Monday, March 12, 2012

International Boston Seafood Show: Verlasso Farmed Salmon

"Fish, to taste right, must swim three times -in water, in butter, and in wine."
--Polish proverb

According to the Seafood Watch, all Farmed Salmon is listed as an Avoid. There are concerns about the amount of food needed to raise them, the environmental impact, diseases and parasites, and potential escapes. Yet we must note this is a generalization, and the warning does not address any specific salmon farms that might actually be doing matters in a responsible and sustainable manner. In addition, the Report attached to their advisory is from April 2004, almost eight years old, and there certainly have been changes in the industry since that time. A new report is certainly warranted.

Salmon farming generally began in Norway in 1970, and Norway has led such farming ever since. In 2011, about 1.5 million metric tons of salmon were farmed worldwide and Norway produced 983,000 metric tons, over 65% of the total. Chile came in second place, farming 220,000 metric tons with the United Kingdom at 151,000 metric tons, Canada at 113,000 metric tons, and all other nations at a total of 127,000 metric tons. Despite the controversy, it is a significant industry and some salmon farms consider themselves to be sustainable. The Seafood Watch has some very valid concerns, but there may be salmon farms which have avoided the potential problems. As I said before, sustainability lies in the details.

While at the 2012 International Boston Seafood Show (IBSS), I spent time chatting with Scott Nichols, a Director at Verlasso, a salmon farm in Chile which claims to be sustainable. The idea for Verlasso originated about five years ago and their ultimate goal was to create high quality, sustainable salmon. In the beginning, they decided to focus on the feed. Farmed salmon are usually fed fish oil, so the fish will gain Omega-3s, and 50%-80% of the world's supply of fish oil is used to feed salmon. The partners of Verlasso wanted to find a way to give salmon Omega-3s without the use of all of that fish oil.

They eventually found that they could replace the fish oil with a special yeast which would still provide sufficient Omega-3s to the salmon. This has the effect of significantly decreasing the amount of feeder fish needed, which can be four pounds or more for other farmed salmon. The “fish in, fish out” (FIFO) ratio has been reduced to 1 to 1, when most other salmon farms have a ratio of 4 to 1, or even higher. That is an impressive result, and certainly reduces one of the common complaints about salmon farming.

The salmon farms are located off the coast of Patagonia, in open sea farms with a double net. Verlasso also wants to preserve and enhance biodiversity of their salmon so one important idea was to reduce pen density, to less than 12 kilos per cubic meter. This is a lower threshold than most other salmon farms, such as Norway that has 25 kilos per cubic meter and Chile which usually has 17 kilos per cubic meter. In fact, Verlasso usually has even less than 11 kilos in their pens.

The double net helps to reduce potential escapes (and they have not had any escapes yet) as well as act as a deterrent to potential predators. In addition, certain products are used on the nets to protect from growths. Other farms use a product that can leech chemicals into the water but Verlasso made sure that would not happen with their own.

To prevent disease, a lower pen density and their quality feed, help reduce chances of infection. The Patagonian waters are fairly clean, and Chilean-raised salmon’s ranks among the lowest worldwide for PCB content. Currently, they will tend to any ill fish and hope that by 2013, they will have stopped the use of all antibiotics. Thus, there is a mild concern about their current use of antibiotics though they have had few ill salmon.

In 2004 the World Wide Fund (WWF) initiated the Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue, with the goal of producing an environmental standard for farmed salmon. Verlasso is guided by those proposed standards, and hopes to meet them once they are finalized. In the meantime, they have been certified by the Det Norske Veritas (DNV), which verifies their FIFO and pen densities. As they are still a very new company, their first harvest having taken place in September 2011, they are always looking for ways to improve, understanding that sustainability is a complex and dynamic issue. Even before they began, they consulted numerous sustainability NGOs about their ideas.

Verlasso endeavors to be very transparent, and has allowed journalists access to their facilities. They don't wish to be seen as trying to hide anything. Scott also stated to me that "language can predispose a person to a certain attitude," and I strongly agree with that statement. He continued that "people get their conjunction wrong." What he meant is that it is not a case of wild "or" farmed but should be wild "and" farmed. It is not a case of sustainable or flavor but rather sustainable and flavor. We can have both, and there is no need make people have to choose one or the other.

As for their salmon, it contains more Omega-3s than wild salmon, and more than some, but not all, other farmed salmon. It is currently available in several locations across the U.S., including Oregon, New York and soon Philadelphia. It is not yet available in New England, though that is a matter of time. The price of their salmon generally runs from $15-$16 per pound, in between what is usually charged for wild and other farmed salmon.

I tasted some of their salmon treats, but the flavor of the fish was a bit obscured by all of the additional ingredients. But then I was served some salmon en papillote, pictured above, and got a better sense of the taste of the fish on its own. It had a clean flavor, definitely a prominent salmon taste, and a nice texture and smell. It was quite tasty and I am sure most other people would have enjoyed it as well. So it passed my taste test.

Verlasso seems to be headed in an excellent direction, working hard to be sustainable, and I applaud their efforts. As it is still a very new company, I believe improvements will be made over time and maybe this could eventually serve as a model for other salmon farms. It seems a hopeful endeavor to me, and I was pleased with the passion of Scott, who served very forthright and transparent during our discussion. It is a salmon farm that bears watching, and I hope others look into it as well, and not simply dismiss it out of hand as just another salmon farm.

The controversy over salmon farming is not going to vanish any time soon, but we must maintain an open mind. Verlasso may not be 100% sustainable yet, but it seems like it is moving in the right direction.

What are your thoughts on Verlasso?

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