The most widely farmed saltwater fish in the world, Atlantic salmon are a staple in seafood cases and on menus in countries around the world. Although attempts to farm Atlantic salmon date back to the 18th century, the modern industry didn’t really develop on a large scale until the early 1980s, when several big multinational companies in Norway and the U.K. had enough confidence in the technology and potential profitability to invest in large farms.
From the beginning, the salmon farming industry has been led by Norway and the species of choice has been the Atlantic. Although more than 100,000 metric tons of coho salmon are farmed in net pens in Chile and Japan, Atlantics perform better as some domesticated strains go back three decades or more. They grow larger and unlike cohos, Atlantics can be harvested year round.
Demand for fresh salmon year round has helped boost worldwide production of farmed Atlantics to almost 2 million metric tons. Norway is the clear leader with production now up to 1.2 million metric tons, followed by Chile, which has rebounded from a disease outbreak to produce about 400,000 metric tons. The other large producers are Canada (120,000 metric tons) and the U.K. (120,000 metric tons).
It takes an average of about three years to grow an Atlantic from an egg to a harvestable size of about 10 pounds. During the first year of production, the eggs, which are selected from the best performing “broodstock,” are fertilized and the fish are grown to a size of about 4 ounces in freshwater hatcheries. After they turn silver, the “smolts” are put in saltwater cages where they grow rapidly the next two years, especially in the summer when they feed more actively.
Over the past few years, the farmed salmon industry has undergone a high degree of consolidation. In Norway, for example, 22 companies now account for 80 percent of the country’s production, compared to 55 companies in 2000.
Atlantic salmon are fed a diet consisting mainly of fish meal and fish oil. The reddish orange color of its meat is a function of a synthetic carotenoid that is added to the feed. The huge growth of salmon farming has led to increasing prices for fish meal and oil. As a result, feed producers are constantly looking to reduce usage of fish meal and oil by substituting grain-based components from plants like canola and rapeseed.
Atlantic salmon are relatively easy to buy, since the entire process is controlled and the fish have a shelf life of at least two weeks from time of harvest. Still, from time to time periodic gluts occur in the market and some lower quality fillets are on the market. Look for the usual signs of quality and freshness, such as gaping and any off odors. As a general rule, the biggest farmed Atlantics will have a higher oil content and, hence, a somewhat shorter shelf life.
Atlantic fillets are sold in a variety of trims from A to E. An A trim fillet is just backbone and bellybone off, while an E trim is a well-trimmed skinless, boneless fillet. Make sure you and your supplier are on the same page on trim specs, so you don’t end up paying more for your fillet than you should be.