Why Greenpeace can't - and won't - endorse farmed salmon

Posted by Willie — 21 March 2014 at 4:13pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra

Greenpeace doesn’t endorse farmed salmon. There you go, that’s it in black and white. Next time you see someone say we do – feel free to forward a link to this blog-post.

I’m writing this to set the record straight after a few instances of producers and retailers (and even the occasional NGO) wilfully misrepresenting us as having supported, endorsed, or given their salmon farming some sort of ‘best practice award’.

Smoked salmon used to be an occasional, expensive food. Farmed salmon is now a ubiquitous, cheap product. Salmon has shifted in just a couple of decades from being a rare, fancy treat, to a discounted supermarket staple.

This growth in demand has been fed by the remarkable growth of salmon farming around the world.

From a purely environmental point of view, with salmon farming there is a considerable problem with what goes in and what comes out in terms of kilogrammes of fish. Salmon are fed fish meal, ground up from vast fisheries for ‘little’ fish like anchovies, sardines and blue whiting. Whether it’s a ratio of five, four, three or two to one – making more fish into less fish is an environmental concern. That gets even further complicated when you realise that the fish that makes the meal that feeds the salmon has come from enormous industrial fisheries thousands of miles away.

We might not have a taste for these smaller fish, but many other species do – some of them commercially-important fish, as well as countless whales, dolphins, seabirds, sea lions, and sharks. The ‘little fish’ are literally the building blocks of the ocean’s food web. Even krill, the basis of the Antarctic food web and vital food for penguins, whales, seabirds and seals, is now being targeted to create fish feed.

The sheer scale of these fisheries, to produce fish meal, is undermining entire ecosystems, as well as local coastal fisheries in countries such as Peru.

Salmon farming, even if it’s on your doorstep, is a truly international business.

In some places there are huge concerns over the sheer scale of fishing that is happening, or the lengths we are going to in order find more sources of fish food mean we are literally going to the ends of the earth and the bottom of the food chain. Elsewhere we are effectively stealing the fish from the mouths of people in developing countries because it’s more financially desirable to sell it as fish food. As fisheries expert Daniel Pauly evocatively describes it, we are “robbing Pedro, to feed Paul”.

Now the taste for salmon is spreading, for example it is increasingly popular in Japan, where it is starting to give tuna a run for its money. The global demand for salmon certainly doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

We don’t need to look any further than the UK where a recent ‘deal’ to double the farmed salmon production in Scotland to help sate growing demand in China, was dressed up by the addition of some pandas to sweeten the deal.

There are other concerns, too:

  • sometimes salmon farms are just in the wrong place - e.g. farming Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Ocean, on the coast of Chile;
  • the amount of fish squeezed into one sea-cage or tank - and what that does to health of the fish and the local environment;
  • disease and parasite transmission to struggling wild salmon populations is a major concern, as is localised pollution from run-off and chemicals used to treat parasites and disease;
  • and perhaps the most visual and emotive issue is the impact on predators, with the legitimate and illegitimate steps taken to control basically any animal that looks like it might eat a salmon. That means birds, possibly otters, but more usually – seals.

Freedom of information requests have revealed that many of the biggest, most well-branded salmon farms come tainted with the taste of dead seal. You won’t see that proudly portrayed on the packaging.

Then there’s complicated politics. In Scotland, where many farms are owned and operated by Norwegian companies, salmon farms means jobs in remote rural areas – often where there are few alternatives. So what is globally a huge international business looks like a localised issue of a few people’s livelihoods.

You can make better choices when buying salmon. In North America that’s reasonably simple – as wild-caught Pacific salmon from healthy populations is still an alternative. In Europe that is increasingly difficult, as wild Atlantic salmon populations are big trouble in both sides of the Atlantic, so the ‘better’ options are from those who farm organically or with better standards.

But saying something is ‘better’, or the best of a bad lot, does not make it good. And it certainly doesn’t make it an endorsement.

The real answer for a consumer on salmon is to know what you are potentially tucking into. The real long term solution should be rebuilding wild stocks, and fishing them at sustainable levels. As it stands, the salmon farming industry is not one I can support, and it’s not one Greenpeace endorses.

In the dim, distant, utopian future, a system of farming fish that is on land, closed-system, with fish kept at low densities, and with sustainably-caught and justifiable sources of feed, might - just might - tick all the boxes.  Indeed, after we challenged the industry with our report on aquaculture some years ago and there are already some promising signs of companies moving away from at-sea cage farming to closed, on-land systems of salmon farming.  We do need to support those initiatives.  

But at the moment on salmon farming – it’s a ‘no’ from us.

The best solutions you have just now are:

Eat less salmon, if any. Perhaps have organically farmed trout instead. Only eat wild-caught salmon, sourced sustainably.

Eat the little fish instead – why not eat sardines or anchovies directly rather than processing them into meal to eventually make farmed salmon?

Challenge your friends and colleagues who are eating farmed salmon – ask them if they know the true cost of what’s in their sandwich?

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

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