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550,000 Salmon Escape Death Sentence in Scotland

Tom Ford exposes the harsh realities of fishing in light of a recent escape of 550,000 salmon from a Scottish farm.

Photo by Jill Dimond

Filming for Patagonia’s documentary, Artifishal, in 2017, Norwegian journalist Mikael Frödin explains how he always wanted to see one of Norway’s famed fish farms that cultivates thousands of the country’s salmon. He dons his wetsuit, grabs his camera and sneaks up to one in the Alta River in northern Norway. 

He says he ‘knew he was going to see a lot of fish’, but didn’t think things were going to be as bad as they were. He records sick and diseased fish with fungus and wounds swimming in the netted pen before shouting that no one would buy these fish in the supermarket if they could see what he was seeing. He says because ‘these things are happening below the surface’, nobody knows about it.


Fish farms, or aquaculture, in Scotland has been on the rise for decades, currently producing more than 150,000 tonnes of salmon a year – almost all of the country’s salmon output is raised this way. It’s a huge business, producing 41% of all seafood in the EU in 2017, earning $6.1 billion for the bloc, while the industry in Scotland is worth more than £1 billion a year. 

Unbound by the two dimensions of land-based farming, it uses far less space than animal agriculture, part of the reason why it’s often upheld as a potential solution to feed the world’s growing population. 

There are concerns about the rise of aquaculture, however, given that the nutrients fed to farmed fish mostly come from wild fish in our already overfished oceans. One study suggests that if we ate the wild fish directly, we could access the same micronutrients that farmed salmon offers while only needing to kill 59% of the fish we currently do. 

Scottish aquaculture is also planned to double in size by 2030, which will require the amount of caught fish to increase by two thirds from 460,000 tonnes of wild fish to 770,000 tonnes. 

One solution would be to breed seafood that can sustain themselves, like shellfish, or switch fish food to a plant-based alternative, which the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation claims the Scottish salmon industry is already doing to ensure ‘that wild fisheries remain sustainable’.  However, Biomin predicts that the amount of fishmeal in aquaculture will actually increase by 2022.

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Environmentally Friendly?

There are also issues for the local environment, as the pesticides, faeces and food waste coming from the fish farms, sometimes totalling hundreds of thousands of fish, could be damaging Scotland’s lochs.

Scottish salmon farming can also have a disastrous impact on populations of wild salmon when they escape from farms, as happened in August, when Storm Ellen damaged pens, allowing over 50,000 fish to escape into the wild. This might not sound like a huge problem, but any diseases they may have been carrying will now spread into the native salmon populations.  This exact disaster happened in Washington State, when more than 260,000 Atlantic Salmon with Piscine Orthoreovirus, a fish disease from Norway, broke free from a farm and swam into the Pacific. 

The arrival of tens of thousands of new, invasive organisms could also destabilise the entire local ecosystem through competition as they compete with other fish for food. They may also breed with wild salmon, creating genetic complications in native populations, as farmed fish do not know how to behave in the wild and can pass on this trait to their offspring, making future generations of wild salmon less likely to survive. 


There are additional ethical concerns surrounding the farmed salmon industry given just how intensive it is, with individual pens sometimes containing hundreds of thousands of fish at a time.  Each year, an estimated 9.5 million fish die in salmon farms due to disease and parasites – 20% of the total population.

Corin Smith, a wildlife photographer who has been researching salmon farming, describes the practice as a ‘hyper-intensive method’ to produce food; ‘there has been overwhelming public consensus that battery chicken farms are essentially unacceptable. Salmon farming's never been through the process of public scrutiny yet.’

It is easy to forget that fish are sentient beings just like the land-wandering livestock which we become so enraged about when they are mistreated. It is essential that the intensive salmon-farming industry rethinks how it treats its produce so we can continue to enjoy delicious fish in the knowledge that it’s been sourced ethically.


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