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Catch of the Day

Author: Bonnie Durrance
March, 2013 Issue

The good, the bad and the beautiful about farmed salmon…

They arrive on our doorstep, straight from Patagonia (via Miami) by Federal Express, a trio of salmon, swimming in ice packs, their shining black backs curling in a clear plastic shroud, their eyes staring out at us, bright and beautiful. These are Verlasso salmon: They never swam upstream past hungry bears; they left no spawn. They grew up in pristine waters off the coast of Chile, in pens, sustainably raised, the website assures, in a manner “harmonious” with the ecosystem. They’ve been sent for us to see if we find them delicious, and whether we agree that Verlasso salmon fulfills its brand promise when compared to wild salmon, in taste, texture, color and leanness.

Questions and concerns

Regardless of their possible perfection on the plate, as farmed salmon, they come with many questions and concerns, and only one fact stands without dispute: Given the vast, worldwide increase in fish consumption and the startling depletion of natural fisheries—according to World Watch Institute, the average per capita consumption has increased 1,000 percent since 1970, and according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, nearly 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are already fished to capacity—farmed fish is the future, both for consumers and wild populations. For those who can’t imagine a dining life without fresh fish, here are the key issues fish producers, chefs and consumers are wrestling with, and which we’ll be pondering as we bite into these (or future) fish.
“There’s a lot of confusion about farming,” says Chef John Ash, who’s also a James Beard award-winning author and teacher. “And in the case of carnivorous fish, we still don’t have the perfect system.” The problem with carnivorous fish, like salmon, is that it takes four or more pounds of “feeder fish” to create one pound of salmon. This means vast supplies of wild fish—the little oily fish humans (for the most part) tend not to bother with, like krill, sardines and herring, but which contain the Omega-3 oils salmon need—can become depleted as their numbers are “vacuumed up” in industrial nets to be ground into fish food for farmed salmon. This creates a problem for the ecosystem, as many species feed on these little fish. So, farming salmon to relieve pressure on native salmon or the environment may be a good idea, but feeding the farmed salmon wild food may defeat the purpose. “It makes no sense to me to strip the ocean to feed a carnivore,” says Ash.
Another problem from intensively farmed fish became immediately evident to Chef Ash when he went to Norway in the 1980s to explore that country’s claims of sustainable salmon. “I thought, ‘Wow! Farmed salmon in Norway!’” He was visualizing pristine fjords and imagining all the salmon swimming happily in pristine waters. But when he arrived, the reality smacked him. “I was disillusioned: It was overcrowded, unhealthy. Not all of the fish made it.” He says it was like visiting an industrial chicken farm. ”I think the farmed salmon issue is the same kind of issue we face with conventionally raised poultry or pork. If you ever saw how chicken or pork is conventionally raised, you’d never eat it again.”
High concentrations of fish, chickens or any living thing, for that matter, encourage high concentrations of pollution and susceptibility to disease. So fish farmers, like livestock farmers, use antibiotics to prevent or treat disease. But antibiotic presence in fish, as with meats or other food, is undesirable to most consumers. According to the National Institutes of Health, the widespread use of antibiotics in aquaculture has resulted in the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the surrounding environments and fish populations—and these can spread into land animals and humans.
Aside from that, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch points out, salmon may escape from their farm’s nets and become an “invasive species” to local fish, competing for food and spawning grounds.

Harmonious, sustainable solutions

Verlasso, which is a brand of Patagonia-based salmon and trout producer AquaChile, addresses these problems with a new approach to sustainable farming aimed at raising high-quality fish with low ecological impact. “Verlasso was started to try to redo salmon farming,” says Director Allyson Fish (her actual name). “For us, farming has to be part of the solution. There aren’t enough wild resources out there, so we need to figure out how to get fish farming right. We’ve been working with World Wildlife Fund [WWF], Pew Charitable Trust and Environmental Defense Fund, and asking these groups, ‘What’s most important to you? What are your top priorities?’ And then we begin addressing those.”
She says the company went into this with all the right intentions and, though she understands why Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) didn’t offer certification at the producer/farmer level, Verlasso also wanted to try to find a way to encourage change. Now there’s a conversation underway. Verlasso is participating in MBA’s External Assessment Model, a new pilot program, and Fish is hoping for an eventual “Recommended Buy” rating from MBA.
She says World Wildlife Fund is also working on a certification program, called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council. “WWF launched a multi-stakeholder engagement, in which everyone came together to create a new sustainable standard for different species in the industry,” she says. “Salmon, for some reason, took seven years to get to a draft standard. Now the standard is complete, and WWF is looking into how it’s going to be applied and implemented.” The benefit of this is that when groups do assessments from farm to farm, they do it all the same way.
Verlasso was launched in September 2011, says Fish, and it’s fascinating to her how the different market regions reacted with different questions and concerns about salmon farming. “New York was more about personal health, with questions like, ‘What am I consuming?’ ‘How good is it for me?’ and ‘What are the Omega-3 levels?’” she says.
“Whereas the Portland, Ore., consumers were more concerned with protecting the local wild salmon populations. So questions there focused on: ‘Is farmed salmon hurting wild salmon?’ rather than, ‘Is farmed salmon good for me?’"
For Verlasso, the diet of the fish and where it’s raised are the key concerns. Its goal is to help reduce the depletion of wild resources and actually protect local ecosystems while also protecting the health of the fish it’s farming. “These issues are all interconnected,” says Fish.
The company chose Patagonia because it’s one of the most remote, pristine places in the world, with little human interaction and cold, glacier-fed waters with constant rejuvenation from copious rainfall. Just offshore, the seafloor plunges deep, which is ideal for dispersing waste from the pens. “We’re farming in 40- to 80-meter deep water with also a strong tidal flow,” she says, “but we’re close enough to the shore that the fish are protected by the land.” As an additional step toward maintaining the pristine environment, Verlasso leaves pens empty for three to six months after each harvest so the ocean and tidal flow can completely replenish the area.
Verlasso addresses the problem of fish density by having no more than 12 kg of fish per cubic meter of water. That’s about 50 percent less than international standards. “It means the salmon have a lot more room to swim around,” she says, “so they’re getting really great exercise.” As for disease, “We feel our fish have a strong ecosystem. Our goal is to completely eliminate antibiotics, but if some of our fish get sick, we do have to treat them.” Also, as an extra precaution, the pens are outfitted with double nets to minimize the danger of fish escaping into the wild. At the same time, the nets protect the salmon from local ocean predators, like seals and sea lions.
As a brand of AquaChile, Verlasso benefits from DuPont innovation, which has been working with AquaChile to produce an Omega-3-rich yeast used to supplement part of the salmon’s natural diet of “feeder” fish (as Chef Ash described), resulting in a “fish in-fish out” food-to-fish ratio of 1:1 versus the 4:1 of other farmed salmon. This is a 75 percent reduction of wild feeder fish in the diet; as a result, Verlasso has saved more than 4.5 million pounds of feeder fish to-date.
People want to protect wild seafood, says Fish, “and that’s why we need aquaculture: to put less pressure on the wild fish and ocean ecosystem and still have the Omega-3-rich proteins people want.” She says the company currently ships the fish on commercial flights, saving fuel, another sustainability aspect, though that may have to change as it gets bigger.
She then acknowledges a cultural quandary: “We want everything to be local and sustainable. People want to know their farmers. We want it at our fingertips, but we also want it to be reasonably priced. That means we need to make some good decisions so a larger population can have access to better food. This is a challenge we’re addressing as well.” In the Bay Area, we tend not to feel the challenge so acutely, as fresh, line-caught fish is seasonally available and diners are used to seeing it on the menus of discerning restaurants. “It’s a lot about precious food,” she says. “In the Bay Area, you can have precious food. It’s readily available. But I live in Philadelphia, and it’s a whole different world.”

Local chefs share the quandary

Clint Davies, chef at Fish Story in Napa, currently doesn’t serve farmed salmon. He says he’s very involved with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and is aware of the many grey areas connected to farmed fishing. “We have all the posters, and our menus say: ‘In accordance with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.’ If it’s on the green or yellow list, we can use it.” He says he’d definitely consider a farmed salmon that Monterey Bay approves. “I’d use it year-round. I think it’s an important thing to have on your menu.”
He trusts Monterey Bay’s certification and that it would have to really certify that a fish is sustainably raised. Then the taste and texture is the next important thing. “In a salmon, you look for flavor, texture and color,” he says. “Last week, we got some white salmon. If they don’t eat enough krill or whatever, it doesn’t make the color. The flavor is the same, a little more delicate.” So his criteria are, first of all, knowing the salmon is OK to use, then, if it’s approved, how easy it is to get and whether it’s available regularly. “Because the worst thing you can do is serve an old piece of fish—nobody wants to do that.”
Steve Rose, chef and owner (along with his wife, Colleen) of the Vineyards Inn Spanish Bar & Grill in Kenwood, says he only uses fresh, wild, line-caught local fish, because that’s what people want to see on the menu. So farmed fish, even if it were Monterey Bay-certified, wouldn’t be an option for him. It’s part of his restaurant’s “brand” as a Sonoma County restaurant to serve local fish, and he’s committed to serving local food. “I like to support our local fisher people. They work really hard, and it’s a very difficult job. I want to support them.”
Lowell Sheldon, owner of Peter Lowell’s in Sebastopol, currently uses farmed salmon for curing, but doesn’t serve it as a featured entrée. “When we buy fresh salmon or wild salmon from California, Washington, Oregon or Alaska, we’re looking to feature it for our evening menu,” he says. “The people coming to our restaurant aren’t looking for farmed salmon.”
He’s aware of the ticking clock on wild fish and also of the cautionary issues with farmed salmon. “Clearly, we’re dealing with populations that are being over-fished,” he says, “and I’d like to think the way we’re managing it today is based on reality, but I think there are still some issues.”
He also feels it’s his job to educate people about food choices, as far as he can. “The restaurant spends a lot of time thinking about where our food comes from and attempting to use sustainable farms, fisheries and meats, so we’d like to engage in the conversation, but we just haven’t gone over the hump yet.”
Sheldon says he understands the complexities Verlasso faces getting Monterey Bay Aquarium certification and adds that he sees Monterey trying to encourage sustainable practices in companies while maintaining strict standards. “I’m happy they’re doing it, and I look forward to continuing the conversation,” he concludes.
Chef Ash sums up his own feeling by saying that it seems to him Verlasso is trying to do good work and that he hopes Monterey can figure out a way to encourage truly sustainable fish farming. “It’s not that I’m recommending Verlasso,” he says, “but I’m also not not recommending it. I’m in the same position as the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I want to see what Verlasso can do. Monterey makes the point that our ability to have wild fish as a staple of our diet is gone. Unfortunately, the oceans are tapped out, so the future of seafood—for all of us—is farming.”

Trying it at home

With three impressive Verlasso salmon to deal with, we phone up Sunshine Foods in St. Helena to see if they’ll filet the fish for us and let us take a picture of it for this story. They agree, and Les Thompson, who can usually be found behind the meat or fish counter with a big smile on his face and ready with advice for cooking just about anything, gets out his knife and sharpener and sets to the task.
He first holds one up by the gills and feels the firmness of the flesh. The fish is gorgeous, perfect fins, no tears or blemishes. He then slaps it down on the slab, takes his scraper, and scales go flying. Then it’s off with the fins, open up wide, and there’s a beautiful display of pink salmon flesh—not too fatty, nice and firm. As he’s working, he talks about the Napa River when he was growing up here, and how you could get fish year-round. Now, of course, most of the streams are choked off and the river gets sucked dry every summer: Fish and agriculture at odds.
Thompson says he understands the need for farmed salmon, but then admits the same concerns as the other chefs. When we ask what would be Sunshine’s standard, he grins and says, “Perfection!” When he’s finished, he has a piece sautéed, which he passes around for a taste around. It’s pronounced firm, with good texture, color and taste—closer to wild salmon than other farmed fish. “More like Atlantic salmon,” he says.
In case we find we’re going to want more of this, we looked up local availability of Verlasso salmon and found that in Marin, Debbie Truttman, fish buyer at the Mill Valley Market, says her customers are enthusiastic about it. “Our customers are very cutting edge as far as sustainability goes. So the Verlasso, which is a unique product, is pretty popular.” She says the texture is very mild and firm, and the smell is favorable: “With a lot of farmed Atlantic, I notice a slight chemical smell when I open up the fish. But with Verlasso, there’s just this clean smell to it. The quality is so nice.” 
Verlasso is also available in Santa Rosa and Petaluma at G&G Supermarkets. Janette Slocum, in Petaluma, says it’s “really nice salmon and customers have been really happy with it.” You can expect to pay in the neighborhood of $13 per pound.
Back in St. Helena, our fish now beautifully filleted, it’s time for the taste test. We’re cautious. We’re personally of that ilk that shuns farmed salmon for all the reasons stated in this article, from taste to environmental impact. But we know about the future of wild fish, and the fish we received was so beautiful, and the sustainability effort so persuasive, we find ourselves hoping it’s good.
The first surprise is that, in the pan, the fish doesn’t give off that overpowering “fishy” odor. On the plate, it’s delicate, firm, clean and delicious. A fly fisherman friend and wild fish connoisseur whom we’ve invited to sample the Verlasso with us listened skeptically to the story, but then, after the first bite, looked up, smiled and said, “I think they have something here!”



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