Why salmon should be off the menu this Christmas

Buying ‘responsibly farmed’ salmon may be ethically worse then buying battery chickens

If you are confident you’re buying sustainable or organic smoked salmon this Christmas, you are in for a shock. Almost all the Scottish salmon sold at UK supermarkets as ‘responsibly sourced’ or ‘responsibly farmed’ – whether smoked, fresh or poached – is nothing of the sort. In fact, shelling out for ‘responsibly farmed’ salmon is ethically down there with buying battery chickens.

‘The responsibly-sourced label is complete greenwashing’ says Andrew Graham-Stewart, Director of Salmon and Trout Conservation Scotland. It fails to address the issues that beset the farmed salmon industry: overcrowding, sea-lice, animal welfare and the use of wild-caught fish to feed farmed fish.

Concern over the ‘responsible’ mislabeling sparked over 115,000 people to sign and deliver a petition to Marks & Spencer this autumn, asking for the supermarket to stop labelling unsustainable, factory-farmed salmon as ‘responsibly sourced’.

Salmon dance and petition hand in event at M&S’ London HQ, August 2021

Campaigners have asked the Advertising Standards Association for the ‘responsibly sourced’ label to be investigated and suspended. M&S replies that ‘we may not find middle ground on our views’.

The Scottish farmed salmon industry is worth £1bn annually and the Scottish government is keen to protect it. But calls for more rigorous regulation and better conditions for salmon are growing louder, not only to stop mortality – about 1 in 4 farmed fish die every year, often of parasites and diseases - but to monitor and control the number of sea lice which grow in the open tanks and attack the fish.

Factory farmed Salmon action by Ocean Rebellion outside Marks and Spencers in the Willows, Torquay Saturday 11th December

Graham-Stewart argues that ‘If the supermarkets were being honest, they would say on the label what the sea-lice record at that particular farm was and what the full production cycle mortality rates of the fish were there.’

Although the Scottish Government in March this year did make it mandatory to declare how many sea lice were found on farms, levels are still shocking; and reporting is opaque.

A farmed salmon being eaten by sea lice - credit - Corin Smith

The company MOWI, for example, accredited by the Soil Association and stocked in Tesco and Sainsbury’s, has a farm which has only had two weeks this year when levels of sea lice have been inside the industry’s code of good practice. In MOWI’s ‘organic’ farm in Loch Harport, Skye, the company recorded sea lice six times above industry suggested levels last month (reports found six per fish, as opposed to the one it should be).

But the problem is global - a huge survey of 29 European supermarkets revealed in November revealed that 76% of supermarkets have a ‘near-total lack of substantive policies’ to address the lack of sustainability and transparency in their farmed fish supply chains. It found no retailer had a clear target for the reduction and phased-out elimination of wild-caught fish in feed.\-OWeXoIMHUA

Many argue that what are most at risk are the endangered, natural cousins of farmed fish – wild salmon - which swim in the freshwater outside the farms. ‘The survival of these astonishing fish is at risk’ says Sir David Attenborough citing ‘the spread of parasites, diseases, and fish escaping from open-cage salmon farms…’ as one of the critical factors ‘threatening their very survival.’

Not only are wild salmon at danger from interbreeding with farmed salmon escapees, but the sea lice can eat young, wild salmon alive, as Graham-Stewart explains:

‘Once sea lice get into a salmon farm, it's a perfect storm. The sea lice are able to breed in huge numbers and because the cages are open nets, the sea lice larvae just spread out into the wider environment. Sea lice larvae can spread for 20 or 30 kilometers before they finally perish, and in that time, whilst they are in the natural environment, they are seeking wild hosts to latch onto to continue their lifecycle. If a juvenile salmon or sea trout picks up more than about eleven or twelve sea-lice larvae, they will almost certainly die. They're just not adapted to coping with that number of these parasites which literally eat the mucus and the flesh of the fish and kill them alive.’

So how can you enjoy salmon this Christmas? If you want to eat responsibly, salmon has to be off the menu.

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