I’ve signed the pledge – not alcohol but farmed salmon. I had all but stopped eating it anyway, apart from a side of smoked salmon at Christmas, but now I’m giving up even that. Whilst I hate the culture of virtue-signalling, in this instance I feel it my duty to try to convince others too, so here goes!
Many possible reasons have been put forward for the collapse in numbers of Wild Atlantic salmon, including the increased salinity of the sea, river pollution and physical barriers like dams. They have probably all contributed, but the most compelling argument for me is the rise in salmon farming. It can’t be just coincidence that the wild salmon runs that remain in the world are in those parts without salmon farms – headed by Alaska, which has none, and followed by Russia, which has very few.
For years Salmon & Trout Conservation has campaigned for robust regulation of open-net salmon farming, but the lack of action has convinced them that the time has now come to call for the practice to be banned. However, with farmed salmon being the UK’s biggest single food export, I’m not holding out much hope of government intervention. Which is why it comes down to individuals to persuade the public to stop supporting this highly damaging practise.
What’s new, you ask? A fair point, as the decline in wild salmon started before salmon farming began in the 1970’s, since when we are supposed to have cleaned up our rivers. Salmon & Trout Conservation have put together a comprehensive73-page document explaining their case in calling for a ban. However, readers of this website will already be well aware of the problem of sea lice in salmon farms and the chemicals used (even in organic farming). So, rather than reproduce the contents, I have attached their report below. You will also be aware that farmed salmon frequently escape into the wild, and in numbers that now exceed the dwindling wild population. The genetics of wild salmon have been influenced by the individual rivers in which they grew up so that they are quite distinct from those from another river. This is thought to be a major factor in helping them find their way back to their birth river when the time comes to spawn. Although farmed salmon were originally bred from the Wild Atlantic, they were selected from just three rivers with the goal of achieving a salmon that would put on weight more quickly and from less food. Farmed salmon are now so different to wild, both genetically and physiologically, that many consider they should now be identified as a separate species. Although the farmed salmon are not well equipped to survive in the wild, they do compete for food, introduce disease, and interbreed, all of which reduce the survival chances for wild salmon.
Something that has changed over time is the feed used. As carnivorous fish, the Atlantic Salmon has to consume more fish meal and oil over its lifetime than the finished weight it will attain. In 1990, 230 tonnes of farmed salmon were produced in the UK, by 2020 this had risen to 2.7 million tonnes. In the early days of fish farming, I promoted fish such as sand eel for human consumption rather than fish meal, as a more sustainable way of consuming fish. Later Krill, particularly from the Antarctic, became the major source of feed, although a higher quantity was required to achieve the same weight. Global warming has seen the ice melt to such an extent that krill can now be harvested year-round rather than just in the summer. Although physically tiny, krill are a keystone of the marine ecosystem, and their loss has far-reaching implications. Plant based feed is now being used as well, but with a considerable impact on the nutrient content of farmed salmon. The percentage of the diet comprised of fish meal and oil has reduced from 90% to around 30% now (slightly more in organic fish). Omega 3, which was a key benefit of eating salmon, has halved between 2006 and 2015. Why are we importing feed from across the globe to farm salmon? Why are we now importing “cleaner fish” such as wrasse, which are intended to eat the sea-lice, but which could instead have fed a local population?
Salmon farming really took off in the 1990’s but I still saw, and bought, wild salmon. At this time, I naively thought that the two could co-exist and that if others ate farmed salmon, it would take the pressure off the wild.
We often stayed in hotels whose main clients were fishermen, and at this time their catch was usually on the menu. As we walked along the riverbank, we stopped to watch them cast their lines or, later in the year, to watch salmon make the most tremendous leaps on their way back upstream to spawn.
However, as the decline in wild salmon numbers accelerated, fishing hotels, which usually owned the fishing rights on adjoining rivers, went out of business when there was precious little to catch. Now, after 30 years of farmed salmon being a mainstay of ready meals and pub menus, I realise there may be a whole generation who have never eaten, or even seen, wild salmon.
I used to treat myself to wild salmon just once or twice a year. Their lesser known relative, seatrout, remained available for longer, and at slightly lower price, but they too have disappeared now, or are sold at a price I just can’t afford.
Smoked Salmon at Christmas was the hardest to give up. For quite some time I had still been able to source wild via fishing friends, but once this avenue was closed, I confess I did resort to a side of farmed smoked salmon.
But I hope that if we stop salmon farming now there will be a chance that the wild stock might eventually recover (the number of young salmon leaving some rivers did rise last year). But even if they did not, I can see no justification for continuing such a destructive practise. If you feel the same, please sign the pledge:
Recommended further reading:
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino