Be prepared to pay more to reduce salmon farm pollution
Scotland’s salmon farm industry started its crisis in 2016. That year, out of a total of 43 million smolts (young salmon) put into fish farm production, as much as a quarter ended up discarded and incinerated in north-west England due to disease and sea lice.
The crisis in the industry has continued throughout the past two years with an epidemic of sea lice, which has only now begun to come under control, mostly with the successful breeding of ballan wrasse, a fish that eats sea lice, but also with theoveruse of chemicals intended to kill the lice – but which has often caused environmental damage in the surrounding waters.
Now the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), an environmental watchdog, has recommended a major overhaul of the regulatory regime of fish farming after criticism of the impact on the marine ecology.
Calls to eradicate fish farms, but at what cost?
For many city-dwelling columnists, activists and food writers across the whole UK, the problem’s solution is simply the eradication of the exploitative, often foreign owned, fish farms and an end to fish farming itself. In order to stop the environmental damage caused by fish farms, including the effect it has on falling wild salmon stocks, we need to end the industry, they say, and go back to eating wild salmon.
While at first glance this might seem ideal, it’s a demand unlikely to happen, as the truth is that wild salmon would then become prohibitively expensive, and therefore a food only available to the rich few, and there would very quickly be a rerun of the Newfoundland cod crisis and eventual banning of cod fishing in the region in of 1992, but this time it would be Pacific salmon.
And there are other considerations. With methane gas from cattle being one of the biggest polluters on the planet and the low carbon footprint of salmon as a source of protein, farmed salmon may be a better option for our future.
Furthermore, there are the economic considerations for Scotland. The dramatic increase in food exports, often riding on the back of Scotland being viewed as a place of quality produce due to its highly successful whisky industry, has been one of the biggest successes for the SNP government.
Salmon farming supports rural communities
Anyone who has visited one of the many worldwide trade food fairs, such as the recent SIAL in Paris, can testify to Scotland’s hugely increased presence. Farmed salmon exports were worth £600 million to Scotland last year.
Salmon farms employ nearly 2000 people in Scotland, most of them in rural communities, the kind of places where every extra job keeps a shop open, helps maintain a school or a doctor’s surgery.
Young families, who often come with salmon farm workers, move into an area in desperate need of them, and people in these places become volunteer firemen, coastguards, mountain rescuers and join crofting grazing committees, and those employed in the salmon industry are an integral part of that.
Work on a salmon farm is one of the most lucrative careers in the rural Highlands. Behind the lurid tabloid headlines about an industry in tatters due to the possible effects on wild salmon (scientists are still studying this) and the lice crisis, a closer look at the excellent investigative reporting into this from the website the Ferret shows that the industry badly needs to take the measures that environmental watchdog Sepa is demanding.
Improving standards, high-quality, higher prices
In its report it stated that one in five of Scotland’s 226 salmon farm sites were not up to industry standard, that use of liquid medicines had to be reduced and that the chemicals being used to treat sea lice were having a long-lasting environmental impact. Shallow water fish farms need to be relocated into deeper water along with more sustainable practices and innovative techniques. This will mean that we need to be willing to pay more.
There are already deep water salmon fish farms, ones that are placed far away from wild salmon migration paths, ones with far fewer fish in each cage than the more intensive, shallower water ones. These farms already produce high-quality, low-yield sustainable salmon.
This is the salmon that graces the sushi tables of top restaurants in Asia and was the first non-French product to gain the Label Rouge in France, a sign of quality produce. It’s not the salmon that we eat here.
UK consumers spend less on food
As a country we are addicted to cheap food. We spend a much smaller proportion of our income on food than other countries across the whole of Europe and when we have more money we spend it on something else.
With the banking collapse of 2008 and the subsequent worldwide recession it was the retail sector in Scotland that suffered, not the food and drink producers. In Spain it was the high-quality ham producers who went out of business with the economic recession, and in Catalonia the wine and cava producers saw sales of their more premium products dramatically drop.
A quick look at the retail prices show that you can buy salmon here, either fresh or frozen, for between £10 and £13 per kilo, and the problem is that you can’t pay a price like that and expect it to come from a deep water farm with sustainable practices and high costs. It’s not a business model that can function.
If we want to keep the sea around us as free of chemical toxins as possible, have as little an impact as we can on wildlife and still be able to have both a decent source of protein and decent jobs for our fragile rural communities, we are going to have to start paying more for our salmon, as well as asking more questions of our retailers about its source.