Land-farmed salmon: Coming (temporarily) to a restaurant or store near you


The Freshwater Institute raises salmon inland in Shepherdstown, W.Va., using a recirculating tank system. (The Conservation Fund)
April 18

Still have farmed salmon crossed off your short list of eco-friendly fish? A local version that’s available for a limited time in the Washington area could temporarily rewrite your rules.

Most farmed salmon are raised in open nets or pens in the ocean, where their waste and potential to introduce parasites, diseases or non-native fish to the wild present serious environmental concerns. The Freshwater Institute, a program of the Arlington-based Conservation Fund, has been trying another way.

For two years, the institute’s researchers have been growing Atlantic salmon at a recirculating aquaculture facility in Shepherdstown, W.Va., 70 miles from the District. They have been chipping away at the sustainability issues that plague this farmed fish’s reputation by growing it in land-based tanks without the use of antibiotics or hormones. They’ve acclimated the fish to grow in fresh water and are reusing 99 percent of it while reducing the amount of forage fish required to feed the growing predators.

The next step in proving that the concept works — and is viable enough to be adopted by the broader aquaculture industry — is showing that it sells in the marketplace. Year-round consistency could give this brand of aquaculture an economic edge over wild resources, making available from a nearby source a healthful fish that doesn’t even swim in Chesapeake Bay waters.

Freshwater’s first batch hit markets in Maryland and Virginia in late March and will be available through mid-May at area Wegmans seafood counters and on more than a dozen restaurant menus. That means Washington consumers can get the first taste of the only Atlantic salmon in the United States grown with this technology.

Connor Boney, marketing manager for Jessup, Md.-based seafood supplier J.J. McDonnell, which is distributing the product as Springhill Salmon, said his customers are relishing the opportunity to sell “a truly local, farm-raised Atlantic salmon.”

Jeff Lewis, executive chef at Chart House in Alexandria, compared the texture of the fish to that of a well-graded tuna, adding that the taste could “give king salmon a run for its money.” He seared the fish and served it with lemon shallot butter and spring vegetables this week. Boney plans to showcase the salmon at a luncheon for local chefs next week.

The fish has been featured on menus at Monocacy Crossing in Frederick, Md., and River Creek Country Club in Leesburg, Va., and has been sold at the Meat House in Fairfax. Wegmans Maryland and Virginia stores have been offering samples alongside the new product, which regional manager Rich Martin says appeals to customers primarily because of its local and domestic labels.

“What’s nice about this land-based system is you could pretty much do it anywhere in the country,” said Martin. He said improving the environmental impact of their offerings is especially important when it comes to salmon, the most popular seafood, which he says sells “like chicken in the meat department.”

As a research facility, the Freshwater Institute isn’t aiming to push out the salmon year-round. Its fish won’t hit the market again for another eight to 10 months, and previous salmon harvests have been donated to places such as the anti-hunger nonprofit D.C. Central Kitchen. In the meantime, institute director Joseph Hankins has opened the facility’s doors to aquaculture businesses and investors looking to adapt and scale up the recirculating aquaculture, or closed containment, technology.

That technology, which helps conserve water resources on land, has been evolving for more than a decade, but few businesses have been able to make it financially viable, says Peter Bridson, aquaculture research manager with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Building an intricate indoor system of tanks and tubes costs far more than growing Atlantic salmon in nets or cages in open waters. But traditionally farmed Atlantic salmon is on the Seafood Watch program’s list of fish to avoid, in part because pollution and contaminants from the fish are released directly into the ocean.

Verlasso brand farmed salmon from Chile is the only ocean-raised Atlantic salmon to receive the Seafood Watch program’s “Good Alternative” ranking so far. The company farms with less pollution at lower densities and has reduced its reliance on forage fish by supplementing the salmon’s diet with a genetically modified yeast. Other net-penfarmers are improving their practices to reduce their impact on the environment.

Land-based aquaculture is a growing alternative that eliminates the risk of spreading waste, diseases or parasites in open waters. Closed containment systems do, however, share a key area of concern with their water-based counterparts, and that’s how many fish it takes to grow the larger ones that humans eat. System owners also have to filter out fish waste or develop markets for products like fish fertilizer.

The Freshwater Institute is working to reduce its “fish in-fish out” ratio, as it’s called, which is nearing 1:1 and is about 20 percent better than the industry’s average. The fish now on the market were fed a commercial product certified for Best Aquaculture Practices by the Global Aquaculture Alliance. The feed includes oil and meal from wild forage fish as well as plant-based proteins. The institute is growing its next batch of salmon on a fish-meal-free feed that’s not yet commercially available and uses non-genetically modified soybeans for some protein.

What does the Seafood Watch program think of the institute’s fish? It is now finishing its assessment of Atlantic salmon farmed on land in closed containment tanks; the Freshwater Institute has one of three facilities in the world that now fit the description. The program did, however, give its highest “Best Choice” rating last year to coho salmon farmed in Washington state using similar technology.

“Closed containment is probably likely to expand as they develop the technology and make it more commercially viable,” Bridson said. But, he added, “I don’t think net-pen farming is going to disappear tomorrow.”

Pipkin, a freelance writer who lives in in Alexandria, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com and writes for the Chesapeake Bay Journal.

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