Telling a wild salmon from a farmed one can be tricky, especially if you don’t want to kill or injure the fish in question. To solve this problem, Dr Elizabeth Adey of the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) have developed a way of using fish scale analysis to determine the origin of a salmon.

 How to tell if a salmon is wild or farmed?

Fish scales grow like tree rings and preserves a chemical record of the water in which the fish lived as each new section of the scale was formed. The new method, which was developed in collaboration with the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, checks the amount of manganese present in the fish scale. During her work, Dr Adey discovered that the scales of farmed salmon have a very high manganese content compared to the levels found in scales coming from their wild counterparts.

This is probably caused by manganese supplements in fish food, and also because conditions underneath the fish cages promote recycling of manganese in the water column,” Dr Adey explains. Using the new method, Dr Adey and her team was able to distinguish between farmed and wild salmon with 98% accuracy.”Because of its non-destructive nature, this technique could be used to assess the proportion of farmescape salmon present in any river, and therefore identify where additional conservation and wildlife protection measures are needed,” says Dr Trueman, a geochemist with the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science, based at that National Oceanography Centre. “Salmon farming is a big, intensive business. In 2006, around 130,000 tonnes of salmon were farmed in Scotland for the table. Wild populations of Atlantic salmon are in serious decline across their whole range and the total wild population returning to Scottish rivers in the same year is estimated at less than 5000 tonnes. Wild fish are rare and expensiveso there is a strong incentive for fraudulent labeling. Farmed fish also escape into rivers, harming the wild population. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to distinguish between farmed and wild fish.

In the future, the new technique may also be able to point out which individual fish farms that need to implement more efficient methods for keeping their salmons in. In some Norwegian rivers, more than 50 percent of the salmon are now escapees. Escaped fish can carry disease to wild populations, and there is also a risk of genetic pollution since farmed fish haven’t gone through the same natural selection process as wild fish.