Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Sep

Salmon: Factory Farm vs. Wild

Wild SalmonLast week I noted in my podcast with Jimmy Moore how expensive genuine wild salmon can cost. Since then, I’ve received a healthy number of emails asking for more info, tips, and the real benefits behind buying “wild.”

What exactly are salmon “farms”? How does the farm setting change the nutritional content of salmon? Is there really that much of a difference? Is farmed salmon even worth buying?

First off, salmon farms of some kind make up about 80% of salmon on the market today. (In the United States, the number is higher – 90% by some estimates.) Thirty percent come from traditional hatcheries, and the remaining 50% are raised in aquaculture or “open pen nets” just off shore. Farms can “raise” up to a million salmon at a time. I’ll throw in a visual.

Salmon Farm

Yup, gets more than a little crowded in there.

Because the farmed salmon are largely confined and fed a steady diet of formulated protein pellets, they’re inevitably fattier. “But isn’t that a good thing?” you might ask. “More omega-3s per serving, right?” The answers are “no” and “not really” to the above. I’ll explain.

Many assessments have found fewer omega-3s per ounce in farmed salmon compared with wild salmon, but we know the farmed stuff also comes with a hefty (not healthy) wallop of other fats including omega-6s. We then deal with the problem that the omega-6s and omega-3s compete for the same receptors in our bodies. Consequently, the “net” omega-3 gain will always be less than what you’ll get with a wild serving. Here’s a nifty chart that compares the fat content of some popular wild versus farmed fish varieties (including salmon) from this PDF.

Farmed vs. Wild Salmon

And because the farmed fish are fattier, you’ll get less protein per serving as well.

To truly whet your appetite, I can’t skip the added ingredients you’ll get with a farmed fillet: dioxins, PCBs, fire retardants (those da-n things are everywhere, aren’t they???), pesticides (especially for sea lice), antibiotics, copper sulfate (to take care of algae on the nets), and – oh yeah – canthaxanthin (a dye associated with retinal damage used to make gray farmed fish various shades of “wild” pink).

As for dioxins, PCBs, and fire retardants, they show up in wild varieties as well, but the concentrations are vastly different. Tests have shown that farmed salmon contains 16 times more cancer-linked PCBs than wild salmon. The reason behind this difference? It’s those nasty little protein pellets – nuggets of mostly mashed fish and fish oil. The intense concentration of toxins from the fish feed builds up in the raised salmon over time – from fish farm to your fish dinner. Bon Appétit, by the way!

O.K., so you’re no fan of the farm anymore. To cloud the issue further, a “wild” label may only be telling a half truth. (They’re generally the less expensive “wild” brands offered in your grocery store.) As I described a few months back in Encore on Omegas, many to most “wild” salmon actually spend half their lives in hatcheries before being released. While these quasi-wild fish are a better nutritional deal than fully farmed salmon, they still bear the burdens of early exposure to toxins (dioxin, PCBs, etc.) and a less impressive omega 6:3 ratio.

So, what about truly wild salmon? As suggested, the genuine wild article only accounts for about 20% at most of the harvest. Some of the reasons it’s so darn expensive? The flood of farmed fish (and subsequent drop in asking price) has forced many traditional fishermen/women out of business. Add to this scenario the ongoing destruction of wild salmon populations by aquaculture farms, and we all end up paying a premium for the real thing.

Salmon Farm Sign

Because the farm pens are essentially open, the enormous amount of disease- and parasite- (a.k.a. sea lice – yum!) laden waste is routinely allowed to contaminate the waters around the farm. Add to this environment the megadoses of pesticide-, toxin-, and antibiotic-laced waste, and the farms create a deadly environment for wild stocks that inhabit the areas. For more on the environmental destruction caused by aquaculture farms, check out these resources from the National Geographic, the New York Times, and the L.A. Times.

Your best bet finally is this: buy less salmon in order to afford the real deal. It’s all about bang for your buck after all. A smaller wild fillet will give you equal nutrition with fewer toxins. Additionally, look for Alaskan over Northwestern salmon. And don’t rule out canned salmon for big savings. Apparently, farmed salmon doesn’t can well, which means the majority of canned salmon is wild. (Pink salmon, the most commonly canned variety, doesn’t contain as much good fats as other kinds.) It’s one way to make salmon a more affordable addition to your Primal-style salad!

Finally, if you do choose to eat farmed salmon, the Environmental Working Group (applying EPA health standards) suggests eating no more than one serving of farmed salmon a month.

And, of course, I suggest you ensure a healthy daily dose of omega-3s with a good quality, pure fish oil supplement! (We know: broken record. What can we say?)

Your comments, questions, anecdotes, or additions? I look forward to them!

kuow949, axiepics Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

On the Problems of Cultivated Fruit

Omega-3 Round Up:

Omega 3 to 6 Ratio

Omega 3 Daily Dose

Omega 3 Food Sources

Cooking Omegas

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Wow. I’m amazed at the complete lack of balance in this story and the comments.

    Farming fish is going to be an important part of our future, so best get the right info. Farmed or wild, its a heck of a lot better than most other proteins we happily pig out on.

    This story was not well researched at all, and smells real fishy-kinda like a paid advertisment for Alaska salmon.


    sara dyson wrote on October 20th, 2010
    • I agree with you. Anyone who reads this should be sure to do their own research.

      Olivia wrote on October 28th, 2010
    • If it is going to be an important part of our future, maybe we should raise them in a way that the end product is as healthy as the wild one. Same with beef, how could one possibly think that confining animals in their filth and feeding them boatloads of unnatural food and antibiotics could possibly yield a healthy meat?

      There is plenty of disinformation out there….I hate to tell you, but this article is not a source of one.

      SoTM wrote on February 5th, 2011
  2. Sara, would love to debate that point with you. This is no advertisement – merely the facts of farmed fishing. I am actually offended that you would say that considering the importance of this subject. Farmed fishing is a VERY dangerous practice. The best solution (if you love the taste of farmed fish) is to do on-shore tanks for farmed fish so the pollutants don’t harm our environment – but even still are risking your own health by eating farmed fish that are fed antibiotics and hormones so they don’t get sea lice and can grow huge within a year. At least then, people can choose what to eat and not affect anyone else, instead of helping destroy our planet by supporting the current farmed fishing practices! It’s kind of like smoking – you want to smoke? Do it where no one else is forced to breath your 2nd hand smoke. Your choice – just don’t make the rest of the world pay for your bad choices.
    Obviously I’m extremely passionate about this subject!

    Sara Pozonsky wrote on October 21st, 2010
    • your statements are unqualified and require research. You say farmed fish are fed antibiotics so they don’t get sea lice. First off some fish are farmed in fresh water where they don’t get sea lice – the clue is in the name. How would antibiotics even stop fish getting lice? Lice are parasitic animals not a disease. It is commendable that you are passionate about this subject, but you may get more credibility if you avoid sweeping generalisations and by understanding some of the terms that you use.

      peter wrote on June 28th, 2011
  3. A debate on my (our) health has no place for radical comments like Sara’s. The entire food supply in America is suspect, and we all have to pay attention to what we are being asked to consume. As a side bar, I was just grumbling about what they have managed to do to our fruits and veggies – they all taste like cardboard. I hope some you you are old enough to remember when peaches were sweet and apples soft and juicy.
    Whether or not this becomes an “advertisement” for Alaska Salmon, we still have to get the truth out about what is Nutritious and what is harmful.

    And speaking of advertising, Sara, aren’t you advertising for the farms?

    Lee wrote on October 30th, 2010
  4. thanks for that informative article. it just goes to show again, that natural is better.
    healthy energy

    tom wrote on November 1st, 2010
  5. Wild Alaskan salmon are the best. I believe it comes from one of the least polluted waters.

    Jeff wrote on November 13th, 2010
  6. So many self-annointed experts….

    Washington, Oregon,California and Alaska all have a mix of truly wild as well as hatchery reared stocks of salmon. In WA, OR and CA it has been the hatchery reared stocks which have supported their respective commercial fisheries for years. However, due to the risk those hatchery may pose to truly wild (genetically) runs hatchery operations are currently being reviewed with the potential for substantially reduced releases. That will result in fewer returning fish coupled with a push to selective harvest – meaning truly wild fish identified by a lack of fin clipping will have to be released. So, expect to see less truly wild and/or hatchery origin salmon from those three Pacific states.

    A couple of other facts:

    Pink salmon is not a species propogated in hatcheries. It is a lower quality salmon species that is doing quite well in its normal range.

    WA is currently bringing on line a hatchery for sockeye salmon (Cedar River, tributary to Lake Washington).

    The “fact” which Sara presented that salmon from WA are contaminated by fish farms in BC is, well, laughable. Sara, exactly how does that occur? There is certainly a problem with young salmon from BC being exposed to high concentrations of sea lice as they out migrate but sea lice are a problem because they cause the death of the young fish rather than some form of “contamination” as suggested. Also, all Pacific salmon mature at sea and to varying degrees co-mingle. Oh, and Sara seems to have ignored that WA also has fish farms. Maybe Sara needs to do more research on U.S. issues before she moves on to become an expert on Western Pacific salmon (not exclusively Russia).

    Fact: There simply is not enough wild/hatchery reared salmon available to meet current demand. If you want the really good stuff you will be paying an increasing price. Oh, and the “best” salmon (taste) are those with the highest amount of fat to sustain them in the rivers as they travel to distant spawning grounds; Columbia River Spring Chinook, Copper River Chinook come to mind. fslmonrcherywill

    Larry B wrote on November 21st, 2010
  7. Look – this debate is healthy even though I disagree with some of your points because it gets us talking about a very important subject.

    Regardless of our disagreements, I think we all agree that we need to stick to wild salmon NO FARMED. Always ask your server/seafood market where the fish is from and where/when it was caught.

    Sara Pozonsky wrote on November 22nd, 2010
    • Regardless of our disagreements, I think we all agree that if I was the owner of the Wild Alaskan Salmon Company I would say that we need to stick to wild salmon NO FARMED. Always ask your server/seafood market where I can get Wild Alaskan Salmon Company fish.

      Your statements reveal their objectivity if you state your allegiances and if there is any financial gain to be had by stating them.

      peter wrote on June 28th, 2011
  8. We’ve been buying only wild salmon for a while now. We’ve noticed that it is becoming harder to find. Sams club used to sell it, then stopped, then sporadically carried it, then poof, gone. They have this Norwegian ocean farmed in fjords (??) and of course farm raised from chile. Other stores used to sell wild salmon, excellent quality from brunos (coho) really, they have recently stopped carrying too, only farm raised now. Wal Mart sells frozen, wild caught salmon that is caught in the pacific and processed in China, so I am leary of it. If only the agribusinesses would stop messing with our food. These people have the morals of pimps. They are purposely poisoning us. I’m sure they don’t eat what they sell, they probably all shop at whole foods and have never seen the inside of a walmart where their wallets are fattened daily. That might be your best health choice: don’t shop at walmart, the food is about 90% unhealthy there. Our local one shuttered their fresh seafood and shrunk the produce section, also removed most of the organic/kosher foods they used to carry, all in a 3 month period. I guess healthy eating isn’t profitable? Or they were told to get with the program by someone. Sorry for the rant, the systematic destruction of our populace on multiple fronts (moral, nutritional, financial) really irks me. Fortunately for me, God is on our side, due to our Covenant with Him. He is your best “whole health” benefit. Follow God’s Laws and you’ll be all right.

    Todd wrote on December 11th, 2010
  9. ‘Some of the reasons it’s so darn expensive? The flood of farmed fish (and subsequent drop in asking price) has forced many traditional fishermen/women out of business.’

    Look at a basic supply-demand diagram. High prices are due to limited and difficult supply. If demand is lower for wild salmon (because of consumers substituting farmer fish), that would actually correlate to a lower price.

    shannon wrote on February 23rd, 2011
  10. Being a former Alaskan, I am partial to wild Alaskan salmon, your article sort of cements it in.

    Arlene wrote on March 6th, 2011
  11. Mark,

    What are your thoughts on the new Whole Foods standards for farm raised salmon? Do you think their standards make their farmed raised salmon a healthy choice?


    Brian wrote on March 8th, 2011
  12. The only way you can get wild Atlantic salmon now is if you catch it, or know someone that caught it wild. There is a commercial fishing moratorium on Atlantic salmon due to overfishing (yay earth wtg). 80% of the salmon is farmed yes, the other 20% is most likely Pacific salmon from Alaska, where we haven’t yet depleted the natural resources – that would be Sockeye, Coho, Keta, or King to name a few.

    Two good websites to look at are the Monterey, CA Aquarium’s FishWatch, and the NOAA website –

    Both have very good info on all fish types.

    You may want to consider writing an article on Orange Roughy too – my favorite fish until I found out the non -eco friendly farming methods and decided not to eat it :( They don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 30 years old, and can live to be 100 (yes, these tidbits are on the NOAA website!) Oh…and it’s original name? Slimehead LOL :)

    Chris Tucker wrote on April 5th, 2011
  13. Nobody seems to notice that the “farmed” has no taste, excessive fat (never get to swim in the ocean), is fatty & mushy…etc., as well as the environmental damge, lack of omega-3’s, excessive omega-6’s, etc. AND you can get frozen WILD salmon year ’round, for about half the price (salmon freezes well). So, why bother? GO WILD!!

    Thomas Tizard wrote on May 2nd, 2011
    • Farmed salmon generally live in the ocean, therefore they swim in the ocean.

      peter wrote on June 28th, 2011
  14. After reading The Primal Blueprint cover to cover, I decided to hunt down some wild salmon. Was I ever happy to find out that mid-June is the time when fresh wild salmon is available in the meat markets. I bought some, froze a bunch of it, but broiled a fresh piece. Oh my goodness! There is absolutely NO comparison between the taste(lessness) of farmed salmon and wild caught. You can see right off the bat by the color of the fish that it is going to taste better and be better for you. I’d MUCH rather have less of the wild caught (due to higher price) than a lot of the farmed stuff. Grok on!

    Lori wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  15. The majority of Atlantic farmed salmon still has more Omega-3 than Omega-6. The percentage of fatty acids varies from 12.5%-37% n-3, and 2.2-17% n-6. As it is fattier than wild salmon it may contain more absolute quantities of n-3 than wild salmon.

    It is not correct to say that the net omega-3 gain is less than wild salmon.


    Mike wrote on June 23rd, 2011
  16. You don^t need all that much Omega-3 to begin with to recieve the health benefits of Omega-3. so what if farmed salmon has a little less.Too much omega-3 can pose health issues. Farmed salmon allows an abundance of good,nutritious,food at cheaper prices.Just don&t eat it everyday,twice a week is good.If we left all plants(fruits & vegetables)alone without pesticide,many would not be available all year round,they would be much more x-pensive & we would suffer more because of the impressive lack of variety. There is no scientific evidence that links cancer to eating farmed fish moderateltely

    kim wrote on June 25th, 2011
  17. It’s very difficult to find wild salmon in Spain and costs about 6x the price of Norwegian farmed salmon (say $35 per pound). I’m kind of going off farmed salmon though. It just doesn’t smell like fish when raw. It has an odour of feed pellets, or what I can only describe as a farm smell rather than a fresh fish smell. It is also rather flabby and fatty.

    Mike wrote on June 26th, 2011
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    Elmer Haustein wrote on June 29th, 2011
  19. Hi, Mark .
    what do you think about Norway’s production of salmon . Is it good enought?
    see for example.


    Sergey wrote on August 5th, 2011
  20. I refuse to eat farmed salmon before I even heard of the PB! I think it tastes fishier (a definite drawback for me) and once I heard what an environmental nightmare it was, I refused to eat it at all. I also knew of the reduced nutritional value before this as well.

    Lazerguppie wrote on August 9th, 2011
  21. i think you might be misinformed on the Canthaxanthin issue:
    Canthaxanthin (pronounced /ˌkænθəˈzænθɪn/ ( listen)) is a carotenoid pigment widely distributed in nature. Carotenoids belong to a larger class of phytochemicals known as terpenoids. from the Food Standards agency: it is believed that canthaxanthin and some other carotenoids may have positive nutritional effects on the diet – they are believed to act as dietary antioxidants.
    also the farmed fish from Chile was shown to have less Dioxins than the wild fish. Most of our Salmon here in the U.S. is from Chile not North America where the high levels of Dioxins were found. overall if we dont have aquaculture we wont have enough fish to eat! the aquaculture industry needs to address the antibiotics issue and the effluence issue, but we cant just ignore the benefits of farming fish.

    john wrote on September 6th, 2011
  22. Great article! Most sashimi salmon will be farmed salmon, because it is available year-round. Alaska does produce most of the wild salmon in the U.S., but hatcheries do contribute nearly 1/3 of the current marketed catch (pinks, then chum or “silver bright” salmon). All sockeye are truly wild (and delicious). The hatchery releases are closely managed in Alaska and are labeled as “wild caught”, but Russia, Japan, and China are building hatcheries and flooding the North Pacific (now at 500 billion salmon released annually), potentially affecting the food source for truly wild salmon stocks.

    ron medel wrote on September 21st, 2011
  23. people wake up most “wild alaskan” is from a hatchery… this

    it’s all a scam. i’m sick of these people. no one is honest anymore

    may wrote on October 12th, 2011
    • You are being dishonest because you are making comments without knowing ALL the facts. A lot of the PINK salmon from Alaska are born in hatcheries and are released into the wild soon after. No Sockeye and very few King salmon are from hatcheries. Hatchery fish are not drugged throughout their life and do not pollute the inshore waters like farmed salmon. I’m sick of people that read one story then assume that they are now an expert…. Far from it. Go back to sleep.

      Jim Naylor wrote on October 12th, 2011
  24. I read every posting. I am getting ready to buy more canned kippered herring. The brands I buy are King Oscar , Appel and Polar the last two are alledgely from Germany and wild caught. We always look and purchase wild caught fish except my wife who eats Talapia. When I saw eating one serving of salmon per month I got ill. I eat kippers for breakfast almost every morning for forty years. I eat fish at lunch from fried catfish to blue gill and sushi at least half of my other meals. I eat meat less then a dozen times a year. I am obese however have lower then normal blood pressure a resting pulse of 58 blood test and physicals every six months. I just ordered 64 six oz. cans of wild caught herring.
    If anyone has any difinitive answeres on over indulging in fish. Presently consuming almosy 3,000 calories per day in fish. I would need some guidence.

    muggsy maguire wrote on October 30th, 2011
  25. So very biased in your facts. Does EWG write your analysis? Maybe to be fair you should mention that the dyes used are made from the same carotenoids that wild salmon get their color from. Also the carotenoid canthaxanthin is the only one shown to cause retinal damage and it’s use is strictly controlled. One would need to eat 3kg of farm raised salmon daily to be harmed. I find the remainder of your analysis on nutrition is essentially accurate though outdated. The information on toxins is likewise outdated and misleading.

    Terry wrote on November 27th, 2011
  26. I have a question, I am trying to find where to purchase canned Atlantic Salmon and am having no luck, could you please help me? Thank you.

    Diane wrote on December 1st, 2011
  27. Hi Mark!

    I live in Malaysia where it is impossible to get wild salmon or so I thought. recently I came across frozen wild Alaska salmon fillets sold in boxes by a brand called Queens. it even has a note to say that it’s certified sustainable fishing. have u heard of this brand? I cooked it tonight n thought it somewhat different from the regular farmed salmon- it wasn’t as pink, wasn’t as oily/ fatty n the flesh seemed tougher or drier(but that could be my bad cooking!). would really appreciate if u can help me out here Mark. thanks!

    Sue Ng wrote on April 22nd, 2012
    • What about organic farmed salmon? Where does that sit on the scale?

      Orielwen wrote on May 6th, 2012
  28. I often find wild salmon in resturants are far too salty. Farm salmon is fine especially smoked salmon, which is as tasty as any other kind of cooked salmon. Smoked salmon usuaily means farmed salmon and going back to wild would hit the supply and cost of quality smoked salmon. If you talk to sellers and supplier of salmon they say pretty much the same thing, only some resturants will say differently but not, strange enough, many of the working chefs.

    Mike Morden wrote on July 19th, 2012
  29. I’ve just come to your website as my daughter told me I was eating too much salmon and it contained PCB. I have now read the contents of your research and quite frankly horrified by what I read. Why on earth are Government bodies permitting fish farmers to use additives to fish feed knowing such to cause cancer? I suppose one might retort they permit cigarettes to be manufactured and sold so what’s the difference. It’s sheer lunacy and criminal as far as I’m concerned. Only wild salmon for me from this moment on, and in small quantities.

    Mike turnbull wrote on July 25th, 2012
  30. alexandru balteanu wrote on July 28th, 2012
  31. Hmm was doing some research on wild versus farmed and ran into a couple of interesting papers. This one by the university of California agriculture division

    Table 1. USDA Nutrition Information for 100 Grams of Edible Cooked (Dry Heat) Farmed
    and Wild Salmon
    Calories Protein
    Fat (g) Saturated
    Fat (g)
    Atlantic 206 22.1 12.3 2.5 61 63 2.1
    Coho 178 24.3 8.2 1.9 52 63 1.2
    231 25.7 13.3 3.2 60 85 1.7
    216 27.3 10.9 1.9 66 87 1.2
    139 23.4 4.3 1.0 58 55 1.0
    149 25.5 4.4 0.7 86 67 1.3
    Chum (Keta) 154 25.8 4.8 1.0 64 95 0.8
    1Omega-3 values equal the sum of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid

    The chart is at the link in case it’s unreadable here.

    Kim wrote on August 2nd, 2012
  32. Yo, the “farmed salmon doesn’t can well” link doesn’t work. Which is a shame, because I am really suspicious that most canned salmon is farmed…

    Dan W wrote on November 1st, 2012
  33. This is worth a look ….

    Mike wrote on December 30th, 2012
  34. Thank you for the article. I’m dealing with spinal trama and the least bit of inflammation makes me sick for days. The Nutrition data site notes the differences in inflammation level in farmed Salmon as being very inflammatory and wild being very anti-inflammatory.

    I can definitely tell the difference after eating farmed vs wild. About 12-24 hours of pain from spinal swelling and nerve pressure.

    Von wrote on January 10th, 2013
  35. Thank you for this great post. I live in Greece and it is difficult to find wild salmon here. Whenever we go out for dinner, anywhere in Europe, and salmon is on the menu I ask the server if the salmon is wild and 9 out of 10 times they do not know!

    I was just in England in a posh little cafe and they had no idea where the salmon came from but assured me it was good quality. Ummmmm, no thanks!

    Have a wonderful week!!
    ~ Anika

    Anika wrote on August 20th, 2013
  36. This information is outdated. And no one seems to mind that the wild salmon population is greatly supported by hatchery-released fish. What is important about farm-raised is the size of the pens and locations of same.We were all raise d on wonderbread so chill out.

    peter huston wrote on February 24th, 2014
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  39. I have seen a lot of salmon farms. None look like the picture you show. That looks like an Alaskan salmon ranch. Where they farm it primitively like your picture and then release it, and catch it and call it wild. Farmed salmon is never canned because it is or way too high of quality to stick in a can. Wild salmon often must be canned because you wouldn’t recognize the boot trodden fish if it was attempted to be sold whole. I know where a farmed salmon has been….I don’t know how long a wild fish has sat on a boat. Farmed salmon as it is raised in Canada, is raised as good as any free ranged farm animal. And there are often cycles where no antibiotics are used at all!

    Wild salmon has been found often with more PCB’s then farm salmon. Most sources of Chicken and Beef also have more PCB’s than farmed salmon.

    The feed fed to farm salmon is of a very high quality, and very expensive.

    Say what you want, but the benefits of eating farmed salmon FAR out weigh the risks. Like walking to work….is it really good for you when you could easily be struck by a car and killed? Stay home and eat farmed salmon! Mm mm.

    You information is definitely negative and biased. There are charts like you show that have completely different results.

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