wild salmon to survive, like eagles, whales, bears and trees, are able to thrive. Salmon is an extremely important keystone species. You take salmon out of the ecosystem and it collapses.”

What’s clear is that the argument that has engulfed the industry for years is going to be presented to the consumer for them to decide on. And no, I won’t tell you how I answered the sushi place. That’s a call you’ll have to make for yourself.