Aquaculture North America

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North American Atlantic salmon market: Success and challenges


March 1, 2017
By Joe Sabbagh

Farmed Atlantic salmon has a long history of success. Records of fertilization trials of Atlantic salmon in Europe go back to 1763. Salmon farming started in Norway in the late 60s with North American farms starting up in the early 70s. Today North American Atlantic Salmon farms are owned by well-financed and -managed Norwegian and Canadian companies on both coasts of Canada and the states of Washington and Maine.

Technology and nature can often have a contentious relationship. The producers have innovated and continue to improve technology and sustainability. All over the world the farmed salmon industry has been on a roller coaster since the 80s. The current pricing has the major stakeholders smiling at the top of their ride. Short-term indicators point to continued strong pricing. The pioneers and current operators should be commended for their great work and products.

From my experience these farms produce the best, farmed finfish product in North America. At the very top is the fish coming from British Columbia farms. BC farmed salmon is a favorite of Asian consumers in the West and is often shipped to the East coast. The East coast farmers have more offshore competition especially at the high end.

Challenges

The perspective I strive to provide is from the consumer kitchen table, retail case or restaurant serving line as opposed to the production side. Fish farmers and wild fishermen have a difficult job and often lose sight of end-user concerns in their daily battle with nature and competitors.

North American producers enjoy a logical advantage over imports to some of the most affluent metro areas in the world. However in my opinion their marketing efforts have fallen short in influencing many of these high-end consumers to accept farmed salmon. This is not only a farmed salmon issue as all aquaculture products are not valued as they should be. The entire seafood industry has made the mistake of being reactive in their marketing as opposed to being proactive.

The major players in the sector must reevaluate their marketing to consumers and strategies towards activists. In Western Canada the industry have left themselves open to more attack by some very dubious but loud activists. Not adequately promoting their many sustainable achievements and contributions to the community since their inception only emboldens those that make a living working for a “non-profit.” In the East the growers have lost the high end of the market to UK and other offshore growers. They have not fully used their Canadian or USA production points to full advantage.

Regulations are a major challenge for all aquaculture companies in the US and Canada. The lack of consumer acceptance and false narrative will empower those creating the obstacles. Still more need for better marketing.

Land-based Farms

There are land-based farms in BC and Nova Scotia in full production and selling in Canada. The technology is very promising and others are looking at setting up in landlocked large cities. Fish from these land-based operations fetch much higher prices than ocean pen fish, making high-end retailers and restaurants their best target. But whether farmed on land or in the ocean they are still  farmed, which many high-end educated consumers have a number of issues with. Land-based fish address some of these issues but may not satisfy them all. The big question is how much metro areas will be able to consume.  In today’s producer-friendly market, premium eco-friendly salmon has struggled to gain market share.

Salmon aquaculture is not for the faint of heart; it is not a business I would suggest to newcomers. The companies involved are significant and have a strong position that should make new players think twice about competing against. There is better opportunity in ancillary services and products.

“It’s like déjà vu all over again” — Yogi Berra

Just about every problem on the market level in the seafood industry comes back to the glaring need for better marketing and changing the narrative. As an industry selling healthy food we have not supported our products or efforts sufficiently. The North American farmed salmon industry is a good example of that. I hope the industry decides to use the many resources they have to improve the image of their products and practices as they have a great story to tell.

Joe Sabbagh