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.
52 thoughts on “FARMED SALMON”
Wow! I had no idea. Thank you Dillie. We did visit a salmon farm in Bibury many years ago when my children were small. At the time, I was horrified at all the fish packed into the far too small square tank. They were sliding under and over each other and had hardly any room. I can see them now (@1984). However, I’ve always loved smoked salmon and enjoy fresh salmon too.
We have both read your article, open-mouthed, and are horrified at the content. Now that we know what really happens to farmed salmon we have decided to stop buying salmon altogether. Hoping trout; plaice; cod and haddock are in a safe category………
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Thanks Beth, your comment has warmed the cockles of my heart – and other seafood bits of my heart too!
I hope everyone found this piece shocking. Farming salmon intensively is just as repugnant as using intensive techniques on cattle, pigs and poultry, but because it can rarely be seen, it gets a tiny fraction of the publicity. The diseases they acquire penetrate the wild population, the hormones they are given force our children into early puberty, the antibiotics they receive become useless in food species and humans when plasmids bearing antibiotic resistance genes enter the microbiome. That and all the stuff Dillie has so eloquently pointed out.
For those who are thinking about giving up salmon, don’t switch to Sea Bass. It’s mostly farmed too. Likewise Rainbow Trout. Don’t switch to Cod or Haddock. Their very existence is threatened by over-fishing. If you want to eat fish from home waters, I would suggest you demand Pollack, Whiting, Hake or Coley. They’re all from the cod family, but the fishing fleets throw them back (dead) because there is no demand for them. So what if Coley flesh is an unpleasant colour? If it’s put in a Provencal fish stew, the colour of the tomatoes will mask it and I challenge you to taste the difference. I’ve made fish & chips at home with Pollack I caught myself and it’s every bit as good as the stuff you get at the local chippie. The Spanish love Hake, and our fishermen avoid it, which is why Spanish boats spend so much time fishing around these islands.
Spare a thought too for the English and Welsh wild Salmon and migratory (Sea) Trout.
One small correction to Dillie’s piece. Salmon has not always been a luxury item. Ordinary Londoners plucked it out of the Thames almost at will until the water became too polluted in the late 18th century. Curing and smoking it was just a means of preserving it for times when supply was short and the plebs couldn’t afford fresh fish.Salmon was served for lunch in Westminster so often that Parliamentarians threatened to go on strike.
Not that anyone would have noticed if they had.
Great reply, Jonathan. I didn’t know the story about the parliamentarians, that’s very funny. I know salmon was an everyday food in previous centuries, like oysters, but that was only if you lived near a river. I think it was still a luxury if you lived in Shropshire, for instance! Anyhow, there is still a great deal more to be said about “organic” salmon farming, trout farming, sea bass farming et al, but I felt I’d made a good start and I was in danger of running on too long. So I shall be addressing the various issues one by one. You’re obviously extremely well informed, let’s have a drink one night (the Butchers Arms, perhaps?) and chew the, er, fat…
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Unfortunately, trout is farmed too.
Yes, indeed. And sea bass, tilapia, sea bream, and carp. And probably many more that I don’t yet know about. I didn’t mention the others because I’ve made a conscious decision to stick rigidly to one topic at a time, otherwise the blog pieces would get too unwieldy…
Thanks Dillie, you opened my eyes about the salmon tragedy! I love smoked s….. but will stop buying it from now on. Your blog items are not too long & are necessary to point out misgivings of all kind.
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Hurrah, thanks so much!
I saw all this years ago when I went to Fort William. I went on a boat trip around the loch, I could see the salmon ‘jumping’ out of the nets at the top. Trying to escape no doubt. The locals seemed quite at ease with the farming, but I felt uneasy and read up about it afterwards. It is horrifying. The over use of antibiotics has been going on for years and as you say affects all the fish around as well. Isn’t there anywhere that one can buy ‘real’ salmon? It is the exact equivalent of battery hens.
Personally, I think it’s a great deal worse than battery hens because these fish are migratory. Hens at least are flock birds, and if given enough space are happiest living in flocks. Yes, you can buy wild native salmon, probably from a fishmonger only. Supermarkets sell wild sockeye salmon from Canada, if you are happy to ignore the airmiles. I am no saint, I have occasionally bought it myself. Thanks for your reply.
I stopped eating salmon many years ago because farmed salmon gives me an allergic reaction – the same reaction I get to antibiotics. I wrote to the company, no reply. I talked to my then doctor, he said it couldn’t happen (he said a few other things that made me go to a doctor that listened) I decided that my only protest could be to tell everyone why they should never buy farmed fish. So that’s what I’ve been doing for forty years, telling people not to buy farmed fish and broiler house chicken (A whole other protest) and especially not to buy from Tesco and encourage their attempt at world domination.
*Climbs down off her soapbox and saunters away, nodding emphatically*
Brilliant. Keep that soapbox handy! My friend Paul told me about the horrors about 30-35 years ago and I have hardly ever eaten it since. I’ve never heard of anyone having an allergic reaction to farmed salmon, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks for your reply.
The “democratisation of luxury” – good term, hadn’t heard it before that I’m aware of. Our current attitudes to what we eat and how we obtain it are starting to cause me no small amount of concern. I’ve started to think of it as the “Count of Monte Cristo effect” – relevant chapter is here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Count_of_Monte_Cristo/Chapter_63
The world doesn’t break if one (insanely wealthy) individual decides to import exotic foodstuffs from across the globe, but when we all do it and – worse – consider it such a mundane, cheap thing that we also end up binning a decent percentage, then I think we have a serious problem brewing. We might not be paying for it quite yet, but I have a nasty feeling that we really aren’t going to like the bill when it arrives.
I’m no saint, either! But increasingly I do my best to stick to in-season UK produce. I really, truly, do NOT need to buy Peruvian asparagus in November, ffs. And will be reviewing my approach to buying salmon now, too.
The phrase is all my own, it came to me when I was lying in bed one night, turning the subject over and over. Thanks for the link to the Count of Monte Cristo chapter, I had completely forgotten that scene. Marvellous book. And thanks for the thoughtful reply.
I’m so shocked by this. I thought I was pretty well informed but I had no idea that this went on. I will never eat farmed salmon again. Thanks for making such a passionate plea to the plight of the salmon.I will share this with everyone I know.
Thanks Pat. That means so much to me.
I’m so grateful to all who share and forward, it’s such a horrible process. Thanks Pat.
Shocked beyond belief. Thank you for this confronting information. I will act on it.
Thanks Dillie. Our ignorance is frightening. No more salmon for my household. Forwarding your excellent blog to all my friends.
Thanks. And thanks for forwarding.
I have to congratulate you on your latest blog. Sad, because I love salmon – but I shall think a dozen times before I ever have another bite!!! What a ruinous generation we have been.
Thanks, Anne. It was very upsetting to write. I had to stop regularly.
I’m really sad to hear this,I love fish and my favourite is salmon!
I class it as a really treat.
I saw a programme on migrating salmon and at the end had tears in my eyes.
They fought and thought until they died of exhaustion, lumps taken out of them,just to finish a life cycle.
I respect that fish so much and humans have no respect for animals or the welfare of other humans. What happens to bears if they are no longer available in our natural rivers?
Why do we interfere with nature?
we want our fishing back on fb
I wish I understood that remark!!!
Very good article. I sort of knew some of this but did not want to face up to it as I am one of those annoying people who does not eat meat but love fish and feel it is very good for us. I guess you know that Private Eye has always been very negative about farmed salmon, especially the lice.
Have they? No, I don’t read it all the time, nor do I always read all of it. It’s been well covered in a lot of newspapers too, but I guess people don’t always get as far as the long reads and the fishing news.
Great blog. I’ve never eaten farmed salmon, only wild caught. The idea of intensive farming like this fills me with horror. Good luck
Oh God Dillie, I had no idea. What a very distressing piece. I will definitely think again about buying salmon. However my immediate dilemma is the two fillets currently lurking in my fridge. What to do?! Xxx
Oh, eat them, and then try and avoid them in the future. You’ve got them so wasting them would be worse.
Disgraceful. I salmon farm I knew’s wastage was the equivalent to the whole of Glasgow’s sewage because they never cleaned, never moved, not surprisingly sick Salmon. Now don’t kill crows, let them kill lambs, don’t kill pigeons, let them eat crops. What is going on.?
Yep, everything’s skewed…
This makes for grim reading. I have wonderful memories of West Cork in the Seventies, when a freshly caught wild salmon wrapped in newspaper would be delivered under cover of darkness. Possibly not entirely legal, but was one those tastes of childhood made all the more special for being so seldom. I only buy wild salmon now, but will give up on that too. Keep up the good work, Dillie!
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Thanks, Grace. xxxxxxx
Reblogged this on oldfieldgould and commented:
Rarely bought salmon before – knew it wasn’t good. Now will have to stop altogether. (I will miss it a bit.)
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Dear Dillie, Your analysis of salmon farming is a revelation and should be widely distributed. I lived in Pitlochry nearly 50 years ago where the Scandinavians were leasing Scottish rivers and seeding them with salmon. Until now, I have always thought that such an enterprise was a good thing. Now I will never buy another farmed salmon. Thank you for pricking pur consciences on this issue. Take care, my dear lady. I hope you are healthy and wealthier. Luv. Bruce x
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Darling Bruce, thank you so much. I am healthy (I think) and comfortable if not truly wealthy! I hope this finds you the same! xxxx
Bloody hell! What a nightmare. No I didn’t know this. Thanks Dillie…..I hate any cruelty to any animal. I don’t eat any other meat but fish but I think I will stop buying fish now. Terrible. X
Funnily enough, I think you can buy scallops and lobster without beating yourself up…
Dearest Dillie, life’s realities are hard hitting these days and behold here is another one, right in my gut. I have eaten salmon twice this week (away on a job, with a mediocre menu, my excuse) and now 2 salmon fillets from a ‘fine’ local fish shop resting and waiting in my fridge. Clearly the time has come! I’ve ‘sort of’ been aware of farmed salmon and it’s horrors, but managed to kid myself, if salmon was purchased from a reliable organic-ish sort of establishment it was ok-ish. I’m a healthy sort of gal, fish is good for me.
My wild Welsh cousins, for celebrations, always showed up with a delicious wild poached sewin (not the cooking style, but the effort of acquiring, that involves post midnight hanky-panky, that attracts a jail term) and possibly the memory of my first catch – a salmon trout, from a row boat, in the middle of a glacial lake in British Columbia. So much romance encircling the humble fishey.
The time has come. Thank you Dillie xxxx
Sorry… it’s awful, isn’t it. I went to a sushi restaurant today and saw it go by!
Thanks for adding your voice to the concern over open net salmon farming. The problem has been around for many years and the Scottish Govt will not do anything about. What you mentioned about the quality of the flesh, (I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on the carcinogenic potential), disease , inter breed and lice is all true. I fear our wild salmon are in the final chapter of their demise now.
Thanks Michael. I didn’t go into the carcinogenic possibilities because I didn’t find enough solid research out there – possibly because I don’t have access to scientific websites – and I thought the picture was bleak enough to put people off anyhow!
Spot on and well written thank you. Keep the faith and hopefully we can turn this thing around.
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First rate! Can’t we get this shown on national TV and also distributed to schools. The kids would have the common sense to influence their parents.
I wish! But thanks anyhow!
A brilliant piece and as a fly fisherman I’ve been aware of these issues for many years I still find it hard to believe that the consumer is not aware of the associated problems with salmon farming.I cannot believe that people think they are buying wild salmon common sense would suggest that for the price a piece sells at it can not possibly be wild salmon.
Here endeth the sermon David Pointon
Thanks David, great to get a thumbs up from a fly fisherman. As you no doubt gathered, I feel very passionately about the plight of the salmon. If you felt minded to pass the link on to others, I’d be delighted. And many thanks for posting a response.