They look about the same. And to most people, they taste the same. The USDA says both have roughly the same nutritional content.
Yet farm-raised Atlantic salmon and wild salmon are two completely different animals. So say proponents and critics of the increasingly controversial farm-raised salmon industry.
"(The wild salmon) we have to market is superior in taste, texture, a fish that comes from the clean waters of Alaska," said Randy Rice, of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, during a recent phone interview from his office in Bellevue, Wash.
Kevin Bright, who is president of the Washington Fish Growers Association and the operations manager for Cypress Island, one of Washington state's largest salmon farms, concedes that wild Alaskan sockeye salmon is one of the most delicious fish on the market, but added: "It's only available certain times of the year. We've found a way to get salmon to consumers year-round."
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the differences between farmed and wild salmon, though. Especially after a Seattle law firm filed a class-action lawsuit in April against major supermarket chains saying the stores failed to label farmed fish as being artificially colored. Now, there's a "color added" disclaimer printed below the price of the Atlantic farm-raised salmon at many supermarket seafood counters.
That development, paired with conflicting reports about the impact of eating farmed fish treated with antibiotics, fears that escaped salmon may decimate native fish and the outcry over the waste generated in the ocean by what critics call floating feedlots, and it looks as if farm-raised salmon is navigating some troubled waters.
Bright counters the criticism, saying it comes from commercial fishermen who don't want the increased competition.
"It (farm-raised salmon) represents increased competition for the wild salmon, and that industry has seen the value drop with the market shifting away from their product," Bright said from his office in Anacortes, Wash. "Farm salmon has become the scapegoat for their problems."
Both sides of this controversial issue are passionate about what they believe is right, with both sides offering up experts to support their contentions.
When the farm salmon industry points out that the food colors used in the fish food (canthaxanthin and astaxanthin) are generally recognized as safe by the FDA, Anne Mosness -- coordinator of the Go Wild campaign -- charges that those levels don't take into account chemically sensitive individuals.
"The European Union just mandated a reduction of canthaxanthin fed to its farm fish because it's been associated with vision problems," said Mosness, who lives in Bellingham, Wash., and has fished for salmon in Alaska for years.
Beyond the health concerns, there's the social justice issue for Mosness and other groups including The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform, which has launched a campaign called Farmed and Dangerous.
"It comes down to the fact that these businesses, which are owned by foreign interests, are using our public domain. They're externalizing the costs to the environment and to society," Mosness said.
Bright, on the other hand, points out the industry must conform to regulations imposed by several state agencies, including the Department of Ecology.
"We also adopted an industry code of conduct in 2002," that addresses many of those environmental concerns, he said.
Fish farms have been in this country for nearly 30 years, with Norway first pioneering the practice of moving hatchery smolts to net pens in open waters.
The operation Bright works for has bred Atlantic salmon because they're more docile, more net pen friendly than the native Pacific salmon.
The process of farming salmon starts with 10 to 12 months in a hatchery from egg to ocean-ready smolt. Once these are in floating net pens -- some near the San Juan Islands, others near Bainbridge Island, as well as all along the British Columbia coastline -- it takes another 18 to 20 months before the salmon are ready for market. Conversely, wild salmon are generally two to four years old when they're caught.
During that time, the carnivorous, contained fish are fed fishmeal, a practice that raises another red flag for critics.
"What's happening is that small fish are being taken from the coastlines of poor, developing countries and fed to salmon that can be sold to be eaten by rich nations," Mosness said.
Eventually, that source of fishmeal could be depleted.
John Volpe, a biologist from the University of Alberta who works out of Victoria, B.C., said "taking ever-increasing amounts of small fish from the oceans to expand the total supply of commercially valuable farm fish would clearly be disastrous for marine ecosystems."
Volpe's Coastal Center for Slow Ecology is currently looking at ways escaped farm-raised fish impact the wild salmon population.
"With this industry, it's been one disaster after another, I don't really see the upside," said Volpe in a recent phone interview.
But beyond the stormy waters stirred by controversy, the issue for consumers comes down to a simple matter of dollars and sense.
The increasing supply of farm-raised salmon -- including a glut of fish imported from Chile -- makes farm-raised fish a good buy. Last week, farm-raised salmon sold for $6.98 a pound at Rosauers. (That's compared with $7.98 a pound for Copper River sockeye salmon filets. King salmon filets were $11.98 a pound.) If shoppers express concern to Vince Perry at Williams Seafood, he refers to a press release from the B.C. Salmon Farmers Association that addresses the controversial issues about fish feed, antibiotic use, color and other contaminants.
"People are confused about this issue of the lawsuit over the coloring, but a person would have to eat 32,000 pounds of farm salmon each day to reach dangerous levels," Perry said.
For Perry, it's a matter of taste.
"I betcha two bits that if you cooked a couple fillets up and served them side by side, most people couldn't tell the difference between farm-raised and wild," he said.
Some diners at Mizuna ask if it's wild salmon before they order it.
"People are definitely more aware of what they're eating and those people are asking for wild salmon," said chef/owner Sylvia Wilson. "Right now, it's wild because we can get it."
Last winter, the restaurant considered dropping farm-raised salmon from its menu in light of the controversies, but as Wilson pointed out, "people want it, that's the dilemma."
The kitchen staff at Mizuna has even experimented with serving frozen wild salmon.
"It had this mushy texture," she said.
Adam Hegsted, the chef at The Cedars Floating restaurant in Coeur d'Alene, said he actually prefers cooking with the farm-raised salmon.
"It's got a more consistent fat content," he said. "It's got a delicate and mild flavor, with lots of marbling."
The wild salmon sometimes cooks more quickly, so it can dry out in the cooking process.
Even though wild fish can be less consistent, Hegsted said that makes it more interesting. "Sometimes, you get a filet that's sublime," he said.
This hot topic isn't likely to cool off anytime soon, especially with ongoing research on both sides, with each remaining firmly entrenched in their views.
On behalf of the farm-fish industry, Bright said: "I don't want to say it's perfect. There's been lot to learn, but marine aquaculture is where we're going to go with the marine fish being depleted and overfished. It's a step in the right direction."
Mosness said: "Yeah, they're cleaning things up, but I don't think they should have been allowed to do that in our public waters."
TRAILERX Leslie Kelly can be reached at 459-5486 or by e-mail at email@example.com
Tale of the tape
Caught by commercial fisherman in Alaska, and along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California between May and October, these fish include:
King salmon: The biggest of the salmon, also known as Chinook, some weighing up to 60 pounds. In the Northwest and Alaska, they are the first wild salmon to head up the rivers for spawning.
Sockeye salmon: Also known as red salmon or blueback salmon. Prized for its intensely colored, well-flavored meat, this fish is marketed fresh, but also sold canned.
Chum salmon: With lighter-colored flesh, these fish are often canned or smoked.
Coho salmon: Also called silver salmon. The last salmon to return to the rivers, beginning at the end of September until early fall. A mild-tasting fish with medium-orange flesh.
Pink salmon: Nicknamed humpies because of the ridge that runs along the back of the mature fish. Most pinks are canned, though some are sold fresh or frozen.
Atlantic salmonThis is another way of saying farm-raised salmon. This species still is found in the wild in parts of Europe, but is considered endangered. The fish is farmed in net pens in waters off the East and West coasts, usually growing from egg to 10 to 12 pounds in approximately 21/2 years.