Standing on the edge of a circular cage anchored to the seabed a few hundred metres offshore, salmon farmer Jan B�rre is feeling proud. His industry has been criticised over the past two decades with reports emerging of seal deaths, pollution and escaping fish. But his farm, close to the Norwegian island of Skjerv�y, has become one of the first to achieve an ethical accreditation designed to limit such problems.
With 14 cages and more than 2 million salmon, B�rre’s farm is one of the most modern sites in Norway, with submerged cameras in each cage monitored by staff on a support boat checking that the feed – dispensed via long pipes – is being evenly distributed to the fish.
Since first reared in Norway in the 1960s, farmed salmon has expanded rapidly in the last two decades and now accounts for 70% of all the salmon we eat. Norway, Chile and Scotland dominate production of the fish, which prefer cool, sheltered and tidal waters to maximise growth rates and ward off disease.
Helped by its heavy promotion as a healthy source of omega-3 fatty acids, salmon now ranks as the biggest selling seafood in the UK with retail sales of �700m in 2014.
At first, farmed salmon seemed like a positive step towards reducing pressure on wild fish stocks. That optimism was quickly overtaken by concerns about its reliance on wild fish in feed, the use of chemicals to treat sea lice outbreaks and escaping fish introducing negative genetic traits into wild populations.
“It [farmed salmon] has had a bit of a bad reputation,” said WWF’s aquaculture manager Piers Hart. “But I think it was unfair in that most agricultural livestock production is brought up in much more damaging ways.”
B�rre’s’ farm is part of the salmon industry’s attempt to fight back. Its owner is the Leroy Seafood Group, the world’s second biggest farmed salmon producer and the first to start selling salmon produced to stricter standards. Drawn up by NGOs (including WWF), marine scientists and the salmon industry, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification is intended to safeguard against the worst problems.
The standards include a ban on the prophylactic use of antibiotics (ie to prevent rather than treat infections), limits on the numbers of escapees to no more than 300 fish per production cycle, maximum levels of fish-based feed and disclosure of the use of any feed containing genetically modified material.
Leroy already has 14 farm sites accredited to the ASC standard and, starting in October this year, the Skjerv�y site will be used to showcase how it produces salmon to visitors from the local community, media and wider industry. Certified salmon is being sold at retailers including Aldi and Lidl in mainland Europe, but not at present in the UK. Sainsburys says it will stock it once there are more ASC-certified producers amongst its regular Scottish suppliers.
However, not everyone is convinced that the standards are sufficient. One of the most well-known seafood guides in the US, Seafood Watch, has refused to add ASC-farmed salmon onto its recommended list due to the levels of wild fish still allowed to be used in feed.
Yet for Hart, even before the new ethical standards came in, the industry had been making huge progress. For example, while seals being shot on a farm did make the news again recently, the numbers being shot have declined. “The really big issues now are around disease levels and what goes into the feed.”
Here, farmers like B�rre are trialling the use of cleaner fish such as the lumpfish, who live in the cages with the salmon and feed on sea lice, helping to control disease levels. Driven by the rising cost of fishmeal, his company and others are also experimenting with alternative sources of protein, such as seaweed, which provide the omega-3 fatty acids so sought-after in salmon.
For some critics the issue is not necessarily with farmed salmon, but the fact that we’re relying too much on it. “It is not that certification is not a welcome step for the salmon industry,” explains Corey Peet, aquaculture manager at Seafood Watch, “but as consumers if we’re truly interested in sustainable seafood then we need to diversify our diets away from just salmon.”
In the UK where just three species - salmon, cod and tuna - dominate our fish intake, that may mean branching out to native species such as langoustine, crab and mackerel that are mostly exported.
B�rre does not expect to convince everyone, but insists farmed salmon is the best aquaculture can offer. “I agree that we all should eat a wide diversity of seafood and of course wild seafood species from sustainable resources are a good food supplement. But we cannot feed the world’s population with increasing demand for seafood with wild caught species,” he says.