Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The Wild Salmon/Farmed Salmon Debate


There are plenty of reasons to eat salmon: it tastes good; it’s easy to cook and it’s healthy. Salmon consumption has increased in the last decade since it is one of the best sources of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids.  Americans probably eat more tuna and shrimp, but salmon follows a close third.  A salmon dish is usually found on most upscale restaurant menus.

When you go to the fish counter in your supermarket, you often see a choice of wild Pacific salmon and the other type simply called Atlantic salmon. The wild salmon is often terribly expensive while the Atlantic salmon is much more easy on the budget.  Just what is the difference?   The best way is to look at the life cycle of each one.


If you choose the Atlantic salmon, chances are that it is farm raised. Wild Atlantic salmon have been overfished and raised in polluted waters in Europe and North America to the point that they barely exist anymore and are now on The Endangered Species List.

A farmed salmon begins its life surgically extracted from an egg and sperm union and then possibly shipped to its birthplace such as a hatchery or fish farm in British Columbia, Washington, Scotland, Japan, Chile, New Brunswick or New Zealand.  After its incubation, it hatches and called a fry and kept in freshwater tanks that are slowly made more salty.  When the fish is about 8-10 inches long, it is given antibiotics to keep it from the many infectious diseases found in the crowded tank called a net pen that may contain thousands of fish. They remain there until they are about 12-18 months old. They are naturally carnivores but are fed fish pellets containing fish, fish oils, sometimes grains, nutrients and color enhancers.  It takes about 2-5 pounds of smaller fish to feed 1 pound of farmed salmon.  The color enhancer is called astaxanthin, a carotenoid from commercially grown red yeast or algae.

The young salmon are then transferred to cages along the seashore and kept there until maturity.  After a couple of years, the fish are harvested, given time to rid itself of wastes, killed and packaged, iced and shipped.


When you choose the wild salmon, it’s lifestyle (although not easy) is quite a contrast from the farmed fish.  These fish are more seasonal, usually available from May to October.  These salmon are called Pacifics – chum, sockeye, Chinooks, Coho,  and pinks (mostly for canning).  They run wild spending their younger days in rivers and their later years at sea.

The mother salmon swim for many days, and then finds a gravelly spot, where she makes a depression with her tail.  There she lays as many as 10,000 orange-red roe.  After the male fertilizes the eggs, they hatch 3-5 months later.  The fry stick close to the bottom, and eat larvae and small crustacea.

They live a year or two (if they make it) and move downstream.  Here they live in brackish water and adjust to the salt water.  After that they enter the North Pacific and eat other fish, mollusks, krill and other planktonic crustacea that have eaten red algae.  This diet turns the flesh pink and rich in omega-3 fats

The spawning process is not an easy one.  Only small percentages make it back to their original spawning stream.  They don’t feed once they leave the ocean and some will die on the way back due to malnutrition and lack of stored body fat.   Some are trapped in fishermen’s nets or some may have to swim in polluted waters near cities. Some may have to fight waterfalls and rapids; others fall prey to otters, eagles, and bears.  When they reach the spawning grounds, the females may have to compete for nesting places and the males fight males for available females.

So what’s the best choice ?  Most believe that wild salmon are the healthiest, but there are pros and cons for each that concern taste, health, cost,  and impact on the environment.

Farm-raised contain more carcinogens (PCBs, dioxins and pesticide residues), antibiotic residues, and mercury.  Yet, some experts believe the levels of those chemicals are still so low, that it’s not going to cause harm.  It is often recommended that pregnant women and nursing mothers as well as young children eat most fish in moderation due to the dangers of contaminants.

The effects on the environment may be less with the wild salmon as the farmed salmon can deplete fish stocks and waste if not properly managed and can harm plant and animal life.   As far as taste goes, sometimes farmed fish may have more consistent flavors than wild – but sometimes the wild type are better.   Cost may be a big factor for many people in the long run with the wild types much pricier than the farm raised.  It is generally thought that the wild salmon contain more omega-3 fats than the farm-raised.  Either way, we still get a healthy dose of omega-3 fats from either type.

Shopping tips:

  • If you can’t find Alaskan salmon locally order it online (will be pricey).
  • If you don’t see a label, assume it’s farmed.
  • Don’t pay more for organic salmon.  There are no standards for fish in the U.S.
  • If you buy farmed salmon, eat it in moderation; grill, bake or broil so that the fat drops off while cooking and remove any skin to help cut your exposure to contaminants.

The omega-3 fatty acid content can vary from fish to fish.  The following table may give some information as to the best sources of these fats from fish.  Other good sources are flax seed, walnuts, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil.  The recommendation is from 7-11 grams a week.


Source Total omega-3 fatty acids
Salmon, cold water, fresh or frozen, cooked  4 oz 1.7 grams
Salmon, canned 4 oz. 2.2 grams
Sardines 4 oz. 1.8 grams
Mackerel 4 oz. 2.2 grams

Source: Minnesota Nutrient Database



4 thoughts on “The Wild Salmon/Farmed Salmon Debate

  1. Pingback: AgriMarine To Supply Pacific Salmon To Grocery Chain Safeway - U.S. Green Technology

  2. Thanks for the information. I did not realize the big difference between the two and the wide variation in different species. Looks like the databases are certainly not very accurate. Another plus for wild salmon.


  3. Very interesting and well researched article! Thank you for sharing.
    I also found out that farmed salmon contains much less vitamin D than wild salmon. This may be a surprise to a lot of people since salmon is known to be one of the best sources of vitamin D.
    I have written a blog post on this and I invite your comments:


  4. Pingback: How do you smoke salmon? | Smoke

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