The Great British Christmas Salmon Die Off

Our shopping choices have major ecological impacts. Please spare a thought for salmon…

The nightmare before Christmas

The situation for salmon in Scotland is dire and it is getting worse.

Year on year, the numbers of wild salmon caught on Scotland’s rivers are declining rapidly and 2021 was the lowest ever catch on record. The situation is so bad people are concerned wild salmon could go extinct.

The decline in wild salmon is most likely due to climate change, pollution in rivers and more than anything else the mass expansion of industrial salmon factory farms around the coast of Scotland in the waters that are vital for these wild animals.

Today, when a young wild salmon or sea trout (known as a smolt) migrate from their river of origin out to sea, they must swim past giant factory farm cages that were devastatingly situated in these key sensitive habitats.

Parasitic sea lice plague the farmed animals in these cages; in many cases the infestations are so severe the animals are literally eaten alive. The great clouds of sea lice are not confined to the enormous dirty underwater cages of tightly packed salmon - dispersing from the farms, they can latch onto the passing wild fish and kill them too.

The NGO Wildfish now monitors and reports monthly on the situation on fish farms and the data is revolting, tragic and devastating. Dr Matt Palmer, from WildFish said:

“Scottish salmon farms frequently exceed the industry’s own maximum sea lice levels, as well as those stipulated by the Scottish Government. Far from responsible farming, sea lice emanating from these farms risk the health and survival of our wild salmon and sea trout.”

In September of 2022, 2.8 million salmon died in cages in the waters off Scotland. This was a bad month but it is not unusual. On average, 25% of all the animals currently farmed in these cages die.

Their decomposing bodies float amongst the miserable, diseased survivors.

The backstory

In 2020, alarmed by increasingly disturbing reports, a group of us went up to Scotland to find out more about salmon factory farming. Unbeknown to us at the time, the situation was far worse than we expected. The film we made - Loch Stock and Salmon won a prize in this year's Oceanic Global Short Film Festival.

Compelled into action we started working with a group of expert advisors and set up a petition calling for a leading UK retailer to come clean about the harm being done by factory farming salmon off our country's coast. We made a spoof M&S ad that went viral and were taken aback by the incredible response. More than 118,000 British shoppers signed our petition.\_A

Thanks to the generosity of the signatories of our 38 Degrees petition we had a stunt budget to hand our petition into M&S with music, dancing and street theater. Our petition was received and we spoke and corresponded with several high ranking members of the M&S food team.

Astonishingly, after this great eruption of support for salmon… nothing changed. Supermarkets up and down the country still label their salmon “responsibly sourced” while around the Scottish coastline and in Scotland’s rivers a severe and potentially irreversible ecological catastrophe plays out.

Lex Rigby who led an undercover salmon investigation at Viva said -

“Like all factory farming, modern aquaculture is highly intensive and prioritizes profit over welfare. It causes serious animal suffering, widespread habitat destruction, and potential drug-resistant superbugs. For supermarkets to label fish produced in this way as 'responsibly sourced' is highly misleading and downright irresponsible.”

Top tips for avoiding a lousy Christmas

It is weird that so many people want to eat salmon at Christmas and it is perverse that salmon has come to be such a large part of the human diet. In the UK sales of salmon soared to £1.1 billion last year which equates to 63,300 tonnes.

Salmon are predatory fish. This means that to be farmed they have to be fed wild caught fish. Every year the Scottish farmed salmon industry uses around 460,000 tonnes of wild fish to make fish oil to feed to farmed salmon.

Why not just eat the wild fish?

Of course, overall we should all be eating fewer animal products but it simply is not the case that eating any fish is bad. There are enormous differences in the impacts of the fish we consume. To find out more check out this article from The Sustainable Food Trust.

It is also not well appreciated that other seafood can be sustainable. Bivalves (oysters and mussels) can be sustainably farmed and they are at the bottom of the food chain. Their feeding actually cleans the water that they are in and improves overall ocean health. Crab is also a highly abundant filter feeder found all along our coastline.

The short answer is - it is possible to create a splendid Christmas smorgasbord - including fish products - without buying into the Big Salmon Lie.

Don Staniford, Director of $camon $cotland said -

"Salmon farming is a welfare nightmare. Secret filming at M&S supplier Scottish Sea Farms in July 2022 revealed welfare abuse, mass mortalities and infectious diseases. Consumers should boycott farmed salmon - including RSPCA Assured Scottish salmon - like the proverbial plague. Please don't serve M&S salmon this Xmas!"

Lies, damn lies and salmon marketing

M&S creates adverts in which spokespeople boast that their farmed salmon comes from the “pristine waters of Scotland”. They use the environment they are destroying to market the product that is causing the damage.

To try and counter the horrendous greenwash myself and many others (you can too!) have complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). In a landmark ruling Loch Duart, which farms fish in Sutherland and the Outer Hebrides, is no longer allowed to market itself as “the sustainable salmon company”.

A tiny ray of truth against a tidal wave of corporate fake news.

What next for salmon?

Standard thinking has been that humans are only emotionally moved by cute furry animals like pandas - people don’t care about cold blooded, scaly fish. Our petition, and others like it, disprove this.

The UK public are deeply concerned for fish. We know they are sentient. They feel pain. They live extraordinary lives. Most people agree they should be treated with respect like any living being.

In face of this, the refusal of big retailers to address increasingly widespread concerns seems to offer an effective leverage point. For multiple significant reasons it is increasingly obviously untenable to keep marketing salmon products as a good, ethical, sustainable option.

At Ecohustler we are determined to redouble our efforts and keep trying new tactics to get the big retailers to do the right thing and dial down their endless, extensive and grossly misleading marketing of salmon as a healthy and sustainable choice.

We want to see the number of salmon farms in the waters around Scotland reduced alongside a reduction in the harm caused by the remaining farms. This could help improve the chances for wild salmon.

After M&S refused to budge. I personally went to Defcom 3. We made warning stickers for products and ads that misleadingly greenwash a product with a significant environmental impact. I went into my local M&S and I placed them on the salmon products.

My vigilante actions were eventually discovered by the store manager who called the police. A few weeks later, some slightly sheepish local officers came to the Ecohustler HQ in Frome for a chat (I put our web address on the stickers). They told me that in this instance no charges would be brought against me.

I am not encouraging anyone else to do what I did. However, our warning stickers are still on sale in our store (#justsaying).

In the meantime the campaigns being run by WildFish, Viva and others and thanks to the dedication of some indefatigable maverick activists… the word is getting out. We have to keep the faith that whatever the corporate marketing budget… the truth will ultimately surface.

Please help us to keep raising awareness. Farmed salmon, as it currently stands, is a nightmare product that we all should avoid.