‘Artifishal’ documentary: future of farmed salmon in Europe

On April 18th the movie ‘Artifishal’ by Patagonia Europe premiered in Amsterdam. Artifishal is a screening on the effects of salmon hatcheries and salmon aquaculture using open net pens on the environment and on wild salmon stocks. Throughout the next few weeks, Patagonia will screen this movie in several European cities. We visited the premiere to find out what the main points of criticism are.

When we talk about salmon, it might be useful to have a bit of an understanding of the life cycle of this species. Salmon has a unique life cycle as salmon spend on average 3-4 years in the ocean before returning to their home rivers to spawn. The small salmon migrate back to the ocean in order to return back to the same (!) spawning ground after several years.

The situation described by Artisfishal is about the situation of wild salmon fisheries on the Pacific coast of the USA,. The situation there is very different from salmon farming in Europe. Due to overfishing, pollution but mainly installation of migration barriers (e.g. hydropower dams) wild salmon could not migrate and stocks have declined rapidly. Over the last few years migration barriers have been addressed and with the help of artificial salmon hatcheries releasing young fish at the spawning ground, the salmon was saved from extinction. Unfortunately, according to the screening, the hatcheries are also one of the most important factors contributing to the decline of wild salmon stocks by introducing ‘artificial’ genetic material. 

While the documentary did not reflect the reality of salmon farming in Europe, the decline of the wild salmon population and genetic pollution of the wild salmon is also a problem in Europe. Salmon production in Europe is mostly done using open net pens in Scotland, Norway and Iceland. Escapes are a serious problem with open net pen farming as farmed salmon can threaten wild salmon populations by lowering the genetic diversity when populations mix.

Good Fish Foundation recognises these issues and has listed the salmon as “orange” (preferably not) in our Seafood Rating Guide (“VISwijzer”). Fortunately, many of these threats can be completely eliminated if recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) would be used for salmon farming. RAS is a technique which has developed rapidly over de past years and is a promising technique for sustainable salmon farming. Due to the closed nature of this system, there are no escapes, no interference with wild populations, no disease outbreaks and no environmental pollution. 

The system is expensive compared to open net pen farming but highly recommended for a country like Iceland. Up until recently, total salmon production was minor in Iceland, had hardly any disease problems and the wild salmon population was hardly affected. Unfortunately, Iceland is about to raise the production of salmon enormously and the concern is that they will encounter similar problems the  salmon farmers are facing now in Scotland and Norway. Rapid expansion and intensification not only have an effect on the wild salmon, it increases the risk of for example sea lice outbreaks and the need for antibiotics. 

We should all help to make the Icelandic government aware that if they wish to expand its salmon farming industry, investing in RAS salmon farming would be a solution. This can intensify production without any negative environmental effects. Instead of waiting for a disaster as described in the movie of Artifishal, Iceland should become a frontrunner in RAS salmon farming.