fish oil

Salmon in the NFL Line-up?

With the Discovery of Fish Oil Being Able to Protect Against Head Injuries, the League Has an Interest in Protecting Salmon Habitat

By Debbie Kay

Recently, the NFL has admitted a clear link between playing football, concussions, and long-term brain damage.  This news has been coming for some time, and a number of concussion-reduction studies have been going on over the past decade.  Efforts have included things like helmetless practice to learn to hit and take hits differently, and sensors in helmets to accurately measure the amount pressure and damage to the brain.  But another means of protecting players may lie in the results of a recent preliminary study out of TCU, which is showing that a simple dose of fish oil offers significant protection against the damaging effects of head trauma.

The Fish Oil Study

In 2014, about 80 of the TCU football players were asked to down a daily shot of fish oil for a sports physiology study that was being performed on campus, while another group was given a placebo shot.  The goal was to look at what one of the fatty acids found in fish oil, DHA, was doing to the brain when someone received a head injury.  The players had their blood drawn, looking for a component that’s released into the bloodstream during head injuries, called neurofilament light.  The less you have, the less damage you’ve sustained.  Players who were taking fish oil consistently showed levels of neurofilament light that averaged 40% lower than those on the placebo.  That’s a huge result.

The Demand

One of the best sources of DHA comes from fatty fish.  Salmon and tuna, as well as smaller feeder fish like herring, are known to be very oily, and can be excellent sources of DHA.  If the study sparks a high demand for salmon, (and it must be high-oil, quality salmon to be useful got yhid), then there may be new opportunities for those looking to reclaim endangered salmon habitats worldwide.  There will likely be a debate as to where the best sourcing will come from, however.  Groups like the GMO Salmon companies may try taking advantage of the spike in demand, though it’s hard to say whether this will be as effective as boosting wild salmon populations in the long run.

Farmed vs Wild:  The Economic and Ecological Concerns

To those who are unaware of the ecological side of the story, the favorable economics of farmed salmon  seems in many ways like the most logical choice.  It provides food to a hungry market at low opportunity cost (little fuel or effort goes into catching them, and fish farms have high startup costs but low labor and maintenance fees compared to fishing).  Additional benefits accrue with GMO salmon.  GMO fish also grow to their harvestable size in half the time, reducing the cost of feed and labor.  As a bonus, they’re bred to be sterile, removing the risk of cross bred hybrids found in the wild or multiplying invasive populations.

There’s more to the story, however.  Unlike other aquacultured fish like tilapia and catfish, which can be segregated into ponds that are unattached to any other water bodies, salmon farms must be located in saltwater bays that are both sheltered and close to good water flow.  These same areas are traditionally full of spawning feeder fish like sand lance, herring, and eulachon, and the infrastructure of the farm will typically displace these fish, potentially reducing an important food source for wild salmon nearby.  Also, for the fish oil to have the high DHA levels required for brain protection, they must have a very high-oil diet.  This naturally happens in wild fish, while the fish food given to farmed fish is often made from ground and dessicated cartilage and other waste collected from processing boats in Alaska and other areas with factory processing fishing vessels, once they have removed all the other saleable parts.  It is unclear whether this would translate to the same DHA levels, or if the market would require a larger strain on the limited feeder fish populations that are so crucial to our wild salmon populations.

A Case for Salmon Habitat

Though the opportunity cost for wild salmon is higher initially, the cost of restoring healthy salmon streams to high population levels is something that, once achieved, has little to no maintenance cost in the future.  The stream systems can naturally accommodate tens of millions of fish, and if the salmon have clean, cold water, access to the spawning headwaters, and enough of a population boost, then each year’s will require less  human intervention, unlike with farms.   Hatcheries can often help give these populations a boost back in the right direction, and are considered less ecologically harmful, as the fish are only raised in captivity a short time and rely mostly on wild habitat and food.

The studies with the NFL are still preliminary, but if fish oil is as much of a miracle drug as the early results are suggesting, then this will likely become a larger conversation soon.

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