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Dr. Alexandra Morton

Consumers have been led to believe that when they buy farmed salmon, they are helping protect wild salmon and the whales and bears that feed on them, but nothing could be further from the truth.

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A tiny bug is behind a major problem in the global farmed salmon industry.

The sea louse, or salmon louse, is eating into farmed Atlantic salmon supplies in Scotland, Norway, Iceland and Canada, driving salmon prices higher and creating a "chemical arms race in the seas," the Guardian reports.

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Fish—which is loaded with protein, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids—is among the healthiest foods on the planet, and that's not to mention that dining on fish has a smaller carbon footprint than red meat, pork and chicken.

But here's the catch: the world's increasing appetite for finned food has led to a devastating problem with nearly 90 percent of global fish stocks either fully fished or overfished, according a 2016 analysis from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Meanwhile, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasts a 17 percent rise in fish production by 2025.

In addition to depleting fish stocks, the long term sustainability of the ocean's resources is also threatened by acidification, warming waters, hypoxia, sea level rise, pollution and the overuse of marine resources.

That's why Oscar-winning actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio has gotten behind Boulder, Colorado-based seafood brand LoveTheWild that sells frozen seafood kits made with 100 percent farm-raised fish.

"Estimates show the earth's population approaching nine billion by 2050, putting tremendous pressure on our natural food resources," DiCaprio said in a statement. "Seafood is a primary source of protein for nearly a billion people—but climate change, acidification and over fishing are putting increased pressure on our oceans' natural stability."

"LoveTheWild's approach to sustainable, responsible aquaculture is promoting the development of a secure and environmentally-conscious solution to feeding our planet's growing population," he added.

The Before the Flood filmmaker has made an investment in the brand and will also serve as an advisor. According to BizWest, DiCaprio and sustainable aquaculture investment fund Aqua-Spark round out a $3 million Series A funding announced in February, in which Aqua-Spark invested $2.5 million.

"The exploitation of our oceans has left many marine ecosystems on the brink of total collapse, which is hurting our ability to harvest our seas as a reliable food source as we have for thousands of years," DiCaprio continued. "LoveTheWild is empowering people to take action on this crisis in a very meaningful way."

Farmed seafood, or aquaculture, currently provides roughly half of all fish consumed globally. Experts tout it as a way to supply protein, nutrition and food security to a rapidly growing global population.

However, aquaculture operators in some countries, such as Chile's salmon industry, have been criticized for crowding fish into tight enclosures that breed disease and raising them on unnatural diets and antibiotics.

But as Tim Fitzgerald, a scientist and sustainable seafood expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the New York Times, farming practices are improving and some merchants set high standards for the fish they sell.

LoveTheWild, founded by Jacqueline Claudia and Christy Brouker in 2014, sells sustainable fish that's good for you and the oceans at the same time. The company said it selects its seafood from the "most well-managed farms in the world."

The line includes striped bass with roasted pepper almond sauce, barramundi with mango Sriracha chutney, catfish with Cajun creme and red trout with salsa verde. The kits are in retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Wegmans, Sprouts and Mom's.

"Our vision for LoveTheWild was inspired by our dedication to aquaculture, and we're very humbled that the quality of our products and integrity of our vision has attracted such a powerful group of supporters and investors," said Claudia, LoveTheWild CEO, in a statement.

"We are excited that Mr. DiCaprio, someone so dedicated to environmental activism, has partnered with LoveTheWild to help make it easy for consumers make an impact on the environment through something as simple as choosing the right thing for dinner. We have no doubt that the involvement of all of our investors will further bring to life our mission of making high-quality seafood exciting, easy, and accessible, while also helping to bring awareness to the potential for responsible aquaculture to play an important role in our food future."

DiCaprio, and his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, has long put his philanthropic dollars towards environmental organizations and businesses that protect oceans, land and wildlife, as well as operations that work to fight against climate change.

Last year, the foundation awarded a total of $15.6 million in grants, including $7,631,508 for wildlife and habitat conservation; $2,525,000 for ocean conservation; $2,100,000 to protect indigenous rights; $2,085,000 to support innovative solutions to the world's problems; and $1,300,000 to combat climate change. With these grants, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has provided more than $59 million in support of many projects since 1998.

For years, environmentalists advised consumers to steer clear of farmed salmon, but now, some groups are beginning to ease their warnings due to a progressive partnership that will gradually overhaul the industry, according to National Geographic.

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Given its high protein, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and low traces of saturated fats, salmon is increasingly being marketed as a nutritious food.

The shift in perspective has helped increase salmon demand by more than 20 percent over the last decade, and consumption has spiked three-fold worldwide since 1980.

In fact, salmon aquaculture, otherwise known as fish farming, is the fastest growing food production system in the world—accounting for 70 percent (2.4 million metric tons) of the market, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Five years ago, global fish farming production lapped wild catches as the primary source of all seafood consumed, and two years ago, global aquaculture production outpaced global beef production

Environmentalists had sounded past warnings to avoid farmed salmon, mainly because the carnivorous fish are fed animal-derived proteins called "fish meal," or fish oil made from anchovies, which have been shown to carry Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxins that can make their way into the human food supply.

"It’s fair to say that salmon farming is better than it used to be, but it used to be horrendous," wrote Oceana contributor Justine Hausheer. "Even the best farms still pollute their waters with parasiticides, chemicals and fish feces. The Chilean farmed salmon industry uses over 300,000 kilograms of antibiotics a year, causing bacterial resistances that affect fish, the environment and human beings."

Additionally, farmed salmon can leap out of the oceanside pens they are raised in, which can potentially spread disease or unwanted genes to wild populations already under stress from overfishing, pollution and shrinking habitats.

Yet, the fish farming industry has taken major steps to clean up its act and is now gaining positive feedback from environmental groups, according to Jason Clay, WWF's senior vice president for market transformation. Clay spoke on farmed salmon at Seafood Expo North America in Boston on Tuesday and is an authority on the matter due, in part, to his contributions in developing a set of sustainability standards called the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC).

Founded in 2010 and based in the Netherlands, the ASC is a nonprofit organization, which is helping to lead a global certification and labeling program for responsibly farmed seafood that reduces social and environmental impacts.

ASC standards include 152 different indicators, including low tolerance for escaping fish, limits on antibiotics and safety guidelines on food the fish can be fed.

So far, a small proportion of salmon grown on Norway farms has been shown to meet the group's standards, but much more is on the way in various countries.

Last August, 15 major salmon farm companies, representing 70 percent of the world-farmed salmon market, formed the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI), which has pledged to source 100 percent of their salmon from farms that meet ASC standards by 2020.

All agriculture inevitably pollutes to some degree, said Doris Soto, senior aquaculture officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, at this week's seafood expo. With this agreement, salmon producers have set themselves apart, she said.

"The industry is trying to face its problems, especially the environmental problems in a way that has perhaps not been done in agriculture," she told USA Today.

Despite Ongoing Progress, Critical Impacts Linger

According to WWF, here are some major environmental and social impacts the salmon farm industry needs to address in the coming years:

  • Biodiversity Loss

    Chemicals and excess nutrients from food and feces associated with salmon farms can disturb the flora and fauna on the ocean bottom.
  • Chemical Inputs

    Excessive use of chemicals, such as antibiotics, anti-foulants and pesticides, or the use of banned chemicals can have unintended consequences for marine organisms and human health.
  • Disease and parasites

    Viruses and parasites transfer between farmed and wild fish as well as among farms, presenting a risk to wild populations or other farms.
  • Escapes

    Escaped farmed salmon can compete with wild fish and interbreed with local wild stocks of the same population, altering the overall pool of genetic diversity.
  • Feed

    Escaped farmed salmon can compete with wild fish and interbreed with local wild stocks of the same population, altering the overall pool of genetic diversity.
  • Nutrient Pollution and Carrying Capacity

    Excess food and fish waste increase the levels of nutrients in the water and have the potential to lead to oxygen-deprived waters that stress aquatic life.
  • Social Issues

    Salmon farming often employs a large number of workers on farms and in processing plants, potentially placing labor practices and worker rights under public scrutiny. Additionally, conflicts can arise among users of the shared coastal environment.

Genetically Modified Fish: The Future of Salmon Farming?

Some say the next step is to grow and sell genetically engineered salmon that can mature twice as fast as its natural counterpart. AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts-based company, has spent years developing a fish it refers to as AquAdvantage salmon.

The company wants to raise sterile Atlantic salmon females that can rapidly grow to market size compared to conventional salmon by using a growth hormone-regulating gene from Chinook salmon and some genetic material from ocean pout.

The FDA has yet to approve the fish, which is the first genetically engineered food animal in the world.

In 2010, an FDA advisory panel stated the fish is "highly unlikely to cause any significant effects on the environment" and that it is "as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon," although the agency said more testing was needed, according to National Geographic.

Last spring, more than 1.8 million people sent comments vehemently opposing the approval of a genetically engineered salmon by the FDA.

No genetically modified salmon are currently permitted under the ASC guidelines.

The Sierra Club said it's against genetically engineered fish, saying the fish pose "an even greater hazard to natural stocks and are even more difficult to properly evaluate and to monitor than [genetically engineered] crops."

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD and GMO pages for more related news on this topic.

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