Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) is by far the most cultured of all the salmon species. Its natural populations are distributed across the basin of the North Atlantic Ocean from the Arctic Circle to Portugal in the eastern Atlantic, from Iceland and southern Greenland, and from the Ungava region of northern Quebec south to the Connecticut River. The species has also been widely introduced throughout the Southern Hemisphere for aquaculture production. Atlantic salmon were once virtually eliminated from most of their native range in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, but restocking efforts over the past century have re-established them in many watersheds. Of the seven species of Pacific salmon, five can be found in U.S. and Canadian waters, including coho, pink, sockeye, chum and chinook (also commonly called king salmon). Coho and chinook salmon are farmed on a much smaller scale as compared to Atlantic salmon.
Atlantic salmon are cultured extensively at state and federal facilities throughout the northeast for restoration efforts and recreational stocking. Historically, there have been very few private producers of Atlantic salmon in the U.S., and even fewer operations focusing on Pacific species. The 2018 Census of Aquaculture reported only seven companies producing and selling food-size Atlantic salmon, with several others selling eggs, fry or juveniles. One operation reported production of market size Pacific salmon. With the emergence of recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) salmon production these numbers may grow over the next decade. However, in spite of several examples of successful RAS operations there have been a number of problems with this technology so the jury is still out.
One Atlantic salmon female can produce 7,500 or more eggs, and Atlantic salmon broodfish do not die after spawning. Salmon are a cold water species, and eggs should be incubated at 42 degrees F. Some operations maintain their own breeding stocks and hatchery facilities, while others focus solely on grow-out and rely on outside suppliers for eggs, fry or juveniles. Each approach has specific technical and economic advantages and disadvantages, and economies of scale usually determine which strategy will make the most sense.
Part of the salmon life cycle occurs in freshwater and part in saltwater. The bulk of farmed salmon produced around the world is raised in a combination of land-based hatcheries and nurseries followed by grow-out in large cages in the sea. However, over the past decade a number of RAS facilities have been proposed or recently constructed. While some have already established a successful track record, others have experienced numerous technical and operational issues. RAS production of salmon differs from traditional methods employed for warm water species, since higher protein diets require additional biofiltration capacity even as the maintenance of cooler temperatures slows the bacterial biofiltration process to some extent.
Regulatory hurdles abound for potential salmon culturists. Due to a changing regulatory environment, there are very few options for establishing cage culture operations in regions that are cold enough to support Atlantic, coho or chinook salmon. Siting an ocean pen operation typically requires local, state and federal permits and licenses. And when developing recirculating production facilities producers must deal with local zoning issues, permits from various local and state agencies, and discharge restrictions for both effluents and filtered sludge material.
In 2020 the main suppliers of farmed Atlantic salmon to the U.S. were Chile, Canada and Norway. The largest supplier of imported product was Chile, with a volume of 192,385,546 kg (424,137,527 lb.) and a value of $1,803,668,941. Canada took second place in terms of volume, with 77,751,613 kg (171,412,965 lb.) valued at $573,391,530. Norway reported a volume of only 46,189,015 kg (101,829,347 lb.) and a total value of $592,471,187, clearly commanding a higher price in the marketplace. Cold storage and distribution channels for imported product are efficient and well-established in most developed nations, including the U.S.
NOAA’s Fisheries of the U.S. report indicates that American consumers ate an average of 3.1 pounds of salmon in 2019, with this value representing an increase of more than half a pound over the prior year. The bulk of this consumption was accounted for by imported fillets purchased in restaurants or retail outlets, as well as canned products. Farmed Atlantic salmon has truly become a commodity in the U.S. seafood industry, to the point where market entry is extremely difficult for small, independent operations. Even if a salmon producer’s marketing plan involves a unique, high-quality product for high-end markets, a significant investment will be required and there may always be some potential for competition from commodity-grade imports. And, due to high capital and operating costs, even the largest RAS salmon producers have experienced difficulty maintaining reasonable profit margins.
- U.S. Trade in Fishery Products https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/foss/f?p=215:2:10127503492079::NO::: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington D.C., 2021.
- Fisheries of the U.S., 2019 https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/resource/document/fisheries-united-states-2019 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Washington D.C., 2021.
- Atlantic Salmon https://www.fao.org/fishery/affris/species-profiles/atlantic-salmon/atlantic-salmon-home/en/ Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, FAO, UN, Rome, 2021.
- Global Agricultural Trade System (GATS) https://apps.fas.usda.gov/GATS/default.aspx Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), USDA.
Prepared by C. Greg Lutz, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center