Back Forty: The empty promise of salmon farming

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Farmed Scottish salmon with lesions, sea lice, and eye infections. Meall Mhor salmon feedlot, Loch Fyne, Scotland, 2021. Photo by Corin Smith.

By Bridget Huber

Over the last 40 years, salmon has gone from a wild food, sometimes called the King of Fish, to a cheap global commodity, fodder for gas station sushi and $10 poke bowls. In their book, The New Fish: The Truth about Farmed Salmon and the Consequences We Can No Longer Ignore, investigative journalists Simen Saetre and Kjetil Ostli trace the evolution of the salmon farming industry as it spread from Norway’s deep fjords to farms across the globe, and describe the environmental, ethical, and public health costs of its rapid rise. I recently spoke with Saetre about the book, which has just been translated into English. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You describe a lot of unappetizing and disturbing things that go into salmon farming — the fish are infested with lice, which farmers try to kill with pesticides; many of the fish have viruses or die from exploding hearts due to stress and other factors; and the ones we eat often have wounds on their bodies. This just doesn’t sound healthy.

If you go to the store today and buy sushi, it can come from a fish that had big wounds on it. People aren’t aware of that because it gets cut off. But if people knew they were eating a fish with wounds and parasites and viruses, they would prefer to eat healthier fish.

But a pair of bigger questions is: Has this business developed in a healthy way? And is this a healthy way of producing food? It’s definitely not. Farmed salmon may be more climate-friendly than red meat, but the industry is only driven by making more and more money. There’s less of a focus on nature, the salmons’ welfare, and the climate. It’s going in the wrong direction.

I was struck by how many different chemicals and pesticides are used in salmon farming. We think of Norwegian salmon as coming from these pristine environments.

When you create a monoculture in the ocean, you grow a lot of parasites, especially salmon lice. To fight them, the industry has used a lot of different chemicals. And since this is all happening in open pens in the sea, they basically dump chemicals into the ocean. That kills lice, but also whatever else is in the sea, like shrimp and other creatures. The lice became resistant to the chemicals, so then farmers started using measures that are even worse for the fish — like putting them into hot water while they’re alive or bringing in so-called cleaner fish or trying new chemicals, like neonicotinoids. We don’t know the consequences for salmon and ocean life, but we know [those pesticides] are dangerous for bees and other insects. The industry has a problem, and by trying to solve the problem they get 10 new ones.

You write that Norway is looking toward its post-oil future, and there’s a big incentive to seize on salmon as the answer to what Norway does as we move away from fossil fuels.

Right. It’s not good to be an oil-producing nation anymore, for obvious reasons. So if you start criticizing salmon production as well, it’s like, well, what are we gonna do here? We’re not saying that you can’t farm salmon. We’re saying they should use better technology, that it’s probably not a good idea to produce it in the open sea, and that you must put way more emphasis on the welfare of the fish and a little less on profits. But it’s not popular to criticize salmon farming in Norway. I promise you.

I read that the salmon industry in Norway is like Big Ag and Big Tobacco rolled into one. The industry has pushed to discredit researchers, silence regulators, and mount elaborate PR campaigns.

We talked to many scientists who said that it was becoming very hard to do research that could be seen as critical toward the industry. Things like researching the effects of farmed salmon on wild salmon populations, salmon lice, or pollutants that might accumulate in the fish. Scientists began trying to avoid such research because they feared for their reputations. Some had to quit their jobs, and it became very hard to get funding. But on the other side, you have all these other scientists working very closely with the industry and bringing positive news about what the industry is doing. In the end, the public has too little knowledge about the negative consequences and too much about the possible positive effects. 

You’ve experienced some of this pushback from the industry, too.

The industry will not go after you with a baseball bat, but it will threaten your integrity, call your bosses, contact book reviewers if they gave you a good review. They will brand you as an activist. And that means you have to fight to be taken seriously as an investigative reporter.

 Are any farms getting this right?

Some smaller producers want to do this a lot better. They produce salmon with better welfare and a lot smaller climate footprint. They have very good intentions, but there’s a sense in the industry that if some producers appear to be better than others, it will hurt the industry as a whole. It would be better to use closed facilities instead of open pens, so you can avoid escapes and keep salmon lice out. Using more sustainable feed also is important — not using soy from former rainforests in Brazil, or fish that humans can eat. There also are issues with fish health, maybe letting the salmon grow a little more slowly would help.

Salmon farms are often located in remote places that may have had wild fisheries collapse or other kinds of deindustrialization. Communities want jobs and development. Is that how it turns out?

Rural communities think a salmon farm will kickstart their economies and make some deserted communities livable again. Maybe. But what often happens is that only a few individuals get very rich — the owners of the farm. So that changes the balance in that community. And many of the jobs the farms bring, especially in the slaughterhouses, are not so attractive. The only people who will do them are migrant workers from Eastern Europe. You end up with strange communities where you have a few very wealthy people, and then a lot of migrants who don’t speak the local language and only come for a little while, then move again.

There’s a lot of talk about blue foods and aquaculture as ways to achieve food security.

The industry talks about how it’s good for the climate and feeding the world. They cherry-pick some arguments, like, we need to grow more food from the ocean. That’s true. But we need to do it in a sensible way. If you farm fish, you should farm a fish that, unlike salmon, can live without eating other fish [so we don’t add more pressure to wild stocks or turn potential human food into fish food]. Farming salmon is good for making a lot of money. But it’s not good for feeding the world or saving the climate.

As the salmon farming industry has come under more scrutiny, what is its reputation in Norway now?

In Norway you’ll find the salmon industry’s strongest defenders, but also some of its strongest critics. It’s very polarized, and increasingly so. A lot of people in Norway have stopped eating farmed salmon altogether. The industry has very low opinion ratings. But it doesn’t matter that much that the perception is bad, because they’re mostly not selling in Norway but in places like the U.S., which I think is the biggest market. Most people who buy farmed salmon don’t know that much about the industry, and what people are saying in Norway is not that important to them.