Salmon farms: good or bad?

Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The Norwegian coastline is as long as circumnavigating the Earth… 2.5 times! These 102,937-kilometres (63,962 miles) are wetted by four seas that are particularly rich in fishes: cod, herring, capelin, mackerel, blue whiting… This abundance of fish has made fishing one of the main pillars of the country’s economy, but despite quotas defined by research institutes, and persistent marketing campaigns, sustainability is still only a dream…

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Aquaculture (in fresh water) and mariculture (in seawater) have been developed to farm salmon of course, Norway’s most exported species, but also cods, rainbow trout, halibuts, lobsters, oysters, scallops, etc. If farming fish seems to be a good option to feed 9 billion people by 2050 with 70 percent of the Earth covered by water, and a high conversion rate of their food (1.2 kg (2.6 lb) of food leads to the production of 1kg (2.2 lb) of fish vs. 20 kg (44 lb) of food for 1kg (2.2 lb) of beef meat), it is not a miracle solution either – yet.

Fish farms float on many Norwegian fjords. No less than 100 licensed facilities produce 70,000 tons of salmon a year in the Hardanger Fjord only, world’s third longest, reaching 179 kilometres (111 miles) inland! Overall, 1,322 mariculture farms are set up along the coast of Norway representing close to 40,000 direct and indirect jobs according to Storeblå Aquaculture Centre in Bergen, an information point about the industry, financed by Leroy, Norway’s largest seafood producer… In 2021, 3.1 million metric tons of seafood products were exported for a value of EUR 12.1 billion (USD 13.1 billion). Let’s be clear: it is quite difficult to find unbiased data in the country which economy depends so much on this industry, its second fastest growing behind oil and gas.

This seems obvious when visiting the Leroy Rongoy salmon farm, about 25 kilometres (16 miles) northwest of Bergen, with (Leroy) marine biologist Øyvind Reinshol. In the control room, screens are animated with real-time numbers and images from cameras in the cages, carefully monitoring the assets. The total of 163,963 salmon. Their average weight of 1,149 kg (2.5 lb). The amount of food given. The biomass… The calculation is simple, given that the selling price is around NOK 50 per kilogram (EUR 5.2 per kg, USD 2.7 per lb).

Standing on a floating platform by a 50-meter-diameter (164-ft) marine net pen that extends about 40-meter-deep (130-ft), we observe the salmon jumping out of the water. Some are trying to catch some of the feed that is propelled up in the air by a rotating pneumatic system. Øyvind describes their lifecycle. Basically, it takes roughly 3 years to grow an ideal salmon of 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds). The water temperature and regulated feed allow the farmed salmon to reach its ideal weight for consumption almost twice as fast its wild counterpart, that is also greatly challenged by the ever-present Norwegian hydropower industry, preventing wild salmon and trout from spawning.

On the super hygienic floating salmon farm, Øyvind clearly describes the progress of the industry that has greatly cut down on antibiotics, favouring vaccination of the fish instead, and its current focus on animal welfare, not omitting the strict regulations and environmental surveys that are carried on and published regularly. Research and development are constantly underway in an industry that is very aware of its negative impacts even if it does not like communicating openly about them: to replace pesticides to rid salmon of sea lice (a natural parasite of salmon that can pierce through their skin and result in infection or death), cleaner fish lumpfish are put to work in the nets; dead fish are sucked up and either used to extract enzymes for the cosmetics industry or turned into a sludge for biofuels, resulting in 99 percent of the fish being used.

However, Øyvind is a bit more discreet about the adverse effects of fish farming. According to the watchlist of the Monterey Bay aquarium, a world reference for seafood sustainability, the Atlantic salmon farmed in Norway as the ones swimming under our eyes are marked as “Avoid” stating the following reasons: “While total antibiotic use is considered low, 30 percent of the antibiotics that are used are listed as critically important for human medicine by the World Health Organisation, and the remainder, highly important. Pesticide use is substantial even though the industry is increasingly using non-chemical alternatives for dealing with sea lice parasites. Sea lice transfer from farmed to wild salmon also poses a threat to wild salmon and trout populations. In addition, escapes of farmed salmon are a major risk to the genetic composition and fitness of wild, native salmon populations.”

Indeed, the gene pool of all Norwegian farmed salmon emanates from genetically selected wild salmons fished in 16 different rivers in the 1970’s. Today, we are looking at members of the 18th generation… The fact that these specimens escape regularly and mix with wild salmon dramatically decreases the genetic variation of the specie, posing a long-term risk of seeing wild salmon disappear. The risk of spreading virus, parasite and bacteria from fish farm to fish farm and to wild salmon along the way is also quite serious, plus the high concentration of salmon lice surrounding fish farms has become a problem for wild salmon and trout. Other environmental impacts include (and are not limited to) the residual feed and faeces on the seabed, the high nitrogen and phosphorus content, the copper content used to combat biofouling on nets and the plastic waste from nets. Lastly, the feed of farmed fish is 70 percent plant-based, and mostly soy-based, a water-intensive crop competing with other staple food, while the rest is mostly fish-based, resulting in about 25 percent of global fishing catches today supplying the aquaculture industry!

Thirty years ago, salmon was a luxury product. It was caught wild and tended to be served for Christmas or special occasions. Today, wild salmon is about four times pricier than farmed salmon, and prices have dropped drastically: salmon has become a common fish. If farming seems to be a sustainable option and is greatly marketed as such especially in Norway (after all, the Norwegians are so good at it that they could convince the Japanese and the world of salmon sushi), many adverse effects such as competition for food, environmental impacts and jeopardizing wild salmons make the mariculture and aquaculture a not so sustainable choice.

A partial solution may come from the inside. In a state-of-the-art industry, farming seaweed may be the next big breakthrough in order to supply the cosmetics industry, and more importantly, fish farms themselves as feeding material…

Travel tips:

  • There are various Storeblå Aquaculture Centres in Norway, and the one in Bergen makes a great visit to learn more about the Norwegian fish industry, as it is close to the Norway Fisheries Museum, and it is possible to visit a Leroy salmon farm from there.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

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