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Wild Caught Vs Farmed Salmon: What’s The Difference?

What are the benefits of wild caught salmon over farmed salmon? And how do you know what you’re getting is actually wild salmon? Here, I explain the key differences so you can be a savvy salmon shopper and reap the nutritional rewards.

Girl holding sockeye salmon filet in a kitchen.

When you’re at the grocery store or fishmonger looking to pick up a nice salmon filet, you’ve probably seen both wild-caught and farm-raised options. And sometimes the only noticeable visual difference is the price tag—with wild-caught salmon varieties almost always clocking in higher.

That alone might be enough to sway your decision, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Farm-raised salmon is a totally different beast than wild-caught. And if you’re looking for health benefits and flavor, wild-caught is the way to go.

Wild-Caught Salmon

I typically purchase wild-caught Sockeye, Coho or King Salmon. Wild-caught salmon simply refers to any salmon caught in their natural environment. This can include oceans, lakes, and rivers, depending on the particular salmon species. Not only does this type of salmon generally have a more vibrant red-orange color and distinctive savory/complex flavor, but it’s far healthier.

One of the reasons wild-caught salmon is preferable to farmed salmon is because it has a higher (and thus healthier) ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acidsWhile both of these fatty acids are essential for optimal health, humans tend to ingest far too many Omega-6 fats. Mainly due to processed foods. And unfortunately, most folks aren’t getting enough Omega-3s.

The higher amount of Omega-6 fats found in farmed salmon means it doesn’t pack quite the anti-inflammatory nutritional punch of wild-caught.

The healthier fatty acid profile of wild-caught salmon is directly related to their diet. Wild-caught salmon are able to feed off of organisms found in their environment such as insects, invertebrates, plankton, other fish, and shrimp, while farmed salmon are often fed pellet feed containing a blend of grains, plants and fish meal.

Due to a surge in salmon popularity over the past 10 years, there have been some concerns over the sustainability of wild-caught salmon. As you might be aware, overfishing can be a very real problem.

The good news: Sockeye, Coho, and King salmon from Alaska are all certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Farm-Raised Salmon

While some farmed salmon is of an acceptable quality, the fish farming industry on a whole is riddled with problems. That means it’s really hard to know what you’re getting because there aren’t rigorous standards regulating salmon farms—so I always avoid it.

The problem with farmed salmon is two-fold: It’s generally not so great for you or the environment.

Most farmed salmon has been raised in high-density aquaculture tanks and fed the unnatural feed diet mentioned above. This leads to a variety of problems, in addition to the inferior fatty acid profile mentioned above.

Because these fish are in such close proximity to one another, there’s a greater risk of disease and infection, so they’re often dosed with antibiotics and pesticides. Unfortunately, this can then get passed on to you. In fact, research shows that farmed salmon contains higher levels of PCBs and dioxins (types of industrial pollutants) and chlorinated pesticides. Plus, farmed salmon is often farmed in areas of the world where salmon are not native, and when they escape (which happens), that can lead to the development of invasive populations that threaten other fish.

As far as taste goes, farmed salmon is generally mild in flavor and has a pink-orange hue; unlike wild-caught salmon, which tends to be more vibrant and flavorful.

Girl in kitchen holding sockeye salmon and king salmon on a platter.

4 Tips to Easily Find Wild-Caught Salmon Every Time

So, how do you know if salmon is wild-caught or farm-raised? It’s a pretty safe bet that if salmon is wild caught, your grocery store, fishmonger or the brand will prominently call that out. If it’s hard for you to tell, then it’s most likely farm-raised—and this goes for all fish and shellfish.

A couple other tricks to help you better determine if that salmon filet is farmed or wild:

  • Pretty much all Atlantic Salmon is farmed; so if you’re looking for wild-caught salmon, always avoid Atlantic Salmon.  
  • Fish farming is banned in Alaska, so all appropriately labeled Alaskan Salmon (including Sockeye, Coho, and King) is wild-caught salmon.
  • Sockeye Salmon, one of my favorite salmon species, is always wild-caught. This species has a unique diet and lifestyle that isn’t easily replicated by humans, so attempts at farming them have been unsuccessful.
  • Coho Salmon and King Salmon, two of my other favorites, can either be farm-raised or wild-caught. So when buying these, be sure to look for a wild-caught or Alaskan label.

What should you make with your beautiful filet of wild salmon? Just choose one of my many healthy salmon recipes and get cooking. They’re all delicious!

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22 comments on “Wild Caught Vs Farmed Salmon: What’s The Difference?”

  1. Hi, it is very hard and frustrating to find wild caught salmon that is skinless, which I prefer. Also I notice alot of salmon is from China, the same place the nuclear reactors leaked, I don’t want salmon from there. The other options for me are “ocean farmed”(probably just a fancy term) & salmon from Chile.
    What specific brands can you recommend? We don’t have a Whole Foods or Trader Joes within 2 hours either, in case you recommend them.
    I was buying C. Worthy salmon from Sams Club but it is ocean farmed.

    • Hi Kara – you usually won’t find salmon filets skinless. You’ll have to skin the salmon yourself (it’s actually easy to do). I’d search the frozen aisle at Sam’s Club and see if you can find wild Alaskan salmon (I know Costco carries it). Otherwise, you next best option may be to buy it online. Copper River Salmon is great!

      • Ok, I did not know that it is hard to find skinless, how do you remove the skin? Thank you for replying and your recommendations, I will research Sams, online and Copper River.
        Thank you for your beautiful recipes, content and inspiration. You have helped me to adapt healthier cooking and eating practices. It will be a while before they become an automatic habit, but I look forward to progressing on my journey to the best me I can be.
        :)

      • You can find some tutorials and videos online for removing the salmon skin. But you just slide a very sharp knife right under it. :) I wish you the best on your journey as well!

  2. Enjoy the blog and recipes! Thought you find this interesting I sure did! Farmed Norwegian Salmon World’s Most Toxic Food. I now make sure I’m only eating wild! Best, m

    • Hi Michelle – yes, Norwegian salmon definitely has several marks against it and I always tell people to avoid it. Unfortunately, we think of that world as clean and pristine so we assume the salmon is as well, but most don’t understand that region’s salmon farming practices (and how it’s decimating the natural salmon species). It’s quite sad really. So wild is definitely the way to go!

  3. This article is so timely, as we just joined a Community Supporter Fishery (CSF) out of Sitka, Alaska. We love that we are supporting a small-boat, family run business with ethical practices, while getting wild-caught salmon with all the nutritional benefits, too! Sitka Salmon Shares may be of interest to some of your readers. Thanks for your article, Lisa!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post Abbey! And I’ve heard good things about Sitka Salmon Shares as well. Supporting businesses with ethical practices is so very important!

  4. Dear Lisa,
    This is such an informative article and I learnt so much from it. I am from india where fish farming is a major industry and the ethics of it has always been a source of concern for me. While I always buy fishes that are organic, especially Hilsha which is a delicacy and are fast becoming endangered due to over fishing and catching the fishes while they are still young; but sweet water fishes in India which consists of our staple diet (especially us Bengalis) are mostly farmed. Though rules for ethical fish farming are implemented I wonder how much are they really practiced.
    So this research of yours was a treat to read! I will try and find more about fish farming in India and perhaps send you some information soon!
    Cheers!
    Subarna

    • I’m glad you found the post helpful Subarna! I’m sure the rules and practices change in each country, but it would definitely be worthwhile to look into it for India. :)

  5. Hey Lisa, will you freeze the bulk of the salmon you received (believe you said somewhere it was 9 lbs)? And, if so, I’m guessing you do not mind or see disadvantages to having it frozen?

    Thanks for the feedback and all of the wonderful content!

    Monica

    • I actually cooked both of those filets (it was 7 lbs) and then froze the leftovers. I decided to do it that way as they were already completely thawed when getting to me, so it was just easier to cook right away. But I have no problems with it being frozen. :)

  6. This was really helpful, and I’m delighted to know now of a company that can ship me delicious wild salmon. Thank you!

  7. Hi Lisa,
    I would appreciate your opinion on fresh Organic Farmed Salmon?
    I bought some large pieces a few times at Costco. It seems nice albeit it does have a strong fishy oder coming out of the package? The before date is always good!
    I do wash it well with cold water before cooking it which helps a lot.
    It always comes out very nice when cooked.
    I would never consider buying farmed salmon ever, but thought because it is Organic it would be ok so I did!
    Best,
    Deena
    .

    • Hi Deena – I found this information online for you, which confirmed my suspicions about organic farmed salmon. “Organic farmed salmon shares undesirable characteristics with conventional farmed salmon. Farmed salmon are raised in net pens — often referred to as feedlots of the sea — that are tethered offshore in the open ocean. The pens are overcrowded, and fish waste and uneaten feed covers the sea floor beneath them, which is a disaster for other marine life. (Farm-raised salmon — including organic salmon — are also fed synthetic versions of the orange-red carotenoid antioxidants that abound in the diets of wild salmon, to lend their flesh a natural-looking reddish hue.) Canadian producers of organic farmed salmon claim that their fish have about twice as much space vs. conventional farmed salmon, but that still constitutes very close, wholly unnatural confinement. Critically, salmon-farm pens are proven breeding grounds for sea lice and viruses that sicken and kill farmed and wild salmon alike. Worse, the net pens on most salmon farms — organic and conventional — sit directly in or very near the migration routes of wild salmon. As a result, passing wild salmon are vulnerable to the viruses and parasitic sea lice that steadily spread through the net pens of salmon farms and into surrounding waters.” So I’d steer clear of organic farmed salmon and look for that wild Alaskan label. :)

      • Oh dear! Thank you so very much for taking the time to find out this very valuable to me  information. It was as a result of your recent wild versus farmed salmon post that made me write to you about the Organic farmed salmon. I honestly thought the word “Organic” made it perfectly OK and therefore didn’t research it myself. As a result of your findings,  I will never buy organic farmed salmon again. 
        I unfortunately still have $70.00 worth of two large pieces of Organic farmed salmon in my deep freeze to cook in the future. I hate to throw it out so in a dilemma about serving it. Best regards, Deena

      • I wouldn’t throw it out either. I’m sure it’s still better than 90% of the salmon you find in the average supermarket. And now you just know for the future. :) Have you tried my salmon patties yet? I just whipped those up again last week and was reminded how good they are. Lol!

  8. From what I understand, they add coloring to farm-raised salmon to give it a brighter hue (which to me is still a more dull color than wild). 

  9. Thanks for the article- its quite an eye opener and very informative.
    I live in South Africa and the type of salmon common here is Norwegian- is it wild caught or farm raised?