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Wild Salmon or Farm-raised Salmon Debate
 Continues at Restaurant Tables
Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

June 8, 2004 - BREWSTER, Mass. -- Peter Nielson was busy at Breakwater Fish in Brewster last week pulling pin bones from wild king salmon fillets.

Two years ago, wild salmon lagged behind farm-raised salmon, and he'd sell one fillet of wild to every nine farm-raised fish.

This year, that ratio is closer to 50-50, although wild salmon was selling for more than $13 a pound last week at Breakwater while its farm-raised cousins cost $4.99 a pound at Stop & Shop this weekend.

But Nielson said more of his customers are choosing wild salmon in response to recent reports that farm-raised fish contain higher levels of carcinogenic contaminants such as dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than those caught at sea.

A study in the journal Science earlier this year tested two metric tons of farmed and wild salmon and found PCBs, dioxins and pesticides in farmed fish were 10 times higher than in their wild counterparts. The source of the contamination was believed to be in the food fed to farm-raised fish -- usually ground-up oily fish varieties such as anchovies, herring and mackerel that are more likely to retain contaminants.

The study concluded that the health risks of eating farm-raised salmon "may detract from the beneficial effects of fish consumption."

The salmon farming industry promised to find new sources of food that would eliminate contaminants. Salmon growers also claim that their fish are routinely tested for PCBs and, on average, contain 50 to 100 times less than U.S. Federal Drug Administration standards. They say both the FDA and the National Academy of Sciences recommend eating farmed salmon.

Another issue for some consumers: Wild salmon gets its red color from eating the krill that dine on algae. But because they eat different food, farm-raised salmon are fed a natural food additive to turn them pink.

The debate is being waged at retail fish counters and restaurant tables.

"Consumers vote with their dollars," Nielson said.

But those dollars don't go as far this year because demand for wild salmon has pretty much doubled the price.

"So far, we're paying double what we did last year," Nielson said. "I've paid as much as $7.65 per pound." That's a whole fish, gutted with head and tail left on.

Fillets are then cut from the whole fish. The price for a boneless fillet at Breakwater was $13.65 per pound last week.

Legal Sea Foods Inc., which owns 30 restaurants from Massachusetts to Florida, just launched a national campaign promoting wild Alaskan salmon. Legal's president and CEO Roger Berkowitz said it was a matter of taste, not health concerns, that drove his decision to push wild salmon over the farm-raised variety.

"I think the fear factor has just been sensationalized by the press," he said last week. "There is not enough empirical evidence that this is a problem."

Nevertheless, a current promotion that features Alaska Airlines delivering fresh salmon to Legal's restaurant chain seems well-timed to take advantage of health concerns. The chain claims to have served 40 tons of Alaskan wild salmon last year, more than any other restaurant in America -- and expects to significantly increase that volume this year.

"We're in the fish business. Anyone can serve farmed salmon," said Berkowitz, launching into a fine wine versus mass-produced jug wine analogy for the two types of salmon.

"It's not that either one is bad, but the other wine has more flavor and character," he said.

It's also more expensive, but Berkowitz said a lot of his customers choose wild salmon even though it costs $5 more per serving.

Rob McClellan has been selling salmon at Hatch's Fish Market in Wellfleet center for 30 years. He remembers when wild Atlantic stocks were healthy enough to provide the traditional Fourth of July meal of salmon and peas, but then petered out by mid-summer.

Now, wild Atlantic salmon are on the verge of extinction and "Atlantic" designates fish grown in pens in the many coves along Maine's northern coastline.

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