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The Difference Between Farm-Raised and Wild-Caught Salmon

So you can make a more informed decision when you visit your local fishmonger.
grilled salmon

Fans of salmon know just how versatile the fish is. Whether you enjoy it best smoked and in thin strips sandwiched between a plump bagel with scallion cream cheese and capers, or prefer to grill an entire filet and pair with asparagus and halved red skin potatoes, it can spruce up a variety of dishes. In recent years though, the discussion between wild-caught and farm-raised has piqued many people's interest, but what's the verdict when it comes to farm-raised vs. wild-caught salmon?

Well, the conversations behind each aren't always very clear. In an attempt to get a more concise answer on the farm-raised vs. wild-caught salmon debate, we did some research and consulted Jeremy Woodrow, the executive director of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, to lend more insight on what types of salmon are wild-caught.

What is the key difference between farm-raised and wild-caught salmon?

Salmon that is farm-raised is typically sourced from the Atlantic Ocean and then are hatched, raised, and harvested in a controlled environment. Wild-caught salmon, on the other hand, is harvested from the Pacific Ocean primarily during the summer months. As a result, farmed salmon is available fresh throughout the year and oftentimes cheaper than wild salmon, which can typically only be bought fresh from June through September, unless frozen. Because the habitat of each type of salmon differs, the flavor of each is notably distinguishable, too.

Wild-caught salmon lends a more robust salmon flavor and is often a firmer, less fatty fish. Farm-raised salmon has visible striations of fat in the filet, which allows it to fall apart more easily as you sink your fork into it, and offers a more mild fish flavor.

Between 90 and 95 percent of all wild salmon harvest in the U.S. comes from Alaskan waters. Woodrow says there are five different species of fresh salmon that are harvested in Alaska.

  1. Sockeye—Also known as red salmon, Alaska sockeye is one of the most popular salmon species due to its deep red color and rich salmon flavor.
    Available: Fresh from mid-May through mid-September and frozen year-round.
  2. King—Championed for its size and succulent flavor, king salmon, also known as chinook, and is the largest of the five Alaska salmon species. It also bears the highest fat content.
    Available: Mostly caught in the summer, but some are harvested year-round.
  3. Coho—Also known as silver salmon, Alaska coho lends itself to a host of preparation styles. Coho salmon is the second largest Alaska salmon species and is known for its orange-red flesh, delicate flavor, and firm texture.
    Available: Mid-June through late October and frozen year-round.
  4. Pink—True to its name, Alaska pink salmon has rosy pink-colored flesh. The most abundant and affordable of the five Alaska salmon species, pink salmon is known for its delicate flavor and tender texture. This species is often available canned but is also great for smoking.
    Available: June through September and frozen year-round.
  5. Keta—Keta, also known as silverbrite or chum, features a mild flavor and tempting pink color. This extremely versatile species is good for smoking, and due to its firm texture, it is a great choice for grilling or roasting.
    Available: June through September and frozen year-round.

RELATED: Your guide to the anti-inflammatory diet that heals your gut, slows the signs of aging, and helps you lose weight.

Is wild-caught salmon healthier for you than farm-raised?

As far as which one is healthier, research is muddied. Some make the argument that the feed given to farm-raised salmon is high in fat and protein, making farmed salmon higher in calories, fat, and protein as well. Older studies also suggest that antibiotics may be used among groups of farm-raised fish to prevent disease and that contamination levels may be higher in this group as well.

However, there doesn't appear to be enough consistent (and current) research that concludes farm-raised salmon is an unhealthy or less sustainable option. The key is to do your research on who you are purchasing salmon from, no matter if it's wild or farmed.

Salmon is chock-full of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, both of which Americans tend to not get enough of. Whether you choose to buy wild-caught or farm-raised, the focus should be more on flavor and texture rather than trying to decide based off of health and sustainability reasons.

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the news editor of Eat This, Not That!, specializing in food and drink coverage, and breaking down the science behind the latest health studies and information. Read more
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