Atlantic Salmon

Salmo salar

Illustration of an Atlantic Salmon.

Also Known As

  • Sea run salmon
  • Kelts
  • Black salmon

U.S. farmed Atlantic Salmon is a smart seafood choice because it is grown and harvested under U.S. state and federal regulations.

Environmental Impact

Federal and state regulations and monitoring ensure that salmon farming (as practiced in the United States) has minimal impact on the environment.


Farmed salmon are incredibly efficient at converting feed to edible protein. Alternative feeds are being developed to reduce the amount of fish meal and fish oil.

Farming Methods

Atlantic salmon are spawned and raised in on-land hatcheries until large enough for transfer to net-pens in coastal waters.

Human Health

Atlantic salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. They are not fed or injected with dyes. Antibiotic use is strictly limited in the United States and is prescribed only on a case-by-case basis.

  • Availability

    Available year-round.

  • Source

    Coastal salmon farms, mostly in Maine or Washington.

  • Taste

    Buttery, rich taste. 

  • Texture

    Firm and fatty, rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Color

    Like wild-caught salmon, the flesh is reddish-orange or pink.

  • Health Benefits

    Farmed salmon is low in sodium and contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

U.S. Farming


  • Permitting for salmon aquaculture is governed by federal, state and local governments.
  • The federal agencies involved are NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the Coast Guard.
  • Salmon farms must adhere to federal regulations including those in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.

Farming Methods

  • Hatchery Production:
    • Salmon hatcheries supply juvenile fish for both stock enhancement and commercial farms.
    • Hatcheries can use captive or wild broodstock.
    • Male and female salmon are spawned, and fertilized eggs are transferred to environmentally controlled tanks.
    • After hatching into fry, juvenile salmon are raised to 40-120 grams and transferred to a grow-out facility or released for stock enhancement.
  • Grow-out Facilities:
    • Farmed salmon grow-out facilities are typically coastal net pens, which are enclosed cages submerged in aquatic environments.
    • Grow-out can also be in full or partial recirculating systems on land.


  • In 2013 the United States produced 43 million pounds of Atlantic salmon, valued at $77 million.

The Science


  • Resource Efficiency:
    • Salmon farming is one of the most resource-efficient methods to produce protein compared to other animal food production.
    • The feed conversion ratio (FCR) is the amount of feed eaten by a fish relative to the amount of food it provides for human consumption.
    • Farmed salmon have a more efficient FCR than wild fish and many terrestrial livestock including cows, pigs and chickens.
  • Fishmeal & Fish Oil:
    • Fishmeal and fish oil contain the balance of nutrients that most closely resemble the requirements of fish.
    • About 70% of global fishmeal and oil production comes from fisheries targeted at small, pelagic fish, such as sardine, anchovy and menhaden.
    • The remainder comes from processing fish wastes.
    • The world supply of fishmeal and oil coming from fisheries has remained constant over several decades.
    • Fishmeal and oil prices have increased dramatically over the last decade due to increased use of these fisheries for direct human consumption, and increased demand for fish oil for human nutraceuticals.
    • The aquaculture industry has developed feeds that use less or no fishmeal or fish oil, and has increased the use of fish processing waste.
    • The amount of fishmeal and oil in aquaculture is decreasing and projected to continue to decrease.
  • Alternative Feeds:
    • Feeds eliminating fishmeal and oil have been successfully used to grow Atlantic Salmon.
    • NOAA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Alternative Feeds Initiative in 2007 to collaborate on research for alternative fish feeds.
    • The 2012 report, The Future of Aquafeeds, can be accessed here.

Environmental Considerations

  • Water Quality & Benthic Impacts:
    • Impacts to the environment can occur around fish farms when organic nutrients from uneaten food and fish waste exceed the capacity of the ecosystem to assimilate them.
    • Potential environmental impacts are largely avoided with proper farm siting, management and modern technologies.
    • Modeling interactions of farms and the environment can help guide decisions about siting locations.
    • Fish farms in the United States are required to meet waste discharge standards under the Clean Water Act.
    • Water quality: when farms are sited in well-flushed water, nutrient enrichment in the water column is generally not detectable.
    • Benthic impacts: proper siting in well-flushed erosional sea floors, and practices such as fallowing, control the impact of fish farms on the benthic environment.
  • Escapes:
    • On rare occasions farmed fish escape and can possibly interact with their wild counterparts.
    • Federal and state permits require containment management systems at all marine sites.
    • There have been zero escapes of farmed Atlantic Salmon in Maine since 2003.
    • NOAA is using models to show that the risk of escaped fish affecting the genetic diversity of wild populations is low.

Animal Health

  • Management & Remedies:
    • Fish diseases occur naturally in the wild, but their effects go unnoticed because dead fish quickly become prey.
    • Vaccines, probiotics, limiting farming density, high-quality diets, and controlled use of antibiotics control bacterial diseases in fish.
    • Management of viral infections occurs through thorough monitoring, healthy culture conditions, low stress environments, and good nutrition and genetics.
    • Parasites are controlled on farms using therapeutants, fallowing farm sites, and pest management such as the use of cleaner wrasses.
    • Most states have comprehensive aquatic animal health regulations, such as routine health exams by veterinarians.

Diseases in Salmon

  • Antibiotic Use:
    • In the United States, antibiotics may only be used to treat bacterial infections in marine fish under direction of a veterinarian on a case-by-case basis.
    • Antibiotics are considered a method of last resort and cannot be pre-emptively fed to fish.
    • Special permits obtained from the Food & Drug Administration may be required.
    • Vaccines have been effective in reducing, and in some cases eliminating, the need for antibiotics.
    • In Maine, no antibiotic use for salmon farming has been reported since 2007.

Human Health

  • Dyes:
    • Both wild and farmed salmon get their distinct pigment from consuming foods rich in carotenoids, particularly astaxanthin.
    • In the wild astaxanthin is produced by microalgae, which are eaten by crustaceans and small fish, which in turn are eaten by salmon.
    • Astaxanthin in aquaculture feeds comes from chemical synthesis, fermentation of microorganisms, or cultivation of microalgae.
    • Astaxanthin in wild and farmed salmon is identical.
    • Farmed salmon are not fed or injected with dyes.
  • Contaminants:
    • Aquaculture feed is regulated and monitored by the FDA and state agencies to ensure feeds are not contaminated with heavy metals or methyl mercury.
    • Both wild and farmed seafood contain low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
    • PCB levels in farmed salmon are orders of magnitude below the FDA lower limit.
  • Health Benefits:
    • Like wild salmon, farmed salmon contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Physical Description

  • Spindle-like body shape – rounded, broad in the middle, and tapered at each end.
  • Typical of salmon species, shape is flattened toward the sides.
  • Head is relatively small, about 1/5 of body length.
  • Ventral paired fins are prominent, especially on juveniles.


  • Spawning females lay an average of 7,500 eggs.
  • Juvenile “smolts” grow much faster in saltwater than in freshwater.
  • Growth rates vary, depending on season, age, sex and population density.
  • After two years at sea, adult salmon have an average length of 28 to 30 inches and a weight of 8 to 12 pounds.
  • Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning. 


Last updated: 07/31/2015