How They

Salmon farmed in Atlantic Canada originate from the native fish that have been swimming in waters off the eastern coast of Canada for centuries. Atlantic Canadian salmon farmers mimic the natural life cycle of salmon, starting their lives in fresh water and then moving them to salt water just as
Atlantic salmon do in nature.

Life Cycles.

Farmed Atlantic salmon begin their life cycle as eggs, which are collected from adult salmon broodstock. The young fish are reared from eggs in land-based freshwater hatcheries for 12 to 18 months.

When the fish are biologically ready to move to salt water, farmers transport them to ocean farms where they currently remain for the next 18-24 months in large enclosed floating cages that are moored to the ocean floor and engineered to withstand the challenging Atlantic tides, currents and weather.

Atlantic salmon thrive in their natural ocean habitat inside their enclosed cages where they have lots of room to swim and follow their natural schooling behavior. Nets, specifically designed for salmon farms, fully enclose the cages to contain the fish and protect them from predators.

Life Stages of a Salmon
Salmon start out as eggs. The eggs come from strong healthy adult salmon called broodstock. The eggs live inside a fresh water hatchery.
When the eggs first hatch, baby salmon can’t eat food on their own. They feed from a yolk sac. At this stage, the baby salmon are called Alevin.
When Alevin have used their yolk sac, they are ready to eat on their own. They are called Fry and are moved into tanks of freshwater in the hatchery.
When the young salmon grow a bit larger and develop regularly spaced dark marks like fingerprints on their sides, they are called Parr. They are also often called fingerlings. They are about as long as your fingers.
Salmon are called smolt when they begin the amazing process of adapting from fresh water to salt water. When this happens, the fish are carefully moved by truck and boat to cages on ocean farms.
Adult Salmon
Adult salmon remain on ocean farms until they are large enough to be harvested. The Adult Salmon are carried by boat to a processing plant. After processing, they are shipped by truck to your local store, often arriving within
48 hours from the time they left the farm.
What do farmed Atlantic salmon eat?

Farmed Atlantic salmon eat a diet designed to mimic their natural omnivorous diet – including plant-based ingredients, fish-based ingredients (including fishmeal, oil and protein), as well as vitamins, minerals, amino acids and astaxanthin, an antioxidant that supports fish health and gives salmon its iconic “salmon” hue.  All fish feed ingredients are approved for use by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. One of the biggest evolutions in salmon feed is a decrease in fish-based ingredients and an increase in plant-based ingredients, like algae or canola oil. Soy, wheat, corn, peas and beans are also used as plant-based protein alternatives.

What is in the feed?

Two important ingredients are fishmeal and fish oil, which ensure salmon contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids that are good for your heart and mind. Fishmeal and fish oil primarily come from several sources including forage fish not eaten by humans. Our feed companies source fishmeal from the by-products of local fisheries whenever possible. All fish feed ingredients are approved for use by the Canada Food Inspection Agency.

How much do salmon eat?

Salmon farmers use modern feed systems that include underwater feed cameras and sensors to ensure the fish are fed the appropriate amount of food and limit any waste. These modern feeding systems can be managed remotely which allows farmers to tend to their farms even during bad weather that may limit physical access to the site.

How are farm sites chosen?

Salmon farm sites are chosen based on a wide variety of criteria. Water depth and temperature, tidal patterns and accessibility are important considerations. Provincial governments also carefully control salmon farm locations, to ensure that the areas in which they are located are able sustain both farms and natural resources.

How big are the net cages?

A typical Atlantic Canadian salmon farm has several round cages, each ranging from 10 – 30 metres deep and 100-150 metres in circumference.

How many fish are on a farm?

Depending upon the farm’s size and the size of the fish, a cage can hold between 15,000 and 30,000 smolts (young salmon) allowing the fish to occupy less than 4% of the space in each cage. This provides plenty of room for the fish to mimic natural schooling patterns.

What are the nets made of?

The cages that contain farmed salmon are made from high density polyethylene and have been designed and built to meet specific engineering standards that will withstand the weather and the energetic waves and tidal waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The cages are moored to the ocean floor and fully enclose the fish to contain them and to protect them from predators, including sea birds, seals and sharks.

Do the fish ever escape?

Escapes have become rare in recent years, but sometimes happen due to things like human error during handling or predator attacks. If such events do occur, farmers immediately report the breach of containment as per regulatory requirements.

How long does it take to grow the fish to harvest size?

It takes about three years to grow salmon from egg to harvest size. Typically, salmon spend about 18-24 months of that in ocean farms but now our sector is moving toward post-smolt systems that allow farmers to grow their fish longer and larger on land and reduce the time our fish are exposed to the marine environment by 50%. This reduction in time the fish spend in the ocean significantly reduces their exposure to parasites and diseases which are naturally occurring in the ocean environment.

All salmon are free of disease and parasites when they enter marine farms. There is no peer reviewed scientific evidence that farmed salmon transfer disease to wild salmon. Sea lice occur naturally in the ocean and over 500 marine lice species can be found on most wild fish including herring, cod, halibut, and salmon.

What happens to the fish poop?

Most of the waste from farmed fish is quickly used by plants, animals, and other life found near the fish farms or diluted by ocean currents. Just like the waste from wild fish.

What makes farmed salmon pink?

Farmed salmon are fed a diet closely mimicking what they would eat in nature. This includes astaxanthin – a carotenoid that is found in algae, krill and small crustaceans. Astaxanthin acts as an antioxidant and helps keep farmed salmon healthy and strong. Astaxanthin in salmon also helps us when we eat it – its health benefits are still being explored but include protecting against stress associated and inflammatory diseases in humans. Farmed salmon are never ‘dyed’. Their lovely pink colour comes from natural sources just like shrimp and flamingos.

How do farmers manage sea lice?

Sea lice are a naturally occurring parasite in the ocean ecosystem, living on many species of wild fish including salmon.  They do not pose a human health risk. Avoiding the use of sea lice treatments is a top priority for Atlantic salmon farmers, but sometimes the fish can become stressed by sea lice making them vulnerable to disease.

Our farmers follow an Integrated Pest Management Plan (IPMP) which outlines a multi-level approach to controlling sea lice combining preventative farming practices such as fish husbandry, fallowing and low stocking densities, with regulatory approved treatments when necessary. Atlantic salmon farmers continue to invest millions of dollars into research and development in pursuit of alternative sea lice technologies like ‘cleaner’ fish, warm water and water pressure treatments to help them grow healthy fish.

Do farmers use pesticides/chemicals to treat for sea lice?

Sea lice are a naturally occurring parasite in the ocean, living on many species of wild fish including salmon. Atlantic salmon farmers use many alternative green technologies like ‘cleaner’ fish, warm water and water pressure treatments and broodstock development to help them grow healthy fish.

If a chemical treatment is necessary, veterinarians use only approved products under the oversight of government regulators. All sea lice treatment products undergo extensive risk assessments by Health Canada to ensure they are safe for salmon and other species, the environment and human health.

How is the environmental impact managed on a salmon farm?

Farmers must conduct regular third party and government-audited sediment testing of the ocean floor to ensure farms meet high environmental standards and that waste from farmed fish is quickly used by plants, animals, and other life found near the fish farms. Dissolved oxygen levels must meet certain criteria (measured in sediment sulfide concentration less than 1500 uM) or remedial measures must be taken.

Other steps that farmers take to protect the marine environment include:

  • Fallowing farms regularly – just like farms on land
  • Divers inspect the fish, the net pen systems and the ocean floor regularly
  • Veterinarians monitor the fish regularly

In the Bay of Fundy, farmers use a world-renowned Aquaculture Bay Management Area system that separates first, second-, and third-year fish, supporting a proven agriculture practice of rotation, grow-out and fallow periods. This approach allows farmers to coordinate the health management practices on all farms in that area and help prevent the spread of disease or parasites.

How do farmers manage fish health?

From hatchery to harvest, the health of our fish is of paramount importance. All salmon enter marine farms disease and parasite free, but diseases and parasites that affect the aquaculture industry are naturally present in marine and freshwater environments and sometimes our fish need to be treated by veterinarians. Fish health monitoring is conducted regularly on Atlantic Canada’s fish farms by veterinarians and trained staff to make sure fish remain healthy.

Atlantic salmon farmers follow the highest fish health management standards and use the best science and 50 years of farming experience to grow healthy, nutritious salmon. Farmers rely on in-house veterinarians, biologists, oceanographic specialists as well as advice from Provincial and Federal Regulators to develop best practices for fish health management, biosecurity, area management strategies that support responsible fish health and welfare standards. Farmers are proactive in fish health management and respond immediately when challenges arise. They bring millions of healthy fish to market.

Do farmed salmon spread diseases and sea lice to wild fish?

All salmon are free of disease and parasites when they enter marine farms. There is no peer reviewed scientific evidence that farmed salmon transfer disease to wild salmon. Sea lice occur naturally in the ocean and the over 500 marine species can be found on most wild fish including herring, cod, halibut, and salmon.

Is salmon farming responsible for the decline of wild Atlantic salmon?

No. Salmon farming began as a way to address the decline of the commercial and recreational fishery for Atlantic salmon. The decline began over a hundred years ago. Studies and monitoring data show that wild salmon runs fluctuate from year to year whether salmon farms are in the area or not.

No one really knows exactly why wild salmon populations are fluctuating. Wild salmon populations are impacted by a variety of issues.  Low marine survival is viewed as the most significant factor, and this is being compounded by climate change. Other activities affecting wild salmon include loss of habitat, predators, non-point sources of contaminants, marine environmental conditions, forestry, and cumulative effects.

Salmon farmers and aquaculture companies have a long history of working on wild salmon conservation and enhancement efforts in many parts of Atlantic Canada. Farmers work with a wide variety of partners, including First Nations, as part of the innovative Fundy Salmon Recovery project that is now seeing inner Bay of Fundy salmon returns to their home rivers in unprecedented numbers. (

Are farmed salmon given antibiotics?

No preventative antibiotics are given to farmed salmon in Atlantic Canada. Salmon farmers use less antibiotics than any other livestock farmers. Farmers focus on keeping their salmon healthy but if they do get sick, they are treated under the care of veterinarians who are committed to using antibiotics only as necessary. Strictly regulated withdrawal periods – far longer than any other agriculture sector – follow any use of medication.

Should farmed salmon be grown in tanks on land?

Atlantic salmon farmers are experts in closed containment because our fish spend the first third of their lives in land-based hatcheries where recirculation systems are used. We know that closed systems may work with some species for their entire life cycle. But right now, it’s not economically viable, environmentally friendly or in the best interests of fish welfare to grow Atlantic salmon to market size in these systems. Many challenges must be overcome first, including water and land usage, real costs of energy and considerations around animal welfare, not to mention the quality and acceptance of the product (and its inevitably high retail price) by the consumer.  Post-smolt systems are now proven land-based systems in which farmers can grow the fish to a larger size on land before they are moved to the ocean cages. This reduces the time the fish are exposed to the marine environment by 50 per cent.

Are farmed salmon genetically modified?

Farmed Atlantic salmon are not genetically modified in any way. Additionally, no artificial dyes or growth hormones are used.

News & Releases
As the only association focused solely on salmonid farming in Atlantic Canada, the ACFFA can help you stay current on industry happenings, expand your network as well as promote and protect your interests.
Learn More