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That ‘All-Natural’ Smoked Atlantic Salmon You Bought? It Came from an Industrial Fish Farm

Whether you’re looking to treat yourself to a breakfast garnished with smoked salmon, or planning to serve up pre-dinner appetizers of sliced smoked salmon atop crackers, buyer beware: When it comes to the claims made on smoked Atlantic salmon packages and websites, brands are often just blowing smoke.

Popular smoked Atlantic salmon brands entice consumers with promises like “premium,” “all natural,” “super fresh” and “healthy and nutritious.”

Some brands claim their products are “sustainably sourced.” On the issue of animal welfare, one owner of multiple smoked Atlantic salmon brands claims on its website that the company’s approach to fish health and welfare is “second to none.”

It all sounds great to the consumer. But here’s the real deal: All of these smoked Atlantic salmon products are made from salmon raised on massive industrial fish farms, and in some cases, nowhere near the Atlantic Ocean.

In fact, commercial fishing of Atlantic salmon—a species once abundant in the wild but now nearly extinct—is prohibited in the U.S. In the Gulf of Maine, they are even protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Similarly, in Canada, wild Atlantic salmon in the Bay of Fundy (located in the Gulf of Maine) are protected under the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk.

That means all Atlantic salmon sold to consumers in food stores and restaurants—whether fresh, frozen, or smoked—comes from industrial salmon farms.

Which begs the question: Would you consider salmon sourced from an industrial fish farm, where the fish are crammed into net pens or giant land-based tanks, “all natural?”

How about if the salmon’s diet consisted of a cocktail of chemicals (to prevent sea lice infestations) and antibiotics—like terramycin, florfenicol and sulfamerazinedeemed highly important for human health, by the World Health Organization?

Would you think that salmon raised in floating factory farms which threaten marine life and habitats by discharging things like heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides and untreated fish waste into the ocean could be truthfully marketed as “sustainably” or “responsibly” produced?

Here’s a wild idea: Unless the label on your smoked salmon includes the words “wild” or “wild caught,” (words you’ll find on Sockeye or King salmon, but never on packages of Atlantic salmon), there’s probably nothing “natural” or “sustainably sourced” about it.

We took a look at some popular brands of smoked Atlantic salmon, and the product claims made by the companies behind those brands. Health-conscious consumers, including those who also care about the environment and animal rights, may want to think twice about taking these claims at face value.

Blue Hill Bay—what’s in a name?

Blue Hill Bay is the name of a bay near Acadia National Park, in Maine. The bay is described as being popular for its “wide open stretches of protected water” and being located in an area “recognized for its natural beauty,” much of which is “also preserved for wildlife.”

If you were a consumer, you’d probably like the idea that your salmon came from such a beautiful, pristine body of water, right?

As it turns out, Blue Hill Bay smoked Atlantic salmon is owned and sold by Acme Smoked Fish Corp., which doesn’t even have operations in Maine.

A family-owned company, Acme operates three smoking facilities: one each in Brooklyn, N.Y., Pompano Beach, Florida, and Wilmington, N.C. Acme also operates its own production facility, in Chile, which the company said gives Acme’s U.S. smoking operations “control of raw materials.”

For Acme, “raw materials” means salmon. And a “raw material” facility in Chile can mean only one thing: an industrial salmon farm.

Chile exports about $5 billion of farmed salmon annually, most of it branded “Atlantic Salmon” even though Chile’s coast is on the Pacific Ocean. (“Atlantic” in this case refers to the species. Farmed “Atlantic” salmon is raised from hybrid stock). According to this November 2019 report, on Chile’s salmon farms, the fish are “crammed into football-field-sized enclosures,” where chemicals and antibiotics are used to keep yields high and prevent disease outbreaks.

According to a 2017 report by Oceana, Chile’s salmon farmers might be applying “more drugs per ton of meat than any other fish or livestock industry in the world.” That makes industrial fish farming a huge contributor to the global antibiotic-resistance crisis, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says causes up to 3 million infections and 48,000 deaths each year—and that’s just in the U.S.

Unfortunately, when it comes to seafood, the U.S. Country of Origin Labeling law applies only to fresh seafood. And the law puts the onus on the supermarket, not the supplier, to tell consumers where the fish came from.

Consumers who look to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Guide for advice on how to buy responsibly sourced salmon, won’t find smoked salmon brands listed. However, they will find this:

“Farmed Atlantic salmon is a ‘Good Alternative’ from the following sources: 1) Maine; 2) British Columbia, Canada; 3) Scotland’s Orkney Islands; 4) the Faroe Islands; 5) Verlasso and Blue Circle Foods brands; and 6) worldwide when produced in indoor recirculating tanks without wastewater treatment.

Could this be why Acme named its smoked salmon product after a bay in Maine—to take advantage of this popular seafood guide’s recommendation?

It’s important to point out that the Monterey Bay guide follows the above statement with this warning:

For these sources, most environmental impacts (or the risk of impacts) are rated moderate concerns.  . . When Atlantic salmon are farmed in recirculating systems without wastewater treatment, the feed ingredients are the biggest concern, and effluent, chemicals and disease are also rated moderate concerns.

Apart from misleading consumers to believe Blue Hill Bay Atlantic salmon is fished out of a bay on the Atlantic ocean, the company states on the package—not once, but twice—that the farmed-fish product is “all natural.”

Acme sells other brands of smoked salmon, including “All Natural” Nova smoked Atlantic salmon (also presumably raised in the company’s Chile-based farms), and Ruby Bay smoked Atlantic salmon.

Acme’s Ruby Bay brand (Ruby Bay is in New Zealand) is certified organic under EU regulations that set organic standards for industrially farmed fish. The regulations set standards for things like maximum stocking density. The regs also specify that biodiversity "should be respected and does not allow the use of induced spawning by artificial hormones.”

In the U.S., the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not established organic standards for farmed fish, though discussions have been ongoing for years. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration does publish a list of Approved Aquaculture Drugs. It’s a doozy—and again, raises the question: Can fish consuming these drug cocktails really be “all natural?”

Ducktrap River of Maine—sourced from Chile?

Ducktrap offers a variety of wild and farmed smoked salmon products. Popular smoked Atlantic brands include Ducktrap Kendall Brook and Ducktrap Spruce Point, both of which are made with farmed fish—and both of which make the “All Natural” claim on the packaging.

Ducktrap brands also include “All Natural” “Made in USA” smoked Atlantic salmon, and Ducktrap Organic Smoked Atlantic salmon (certified to EU organic standards). Both brands, sold at Walmart, are sourced from industrial farms—that are not in the “USA.”

Unlike Blue Hill Bay, Ducktrap River of Maine does at least have operations in Maine, but those operations are limited exclusively to smoking. The Atlantic salmon Ducktrap imports for its smoking operations is sourced, as stated on the company’s website, from “our own farms in Scotland, Norway, Iceland and Chile.”

What Ducktrap River of Maine doesn’t publicize on its packaging and website is that the brand is owned by Norway-based Mowi, the world’s largest producer of Atlantic salmon products, including smoked Atlantic salmon products.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Ducktrap doesn’t brag about its connection to Mowi, a company that’s had its fair share of bad press. In February, according to this report in Salmon Business, 1.5 million juvenile salmon died in Mowi’s brand new hatchery in Northern Norway, most likely from acute sulfur poisoning.

The sulfur poisoning news came just a month after Mowi had revealed that in late 2019, more than 74,000 salmon escaped from one of its industrial farms in Scotland, posing a threat to the area’s wild fish stocks. It was the third major escape in a year’s time.

Still, Mowi hasn’t been able to totally protect its Ducktrap brand. The brand is named in a class action lawsuit filed against Mowi and other Norwegian industrial fish farms for conspiring “to drive up the prices of farm-raised Atlantic salmon in an ‘unprecedented and unjustified’ scheme that resulted in record profits.”

That hardly sounds like a quaint little company doing business in Maine.

Mowi’s website is loaded with claims about how the salmon used in its products, including Ducktrap River of Maine, are “all natural,” “100% natural” or produced “all naturally with no artificial ingredients or preservatives.” Those claims are at odds with what most consumers would expect from a product produced with pesticides, antibiotics and other drugs.

Mowi also claims to be “leading the blue revolution,” and says it’s “very proud of producing food that is healthy for people and good for local communities and the planet.”

But that characterization is at odds with scientists who describe the crowded fish farming methods used by companies like Mowi as “stressful high-density conditions” that far exceed what salmon would experience in the wild.

In fact, conditions at Mowi facilities in Scotland have been rated by OneKind, a Scotland-based animal welfare organization, as some of the industry’s worst due to premature mortality rates, sea lice infestations, stress levels, overstocking, genetic deformities and escapes, and other factors. OneKind ranked Mowi overall as the second-worst farmed fish producer on animal welfare.

True North—making untrue product and practice claims?

The True North brand of smoked Atlantic salmon is the only one of the three brands we looked at that doesn’t incorporate any Maine-specific references in its brand name. Yet oddly enough, it’s the only one that sources its salmon from Maine-based operations, including industrial salmon farms and processing plants.

True North is owned by Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture, which operates industrial salmon farms off the coast of Maine, and also in Canada, Scotland and Chile.

On its website, Cooke says this

“Our obsession with delicious, fresh seafood has been in our DNA ever since the day our ancestors began fishing the waters of the Bay of Fundy six generations ago. Like our grandparents, we’re proud to spend our days living and working alongside our neighbors and friends in coastal communities. Fishing is in our blood. It drives us to innovate – to stay true to you, the environment and true to ourselves. It’s our guiding principle. It’s our ‘True North.’”

Somebody’s grandparents may have actually fished the waters of Bay of Fundy back in the day—but nobody at Cooke Aquaculture is actually “fishing” for Atlantic salmon, in the Bay of Fundy or anywhere else, these days.

The real story behind Cooke’s “fishing” operations in Maine was revealed in this undercover video, “Sea of Suffering,” where one of Cooke’s industrial facilities was described as a “filthy environment” creating the “perfect conditions for fungi and parasites.”

The video, produced in October 2019 by the animal welfare group, Compassion Over Killing, shows employees talking about spinal deformities and fungal infections. According to one person in the film, the filthy conditions mean that the salmon have to be vaccinated, which “stresses them out” so much that it takes about a week for the fish to start eating again.

But you won’t read any of that on the True North or Cooke websites. You also won’t read the news about how last year, Cooke was ordered by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to pay a $156,213 fine for having too many fish in one or more pens, failing to conduct environmental sampling, and failing to follow a variety of clerical procedures that include timely filing of complete and accurate pollution sampling reports and timely submissions of fish spill prevention plans—all violations of the company’s operating permit, DEP rules and state law.

Instead, you’ll read about how Cooke “ . . .started with pure, fresh fish.” And this:

“For us, staying true to the ocean is how we stay true to ourselves, our community, and our future. And that’s why we fish and farm with care – to ensure long- term social, economic, and environmental sustainability.”

And on packages of True North smoked Atlantic salmon, you’ll read how the product is “sustainably farmed in the clear waters of the Gulf of Maine.”

All three brands—Blue Hill Bay, Ducktrap and True North—are national brands, in that they can be purchased online. Some are sold regionally or nationally in retail grocery stores.

But all make labeling and marketing claims that are misleading if not downright false. The best option for consumers: Go wild.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.

More on industrial salmon farms:

Farmed Salmon = Most Toxic Food in the World 

Friends of the Earth report: The Dangers of Industrial Ocean Fish Farming

Factory Farmed Salmon Full of Disease and Hazardous Chemicals

Farmed Salmon Contaminated With Synthetic Tire Chemical

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