This article does not represent the views of the Sustainable Food Trust. We are publishing it in the spirit of open debate, as a response to Lynn Schweisfurth’s article on Scottish salmon farming, from a fish farming consultant and staunch defender of the industry. While we disagree with some of Dr Jaffa’s points, we are also aware that there are very real questions about what fish people will be able to eat in future, with the UK’s population again growing rapidly and predicted to reach 70 million within a decade.

Over a period of ten years during the 2000s, some of America’s largest charitable foundation, such as Packard, Pew and Moore, made 112 payments averaging $294,000 and totalling $33 million to a group of about 30 environmental groups. The money had one single purpose and that was to discredit imported farmed salmon. The actual term used was conceived by the independent researcher Vivian Krause from British Columbia who identified the funding from the various foundations’ tax returns was ‘demarketing’. The reason for demarketing farmed salmon was solely to protect the Alaskan wild salmon industry from competition and hence to protect the American way of life.

The money funded campaigns such as Farmed & Dangerous, whose message was that farmed salmon was bad for human health and bad for the environment. Mostly the claims were unsubstantiated, but it made little difference because although consumption of wild Alaskan salmon increased, so did imports of farmed Atlantic salmon. By 2010, the flow of money ceased. This was because it had little effect and the money trail had been exposed and publicised by Ms Krause.

Although consumers quickly forgot the demarketing messages, those within the environmental sector who had been promoting them, began to believe what they had been saying. The messages soon spread throughout the whole of the environmental sector and farmed salmon became the focus of intense environmental attention. It is only necessary to read the long list of environmental issues raised by Lynn Schweisfurth in her 22nd March attack on the salmon farming industry. It’s hard to believe that given all these issues, farmed salmon is the UK’s most popular fish.

Salmon farming is not without problems, but a handful of very vocal critics such as Ms. Schweisfurth ensure the salmon industry receives almost constant attention, which is usually well out of proportion. New revelations spread quickly between the critics and are disseminated to the media without scrutiny. If everything that was claimed about the salmon farming industry were true, Scotland’s west coast would be expected to be like a nuclear bomb test site. Instead, they are just small farms, taking up the space about the size of a football pitch and if all were put together, they would be the size of two eighteen-hole golf courses.

Instead, Ms Schweisfurth tries to paint a different picture even though some of her basic facts are incorrect. She begins by stating that most salmon farms are owned by Norwegian companies, although I am not sure of the relevance. Britain produces Japanese cars; the railways are run by French and Dutch companies. Three companies Marine Harvest, Greig Seafood and Scottish Sea Farms are Norwegian owned, one of which began life under Anglo-Dutch ownership before being sold to the US and then to Norway. Another company Cooke is North American whilst the remaining three are Scottish, Loch Duart, Wester Ross and the Scottish Salmon Company, although SSC are listed on the Norwegian stock market because that stock market specialises in seafood companies.

Ms Schweisfurth goes on to say that 170,000 tonnes of Scottish salmon is exported to US, Europe and China. Actually, the figure quoted is the tonnage produced in Scotland of which about half is exported. If Ms Schweisfurth cannot get this basic information correct, how can her other claims be trusted?

For example, Ms Schweisfurth claims that antibiotics have been used in such quantities that some fish have become resistant to them. The reality is that antibiotic use is tiny and is administered under strict veterinary control. The chemical she refers to for the treatment of sea lice is actually a fully licensed veterinary medicine which has been rigorously tested in the marine environment. It is misleading to compare fish mortality with that of other farm animals. This is because a typical salmon will lay about 7-8,000 eggs whereas a sheep will typically produce two lambs.

She talks about ‘sewage’, comparing the output to that of the human population but ignoring the fact that 3.5 trillion fish excrete their waste into the seas and oceans around the world every day and that waste is part of the natural ecology of the marine environment.

Salmon farming is often blamed for the depletion of wild fish stocks as small fish are caught and transformed into feed for farmed fish. What Ms Schweisfurth fails to mention is that fishmeal used to be widely used to feed pigs and chickens and as fish farming has developed, fishmeal consumption by terrestrial animals has fallen, although 20% of fishmeal production still goes for pigs and poultry. Salmon are carnivorous fish and naturally eat small fish in the wild. Typically, 12 kg of wild fish produces 1kg of wild salmon. By selective use of ingredients, it now takes about one and a half kilos of wild fish to produce one kilo of farmed salmon, reducing the pressure on wild fish stocks. However, what most critics of salmon farming fail to mention is that about 2.48 million tonnes of wild fish are caught every year from the seas to feed pet cats – an animal that doesn’t naturally eat fish.

One of the biggest complaints about salmon farming actually comes from salmon anglers who blame salmon farming for the demise of wild salmon and sea trout stocks. The evidence is largely circumstantial and unproven. Unfortunately, like most critics, the anglers prefer to blame salmon farming from behind their computer keyboard rather than discuss the issues face to face. Currently, 95% of migrating wild salmon die at sea whereas it has been experimentally shown that sea lice kill around 1%. Sadly, it is easier to blame salmon farming than to address the real issues.

Ms Schweisfurth ends her attack on salmon farming by claiming that the solution to all the environmental problems is to move farms from the sea to closed recirculating tank systems. Like most critics, Ms Schweisfurth fails to appreciate such recirculating systems are not the answer, not least because in order to make this form of production pay, fish would have to be jammed into tanks at stocking levels way beyond acceptable forms of fish welfare. So far, there is not a single example of a closed farm that has worked successfully and is commercially viable. The last closed contained system trialled in Scotland is currently being offered for sale because all the fish died.

Salmon farming originally came to Scotland in the early 1970’s because large companies viewed it as the green option. It still is, but the salmon industry’s voice is lost by the concerted efforts of a handful of critics to discredit this form of food production. Salmon farmers have yet to overcome over $33 million of negative publicity that has been targeted against them.

Photograph: Sam Beebe

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