The controversial salmon farming industry
In the past decade, the fjords of Iceland have been the site of a gold rush as ambitious promoters have rushed to draw up plans and apply for permits to fill every fjord to capacity with open pen salmon farms. The industry has been booming, its growth rate exceeding even that of tourism.
For scale: tourism, which many in Iceland feel has been growing too fast for its environmental and economic impact to be evaluated, causing excessive stress on Iceland‘s fragile nature, grew nearly five-fold between 2008 and 2018. At the same time, the output of farmed salmon ballooned from just 292 tons to 13,448–a staggering 45-fold increase.
According to plans outlined by the industry, the salmon party is just starting. Applications have been filed for farms with a capacity totaling 130,000 tons of salmon and further plans are already being discussed. The Icelandic Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, which conducts risk assessments for aquaculture in Icelandic waters, has thrown some cold water on these plans, capping the capacity of fjords where aquaculture is permitted at 71,000 tonnes. Since a number of fjords have yet to be assessed, the total will likely increase.
Green or not so green
The website of Icelandic Aquaculture, the primary lobbying group of the industry, claims that the industry is the most environmentally friendly food producing industry in the world and promotes salmon as the green, or rather pink, alternative to both white or red meat. The carbon footprint of each kilogram of salmon is 2.5 kg of CO2, less than a tenth of the carbon footprint of beef and half of that of chicken. Industry spokesmen claim the environmental impact is minimal, which has quite a lot of appeal to many Icelanders who have grown increasingly apprehensive about further expansion of hydropower or geothermal to power energy-intensive industries and are concerned about the potential environmental impact of tourism.
Meanwhile, environmentalists and conservationists have sounded the alarm. Salmon farming in open sea pens is a far cry from being environmentally friendly or sustainable according to Jón Kaldal of the Iceland Wildlife Fund, a nature conservatory founded in 2017 to protect wild salmon populations. “When we look at the various ecological impacts, industrial-scale ocean aquaculture has, and all the risks associated with salmon farming in open sea pens, it is nothing short of baffling people are willing to make this gamble. The industry is a ticking ecological time-bomb.”
Mountains of waste
Open sea pens are simply floating cages made of nylon nets, anchored to the seafloor and held afloat by plastic buoys. The cages, which can each contain up to 200,000 fish who stay in the pens for up to three years, allow any waste to flow freely into the ocean. The waste descends to the seafloor where mounds of uneaten fish feed, faecal matter, rotting remains of dead fish as well as a pesticide used to kill parasites all pile up beneath the pens.
“If we use the conservative Norwegian estimate, rather than the figures from the PR material of Icelandic salmon farmers, we can see that salmon farming is a polluting industry which places enormous stress on the ocean,” Jón tells me. If current plans for farms producing 71,000 tons are realized the industry would produce as much sewage as 1,136,000 people, more than three times the entire population of Iceland. Jón points out that while all municipal sewage and waste from farming or other food production on land, including land-based aquaculture, must be treated before it’s released to the ocean, waste from open sea pens are exempt from such requirements. “They just dump all of this into the sea, as if the oceans were bottomless garbage and waste dumps. Which they aren‘t.”
Loss of genetic diversity
Research has found that two thirds of Norwegian salmon stocks show signs of interbreeding with farmed salmon. Conservationists fear that the same will happen in Iceland if the industry continues to expand. If plans for 71,000 tons of salmon farming are realized, 30 million fertile farmed fish will be in open net cages in Icelandic waters. According to Norwegian estimates 0.2% of salmon in open sea pens escapes, or one salmon for every ton of farmed salmon. At first glance such figures don‘t seem very dramatic, but it means that we can expect 71,000 salmon escaping from the cages, many of whom would end up swimming into Icelandic rivers where they will spawn. For comparison, the spawning stock of wild Icelandic salmon is believed to count 50,000 fish.
Creating jobs by destroying them elsewhere
The survival of the wild salmon stocks of Iceland is not only an environmental question, Jón stresses. It is also a question of the livelihood of thousands of Icelandic farmers and a large and thriving sports fishing industry which is a crucial pillar of many rural communities. Some 1,800 farms receive income from renting angling rights for salmon and trout. According to a report by Economists at the University of Iceland the angling industry generates 1,200 full-time jobs.
“The spokesmen of sea pen farmers argue that the industry is crucial for creating jobs, a mantra which is then faithfully repeated by the politicians. But this promised job creation comes at the cost of other jobs in the tourism industry and the livelihood of thousands of people in rural communities. It’s a terrible economic policy to create jobs in one place by destroying them in another. Ironically we might not even be creating any jobs,” Jón adds.„”Growing automation in the sea pen industry will likely make this even worse.”
Jón expresses hope that the politicians can be pressured to see the environmental and economic logic of protecting the wild salmon. “I have nothing against aquaculture. But it has to be done in a way that doesn’t endanger or destroy nature and animal life. Salmon can be farmed sustainably in closed systems on land.”
Dubai of the north
Jón argues that Iceland has perfect conditions for land-based aquaculture. “But it eats into the profits of the salmon farming companies and requires a significant investment which they are unwilling to make. The industry is focused on fast profit. And the politicians have played along, relaxing regulations, weakening oversight and even offering financial incentives to encourage the industry.”
There is something eerily familiar with this story. A similar story could be told of the great boom industry of the late 90s and 2000s: The financial sector. When the headlong rush by politicians and reckless investors focused on short term gain and any cost, and their dream of making Iceland a “Dubai of the North” came to a crash in 2008 it took down with it the Icelandic economy. We can only hope that the salmon farming boom does not end in a similar crash, the collapse of the wild Icelandic salmon.
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