Open-pen fish farming has everyone angry, even Björk
At Austurvöllur, discontented protesters dump dozens of dead fish on Alþingi’s doorstep. Environmentalists, farmers and fishermen symbolically pour yellow-dyed water on the fish – labelled “Lice Poison” – as they call on parliament to stop sea-based fish farming.
Somewhere in the crowd is artist Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who rallied protestors to the scene with a fiery call to action on her social media. “Iceland has the largest unspoiled nature in Europe,” stated Björk as she called on people to flock to Austurvöllur and protest the laissez-faire government policy on fish farms, encouraging officials to set new laws, imploring companies to step back.
Björk’s activism came at a time when the Icelandic public was witnessing an environmental disaster – the escape of factory-farmed salmon into Iceland’s delicate ecosystem.
The Republic Of Liceland
In August 2023, aquaculture company Arctic Sea Farm reported two holes in their sea-based open-pen fish farm in Patreksfjörður. Despite quick mending of the nets, only a few days passed until RÚV reported the escape of approximately 3,500 factory-raised salmon.
As opposed to the local wild salmon frolicking freely in Iceland’s rivers and streams, the factory-farmed salmon is an entirely different breed. Due to the industrial conditions the fish is raised in, a plethora of problems arise. One example is fish lice.
“The rate of lice in the sea pens increases in a way which wouldn’t be possible under natural conditions,” explains Jón Kaldal, spokesperson for the Icelandic Wildlife Fund (Íslenski Náttúruverndarsjóðurinn), as he shares his immense knowledge of the natural sciences with me.
“These lice don’t encounter many salmon breeds in their lifespan. When it meets wild salmon in the ocean – in one pen there are possibly 1.2 million individual salmon – it reproduces massively,” he continues. These lice have been a predominant problem in farms in Westfjords, where open-pen farms have been operating the longest.
“The pens in the Eastfjords aren’t as riddled with lice as the ones in the Westfjords. However, in the East, there arose the worst virus possible, the ISA virus,” Jón says. ISA – infectious salmon anemia – leads to a wide range of death causes in salmon populations, sometimes causing 100% death rates. “So, wherever the volume increases, large-scale problems emerge. The situation is bad everywhere, but due to different reasons,” he comments.
Don’t worry, get a reusable straw
The lice infestation in factory-farmed salmon, and the various other illnesses plaguing the fish, all need to be maintained with an unhealthy dose of insecticide and other medicinal fodder that aren’t naturally occurring in the maritime environment. This massive dumping of additives into the ocean in turn affects the fjords’ ecosystems, leading to unprecedented damage.
I wish it would be sufficient to stop here, but it never is. In addition to the dumping of industrial pollutants into the sea, the companies responsible are not held to the same legal scrutiny as land-based factory farms.
For example, aquaculture companies are not obligated to treat their waste, which they meticulously dump into the ocean. And then there’s the plastic. “A lot of plastic is used to operate these pens,” Jón states. “During feeding, microplastics from the industrial grade feeding tubes are released. The nets are coated with copper oxide-based antifouling to prevent corrosion due to microorganisms. It’s a heavy metal which releases and accumulates on the seafloor, increasing pollution in these fjords.”
The worst part of it all is the long-term effects of these pollutants on other fish breeds, like cod, are unknown. “It’s madness to implement these experiments, on this scale, without knowing the effects,” Jón claims.
A very profitable nightmare
The madness Jón is referring to is only made possible by the lax legal regulations around the field. Between 2014 and 2021, the fish farming industry in Iceland grew tenfold, with 99% of the production being salmon. It’s made possible in part by large Norwegian investments.
A report published in February 2023 by the National Audit Office (Ríkisendurskoðandi) shed light on the administrative challenges of the sector. Among other things, the report concluded that governmental supervision and administration of fish farming was weak or insufficient.
Public opinion seems to be predominantly opposed to sea-based fish farming, as demonstrated by a 2023 survey published by market research firm Prósent. 60% of respondents claimed to be opposed to the practise, likely motivated by Veiga Grétarsdóttir’s undercover photo-journalism conducted in 2021. Documenting the conditions in a Dýrafjörður fish farm, Veiga’s photos show various deformities of the salmon there – some missing parts of their faces; others with open wounds.
In the current political climate, Jón is not optimistic about any timely or meaningful changes to the sector. One of the proposed changes to the laws includes a restriction on companies’ product loss, ultimately decreasing the extent of the sector. “The measures introduced by the Minister of Fisheries are proposed to be implemented in 2028. One of them suggests keeping product loss under 10%. Currently, the total product loss of aquaculture companies is expected to reach 20% for 2023,” Jón explains.
Despite the suggestions not being far-reaching enough, the Iceland Wildlife Fund’s position is simple. “Open, sea-based fish farms should be stopped and authorities should cease granting licenses to companies,” Jón opines.
Before we disconnect, Jón adds: “There’s one thing to keep in mind. Wild salmon populations are in a tight spot everywhere due to climate change and increased acidity in the ocean. Humans aren’t capable of stopping climate change suddenly, but we know how to stop sea-based fish farms. To be making matters worse with these farms, on top of the unfavourable environmental conditions in place, is unacceptable,” Jón concludes.
At the same time she aired her support for the movement, Björk also announced her newest song, devoted to the cause, featuring artist Rosalia. “All proceeds go towards the fight against sea-based fish farms in Iceland. The song will be out in October,” she stated on her social media, concluding that, “If we don’t act now, the last wild salmon of the North will go extinct.”
Editor’s note: The printed version of the article erroneously stated that Jón Kaldal was chair of the Icelandic Nature Conservation Association, and claimed that antibiotics are used in the farming. Jón is in fact spokesperson for the Icelandic Wildlife Fund, and no antibiotics are used in Icelandic fish farms.
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