Q1 When you tuck in to your salmon steak, are you aware you’re eating a migratory animal?
Q2 Can you imagine what would have happened if businessmen in London and elsewhere had come up with the bright idea of caging swallows and selling them as food?
Yep. You’d have had every twitcher, every member of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, every bird-fancier the world over protesting in kagoule-clad FURY at the idea of caging these beautiful migratory creatures that fly huge distances to nest in our eaves every summer and give us such joy as we watch them wheeling about the sky.
And yet, when those business consortia started stuffing salmon into sea cages, where was the effing protest? Did you hear a sodding squeak of dissent? Where was the RSPF when it was needed? Nowhere, because there is no such thing as the Royal Society for the Protection of Fish.
Let me just say now that if you want jokes, don’t read on, because I cannot be funny about this. We complain about the nasty side of farming, the barbaric way that animals are treated. We sign protests to make farmers kinder to chickens and we’ve even seen the middle classes massing at ports to end the shipment of live animals.
But caging an animal that has the urge, the overwhelming drive to migrate, is a very particular form of cruelty that makes me weep with fury.
The salmon is a wonderful, almost miraculous creature, a streamlined swimming machine that starts as a tiny, pink egg, tucked under a bed of gravel in a river by the female. Not just any river, her river.
Once it’s mature enough, (providing it survives at all, that is), it leaves the river and swims out to sea. After anything between one and four years at sea, the salmon will return to the very river it was spawned in, to breed and begin the process again.
Just think about this miracle. They leave their home river as young grilse, and then migrate over 3000k to the great feeding grounds north of the Arctic Circle. When they’re mature enough, their astonishing homing instinct impels them back to precisely the same spot where they were buried in the gravel as an egg. Just imagine the ridiculously impossible odds of doing such a thing – and yet these glorious creatures do it year after year.
This is a miracle I’ve known all my life. My grandparents lived in Ballina, County Mayo, and anyone Irish will tell you that the salmon from the River Moy is the finest in the world. We visited them each summer and every single year, Granny would have salmon for us the night we arrived, the dish of kings to welcome us home. It was the season for them, there was enough for everyone in the area, and yet it was still regarded as the very greatest of treats.
In the following days, I would be taken to see the salmon leppin’, as they said it then. We’d walk down from Grandpa’s house to the River Moy in County Mayo, and watch these wondrous creatures hurl themselves into the air and up the weirs and falls, swimming with herculean strength against the fierce downward rush of the river, great crowds of them flying above the spume. An astonishing sight, and a yearly ritual for the locals to turn out in crowds to watch them.
So this is personal.
The democratisation of luxury
The first caged salmon could not be sold whole, only as steaks. That was because they were so badly damaged as the fish frenetically tried to get out of the cage to follow their genetic programming and migrate, biting chunks out of one another in the effort to escape.
(But they’re only fish! So much more important to make sure that smoked salmon is no longer the preserve of the wealthy!)
Three or four generations later, the urge to migrate is bred out of them. So why do I say these non-salmonid salmon are shityoudon’tneed?
Salmon are “farmed” in vast nets which are tethered offshore, so they have to be fed, as they cannot swim round and feed themselves. They’re carnivorous, so other fish are ‘harvested’ to feed the salmon. Anchovy, herring and sardine shoals from other seas are thus depleted. Oh the bitter, bitter irony, that fish farming should contribute to overfishing!
The food is dropped into the net, and not all of it is snapped up by the salmon on its way through. It then falls through the holes in the bottom of the net, and onto the seabed below where it rots.
A company called Protix is breeding insects to replace fish meal, but this doesn’t replace the fish oils also needed. Research is going on in this area by other companies.
The food they are given is different from the crustaceans they should normally feed on – and which gave them their marvellous pink flesh. In nets, that flesh just turns a sort of grey. So they are fed with dyes, otherwise people wouldn’t believe they were purchasing salmon. And some of that dye ends up on the seabed too.
When salmon noodle around in nets instead of powering through wild, cold seas, they acquire sea lice. These feed on the head, skin and blood of the fish. Yes, lice are flesh eaters. Fish with sea lice can a) can die if infested with too many and b) aren’t terribly attractive to the average shopper, so these must be treated with chemicals.
Guess what? Some of those chemicals sink to the sea bed too. Oh, and since great populations of fish crowded into nets are ideal breeding grounds for sea lice and other parasites, the actual population of sea lice has gone through the roof, particularly in Scotland, so the wild fish in the area become infested too.
Oh, and where do the dead lice end up? Rotting on the sea bed. Hmmm, it’s quite a graveyard, that ol’ seabed.
Incidentally, Steinsvik are developing a drug free system to get rid of sea lice called the Thermolicer. The little critters don’t like sudden changes of temperature, so the fish are bathed briefly in lukewarm water and the lice fall off. All well and good. But how stressful is it for the poor goddammed fish…?
This from the website: “The fish are crowded and pumped through the Thermolicer and then back in the same cage or to an empty cage.”
Have I put you off yet? It gets more unpleasant still. Salmon crowded into nets also get diseases, ulcers and tapeworms amongst a list of unpleasant conditions, so antibiotics and other therapeutants are used to combat this. Antifoulants and disinfectants too…
It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realise that this cocktail of…
- rotting food
- dead sea lice
- faeces (whoops… did I mention that salmon need to poo?)
…is a pretty toxic combination. It smothers the seabed below and all around, and gradually kills everything … all the kelp, starfish, bottom feeders, crabs, flatfish, scallops, anemones etc that make up the incredibly complex and beautiful ecosystem that is a seabed.
Yep, salmon farming is not only unusually cruel, but it pollutes like billy-oh.
Do the fish suffer? Do they feel pain? It certainly suits us to think they don’t.
The scientific jury is out on the subject, but fish certainly respond to stress in a way that suggests they feel pain. Dr. Lynne Sneddon’s work at the University of Liverpool has ensured that scientific opinion is beginning to drift towards the conclusion that they do feel pain.
Most of the stocks of “Atlantic” salmon have actually been crossbred – Scottish salmon with Norway salmon. Jeez, we can’t help messing around with genetics, can we?
Just a thought… can they actually be described as “Scottish”? Hmmm…
As if this wasn’t enough, sometimes the nets don’t hold. A violent storm, human error, some faulty equipment perhaps… the nets break open and suddenly the area is flooded with thousands and thousands of fish that compete for food with the wild fish, so food stocks are depleted leading to underwater famine.
Worse still, these escaped farmed salmon can cross breed with the true wild salmon, which has the effect of diluting the genetic information. So what happens is this: the year old salmon (known as a grilse) bred from this hideous mismatch leaves its river knowing that it MUST go somewhere, but where? It gets lost. One more nail in the coffin for true wild salmon.
Edit – dated 17.05.19 – Reader Eoghan Brady let me know the following “Just to clarify a grilse is an adult salmon who returns after a year and will be small,a smolt is a young salmon that’s going to sea ,usually 2-3yrs old ,a parr is a young fish before they become smolts.” Thanks, Eoghan.
Oh, and seals get caught up in the nets sometimes. So they get shot. More than 40 licences to shoot seals are issued in Scotland every single year to salmon farmers.
The bigger ecosystem
Before salmon farming, there was a lovely little industry in the Highlands and the West of Ireland. A load of little B&Bs hosted fisher folk with expensive rods, thigh-high wellies and dreams catching the biggest fish of the season. Gillies – folk with deep and intimate local knowledge of the local area and the habits of salmon – took them to the best spots for landing their prizes.
Gillies are proud of their art – and it is an art. If you’re a veggie or a vegetarian, you might not agree, but the gillies and fisher folk I have met all loved and respected the salmon, and would never wish to do it harm. They just wanted to take a few from nature for the one of the great gastronomic treats the human being could enjoy.
The B&Bs too – they welcomed the fisher folk with their wet weather gear and their wet kit and their day’s delights and disappointments. Hot baths, hot whiskies, hot meals… and a cracking breakfast before the next day’s rigours. The angling industry has supported thousands and thousands of jobs.
That’s all going and it is also a part of the ecosystem. Salmon farming doesn’t bring local employment. A skeleton staff can operate a salmon farm owned and run for the profit of companies in London and Oslo etc. Actually, campaigners claim that 99% of Scottish Salmon farms are marketed and branded as “Scottish” but are actually owned abroad. What do these foreign consortia care if they destroy a species?
It is no longer a matter of question as to whether salmon farming is causing the extinction of wild salmon. The collapse in numbers of salmon returning home to spawn is terrifying – both in Ireland and Scotland. And farmed salmon themselves are not safe – just a day ago, hundreds of thousands died from an outbreak of algae on Loch Fyne. All those corpses to dispose of safely… hmmm…
Salmon farming in open nets really is the devil’s own work. I’m not keen on battery chickens, but at least a farmer with a battery chicken business can spread the chicken poop straight onto his fields, thus cutting out the need to purchase expensive fertilisers.
The democratisation of luxury should be regarded with a very wary eye. Salmon was never made cheap and available so that the poor were able to join in the fun. It was farmed solely to make some rich people even richer. Certain foods should always be luxury foods. Caviare, saffron, crab, Bar-le-Duc jelly, for instance. Salmon should be on that list.
But I buy organic…!
Ah… did you think you were in the clear, buying organic farmed salmon…? Yeah. So did I. What an eejit I am. Look, the subject of salmon farming is enormous and hugely complex. I am in grave danger of boring you to death, and my sister Anne has complained about the length of my pieces. So let’s just say this – I will come back to you on the subject of organic farmed salmon. Rest assured, however, it’s not great.
Meanwhile, I hope you will consider buying less, or better still, NO salmon in future – smoked or otherwise.
Finally… (yes, really!)
Here is a picture of my dog. I need cheering up. And so do you, I shouldn’t wonder.
Please forward this and tell your friends about my blog, particularly this piece. If I’ve published your photo and haven’t paid, please get in touch and I am happy to discuss terms or remove them if the price is too high. And thanks to Caroline Attwood on Unsplash for the photo at the top.