Salmon farming. A critical look into the fishing nets.

Another deceptive photo. Also happy salmon in the wild have become rare, and there is a lot wrong with farming. The former luxury product has long been a mass product, the production is cruel to animals and has environmentally damaging effects. Anyone interested in the subject avoids eating it in view of the gruesome facts.

September 2023

Salmon has been sitting heavily on my stomach for a long time. It is the favourite fish of many, and there is hardly a restaurant where it is not on the menu. Even at the Greek restaurant around the corner, where it has no part to play, because salmon is found in northern waters only. It's a mass product, usually from a dubious source, the pink colour artificially produced. When the friend orders it enthusiastically, I fall silent, I don't want to be a spoilsport with a wagging finger. And yet!

The Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard recently played into my hands with a report by Verena Kainrath (in German language): "How the salmon louse became the horror of the fishing industry." With it, everything is on the table. I therefore take the liberty of posting this article here. More info in the WWF Seafood Guides, among others.

"How the salmon louse became the terror of the fish industry. The parasite threatens farmed salmon and their wild counterparts. About growing fish consumption and factory farming under water.

Sie ist deutlich kleiner als ein Fingernagel und der größte Feind der norwegischen Fischindustrie. Sie beißt sich an Lachsen und Meerforellen fest, ernährt sich von Sekret, Haut und Blut ihrer Opfer. Immer tiefer frisst sich das winzige Krustentier in die unfreiwilligen Wirte, setzt sie neben schweren Verletzungen massivem Stress aus und macht sie anfällig für Krankheiten.

No parasite keeps aquaculture operators on their toes more than the salmon louse. It costs hundreds of millions of euros annually to combat its explosive reproduction in fish farms.

The louse is an even greater threat to wild salmon than farmed salmon, which the industry is using ever more sophisticated chemicals and technologies to keep alive. Their migration routes lead past millions of their fellow species fattened in net cages. Smolts, in particular, are becoming a ready meal for them. These young salmon, which migrate downstream across fjords into the open sea, have little to counter the unnaturally high concentration of parasites in the huge breeding facilities. The population of wild Old Atlantic salmon, which migrate thousands of kilometres from freshwater to saltwater and back to the upper reaches of the rivers, has been dramatically decimated in recent decades.

World of factory farming. One of the sites of the showdown between crab, fish and man is high up in northern Norway. From Bodø in Norway, via Helnessund, a fishing village with a few dozen inhabitants, the journey takes us up the fjords to a pier, from there eight nautical miles out to sea until the Lofoten archipelago appears on the horizon.

A dolphin jumps out of the wind-curled sea. Imposing mountains rise on the trackless shores of the more than 600-metre-deep fjord. Rain clouds tower above rugged headlands. It is a wild idyll that even the aquaculture of the salmon farmer Cermaq with nine floating cages anchored to the seabed does not cloud. At least above water. The view under water via cameras shows the less than picturesque world of factory farming: in the basins, which are scattered with food and excrement, fish, fin to fin, turn the eternally same circles.

The facilities, which are surrounded by nets, are 35 metres deep and 160 metres in circumference. Norway allows 25 kilos of salmon per cubic metre of water. Organic salmon are allowed twice as much space.

Efficient feed utiliser. Each basin holds 200,000 salmon, which grow here from 100 grams to a slaughter weight of five kilos. They spend 14 to 22 months in sea enclosures. After that, they become five million fish portions.

It smells like fish food that a hose sprays in circles over the water from eight to 4 p.m., 60 tonnes a day. 1.2 kilos of feed make one kilo of fish. Hardly any animal that humans fatten is considered a more efficient feed utiliser and puts more energy into its muscle growth than the salmon.

Martine Evjen leaves no doubt that nothing is left to chance in production. Seven days a week, she monitors the facility around the clock on site above and below the water. "We want our salmon to feel at home," she says, gazing almost lovingly over the vast aquaculture.

Dead fish are removed daily and any attempts by the salmon to escape from the cages are prevented. The water quality at the site is demonstrably good, as confirmed by regular inspections by the Norwegian Environment Agency. Every week, the number of lice is measured on 200 animals. If more than 2.15 crayfish per fish are found on average despite the physical barrier on the nets, the treatment takes its course.

The parasites have become resistant to drugs in many cases. The industry is therefore practising preventive measures such as cleaner fish. These nibble the lice off the fish, but die in droves themselves. 50 million wrasse and lumpfish die in Norway's net pens every year, according to veterinarians from Norwegian authorities.

High-tech like lasers used to shoot the crustaceans off the salmon is expensive. Most of the fish are rinsed, brushed or pumped through hot water. These are methods that cost many of them their lives. In 2022, 92 million farmed salmon perished in Norway as a result of husbandry conditions in human care.

Counting lice. The road to getting the louse under control is long, admits Karl Ottem. The scientist, who manages fish health at Cermaq, outlines his company's efforts to improve the welfare of farmed salmon in a futuristic-looking visitor centre on the shore of the fjord. For example, he points out, the mortality rate of the fish at Cermaq Nordland has dropped from eight to five per cent.

Higher requirements through the voluntary ASC certificate would have contributed to this. The seal is intended to improve ecological and social standards in fish fattening.

Ulrich Pulg paints a bleaker illustration of the Norwegian fishing industry. The biologist works for the independent research institute Norce in Bergen. He puts the proportion of salmon that do not survive their rearing at 16 to 20 per cent, with reference to data from the Veterinary Institute. This does not yet include the decline of wild fish. In contrast to Ottem, who sees factors such as climate change and overfishing as predominant, Pulg and the scientific committee of the Wild Fish Administration describe industrial fish farming as the greatest threat to free-living populations.

Wild salmon in trouble. Norway had 1.3 million wild salmon 25 years ago. At the same time, more than 400 million farmed salmon are growing in the country's aquacultures. Norway wants to increase this business fivefold by 2050. With 1.4 million tonnes of salmon, the country is already the world's largest exporter of farmed fish. After oil, the noble fish is the country's most important industry. It provides up to 100,000 jobs on the sparsely populated coast.

Hardly any other edible fish in the world is more sought after than salmon. Easy to prepare without bones, wholesome and always available, it has advanced from a delicacy to an everyday product. As a topping for sushi, it has also gained in importance in Japan, strongly promoted by Norway. In Austria as in Germany, it tops the list of the most eaten fish.

The selling point is the high proportion of omega-3 fatty acids. The fact that salmon has to be specifically enriched with this in the feed, as it is increasingly being fed a plant-based diet in farming, has not put a stop to the boom.

The pink colour is not natural either, as crabs are absent from its diet. To make its grey flesh more attractive, farmed salmon is fed the carotenoid astaxanthin on the basis of a colour fan.

Of salmon that end up on plates, only a few have swum in the open sea. The growing appetite for them is primarily met from farms. No sector in the food industry is growing faster - with fatal ecological consequences in many places.

Lice, diseases, escaped salmon. Every year in Norway, according to Pulg, more than 100,000 farmed salmon escape, their genetic material mixing with that of their wild counterparts. This reduces the chances of survival of free-ranging salmon, as do infections spread from cages among passing shoals.

Medicines, feed residues and excrement pollute the seabed and threaten biodiversity. Other eco-bombs are ticking in the feed.It is true that the proportion of wild fish in it has been noticeably reduced. But alternatives such as GM soya from overseas - banned in the organic sector - are also controversial.

It is a bad reputation that precedes salmon. Snorre Jonassen just shakes his head in disgust. The boss of Cermaq Nordland has worked in the fishing industry since he was 14. No animal in agriculture is healthier, he assures: Vaccinations of every single fish make antibiotics almost superfluous.

Cermaq emphasises strict monitoring of water quality and biodiversity. Feed is sourced from sustainable sources, and the fish is continuously tested for residues. Ethoxyquin, which preserves fishmeal and is suspected of causing cancer, is no longer used.

Value of the certificates. Jonassen sees the ASC certificate, which was founded in cooperation with the WWF, as a guarantor of compliance with ecological and social requirements in aquacultures. It is the only seal that analyses the improvements made by its standards and makes them transparent, says ASC manager Dennis Wittmann.

Ursula Bittner, on the other hand, compares salmon farming to industrial pig fattening, which is massively harmful to animals and the environment. Norway is doing much better than Chile, says the economic expert from Greenpeace Austria. The catch in fish production, however, is difficult and often unreliable controls at sea. Consumers should not expect too much from the various seals. They make many foods look greener than they are and tempt people not to think twice about consuming too many animal products. Bittner advises the consumption of local fish and especially recommends the herbivore carp.

Pulg does not deny that individual farms are trying to be sustainable. But that does not change the far too high overall pollution of coastal waters by industrial fish farming. Overall, infestation by salmon lice and mortality in the farms have increased. Instead of antibiotics, other drugs are being used that are no less harmful. None of the current seals will solve the crucial problems.

Closed plants. Pulg sees only two ways out: either fish consumption falls - or the industry retools. To protect wild fish, he says, closed breeding facilities are needed, from which no waste water, diseases or parasites enter the sea. This has to be certified. But as long as the government does not demand this and makes pollution almost free of charge, the industry will milk the old cow for as long as possible.

Cermaq plane aktuell keine derartigen Projekte, auch wenn die Technologie rund um geschlossene Anlagen vielversprechend sei, sagt Jonassen. Er macht kein Hehl daraus, dass seine Branche finanziell auf der Bremse steht.

The reason for this is a new tax of 25 percent on farmed salmon. The Norwegian government wants to make salmon barons, who make a lot of money from fjords, i.e. from the public's resources, pay more. Since then, the industry has been in uproar. Jonassen rumbles that his industry creates jobs and keeps rural regions together, in which it reinvests most of its profits. Unlike oil and gas, fish is a "renewable resource beyond the country's borders".

The Scandinavian salmon farmers are certainly not lacking in high-tech. The largely automated production process is felt by their fish especially in the first months of life and shortly before death.

They are sterile factory halls where the salmon spend their first nine to 15 months. If you want to see them in Nordland under the mountain lake Forsanvatnet, you have to go through disinfection sluices. Three times a year, Cermaq matures eggs in fresh water. Once hatched, twelve million hatchlings scurry in darkness in containers resembling washbasins. For 50 days they feed on their yolk sac, says Kristian Bygdas, who manages the rearing, as he brings them into the light with a pipette. The most delicate moment, he says, accompanied by the quiet hiss of the pumps, is when they are sucked into larger pools and fed for the first time.

A few years ago, a dozen helpers inoculated every single young fish by hand. Now a machine does this. It does a good 20,000 in an hour.

On the assembly line at high speed in a highly digitalised production, the last hours of the salmon also end. 160 animals per minute are pumped from tanks through tunnels. A machine stuns them with a blow. The sting follows. The tanks in which they bleed out stand out harshly against the clinical white of the uniformly rattling equipment before the salmon are grabbed by gripper arms and gutted." (REPORT: Verena Kainrath from Helnessund, 17.9.2023)

Last year, I summarised information on fishing in general and which fish – apart from domestic freshwater fish from organic farms – can be eaten safely. → Read up here.