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Who takes care of the salmon?

ICELAND / Salmon farming is an expanding industry that is fed by several Norwegian investors, and Iceland's biodiversity is in the pot. In scenic Iceland, there is a bitter battle between the farming industry and local activists. The open cages are a ticking bomb for both the environment and animal welfare.


Before the trip to Iceland, I had little knowledge of salmon farming. I knew that fish is full of heavy metals and microplastics, that salmon louse is troublesome, and that farming is contrary to the fish's natural behavior and well-being. I also knew that everyone loves salmon, and that the pink delicacy plays a major role in our national pride and economy.

Now I know that the open cages with large-mesh nets are a ticking bomb for both the environment and animal welfare. That the bloodthirsty salmon lice, which thrive in warmer water conditions and love climate change, come in and almost eat the fish alive – leaving it full of bleeding wounds. Moreover, the genetically manipulated and often deformed farmed salmon escape and mix with the endangered wild salmon.

Rosemalt visit at Ice Fish Farm in Iceland

There is snow on the moon. The characteristic Icelandic landscape is buried under soft duvets. The icy wind tears our cheeks and eyes and prepares us for the meeting with Jens Garðar Helgason, former local politician and now fresh vice-chairman of Ice Fish Farm. Later we learn that it was in one of precisely Ice Fish Farms facility that an aggressive attack by the virus ILA (infectious salmon anemia) in 2021 and 2022 led to tons of salmon having to be killed.

Our small busload of journalists and activists in wool and down is welcomed by two leaders with half-stiff smiles and blue-blue outfits. In Helgason's powerpoint, the idyll has fish as its omen. Respectable black-and-white photos of the company's history and word sustainability sprinkled over every other page. He can do this, the ex-politician. When he presents the trump card – the graph of the globe's supposed population growth and its apparently insatiable protein-
needs, Lucy from The Times points out that it was created by the philosopher Max Rose and is scientifically disputed. The crack in the facade is feverishly painted over with the reassuring claim that "of course we don't want to destroy our own fjords".

The second trump card concerns the jobs the industry can generate in local communities. The fish filleting factory in Seyðisfjörður will now be closed, with its 33 jobs. So how many new ones does Ice Fish Farm expect to generate? The answer is around 15, maybe 18 in the long term. 18 jobs that few people want.

The environmental activists

In the small local community, a full 75 per cent strongly oppose these plans. The same is true of many Icelanders. Recently, 3500 people demonstrated against open-air fish farming fuck up, which would correspond to 40 in Norway. Everyone to Icelands environmental organizations – from the Icelandic Wildlife Funds to Aegis – are waging a fierce resistance campaign. Their biggest hope is that a new set of regulations, which is on its way [to be considered by the authorities this spring], will make it less profitable to carry out predatory operations in their fjords.

Recently, 3500 Icelanders demonstrated against fish farming in open cages.

The farming industry has the funds, the environmental activists are at a disadvantage. On the other hand, they have holy anger, passion and one of the world's biggest pop stars on their side.

I spoke to the local people in the small artist commune of Seyðisfjörður, which against its will is about to be invaded by the farming industry. We were surrounded by committed activists around the clock, and got to see "kayak activist" Veiga Grétarsdóttir's shocking testimony [see images] from the cages, obtained with mile-long telephoto lenses and underwater drones.

Björk. Photo: Vidar Log

Next to being an iconic artist is Birch, who we met, a high-profile environmental activist, and she chastises the Norwegian investors. “The equipment and breedingthe technology is imported to Iceland, the managing directors are imported from Norway and so were the bad manners of this terrible industry," she and Spanish Rosalia wrote in a chronicle in Dagbladet in November last year. They donate all proceeds from their song "Oral" to the resistance.

Money isn't everything either. To say it with Benedikta Guðrún Svavar's daughter, leader of the association VÁ and the local community in Seyðisfjörður: "A person can be financially wealthy but very poor in other ways."

The American outdoor brand Patagonia is also a key sponsor of the resistance and has produced documentary A Salmon Nation – A Salmon Nation to create global attention around the topic. "Since my first trip to Iceland in 1960, we have seen wild salmon populations collapse. If the salmon farming industry is allowed to continue in the same direction, the wild species will become history and the untouched nature will be destroyed. It has already happened in Great Britain and in Norway," says Patagonia's 85-year-old founder, fly fisherman Yvon Chouinard.

All the small fish from poor African countries, which are ground up and used for fish feed, could probably satisfy the African own protein requirement.

Back in the meeting room in the Icelandic Eastfjords, Helgason makes an impressive attempt to rewrite the narrative by denying that it is neither cheaper nor easier for Norwegian billionaires to make a profit in Iceland. On the contrary – it is the Icelanders who reach out and ask for shareholders, he says. When Jón Kaldal from Icelandic Wildlife Funds highlights the size of the dividend, ex-politician Helgason snaps: "Oh, you're talking about 'the bad people' getting their money?" “No. The bad people are you", replies Jón. The audience is over.

Now I know that it is not physically possible to run 'sustainable' fish farming in open cages, even as the industry tries at all costs to portray it as such. And that it can never be salmon farming that "satisfies a hungry world". On the contrary: All the small fish from poor African countries that are ground up and used for fish feed could probably satisfy the African own protein requirement.

Instead, cheap protein is turned into expensive protein that large parts of the world's population will never be able to afford, explained Jón Kaldal from Icelandic Wildlife Funds. In addition, a large part of the feed consists of soy from Brazil.

The farming industry considers it at the same time as normal and even so necessary that up to 20 percent of the fish die! This is built into the business model, like accidental damage.

Microplastics from nets, which gradually break down, seep into both fish and the fjord.

I have also realized that the problem with microplastics from the gradual degradation of the nets, which seeps into both fish and fjord, is very under-communicated [see also case on page 14]. The feed pipes in the open farming facilities wear out when the feed passes through, and must be replaced regularly. Microplastics from the pipes end up both in the fish and in the sea, and the Nature Conservation Association estimates that Norwegian fish farms release around 325 tonnes of microplastics a year. The nets also release microplastics, as they are broken down by ocean currents.

In addition, the medicines used against the lice and virus attacks, that the seabed several places look like it is covered in slush snow. I send my thoughts to bleached coral reefs on the other side of the globe...

Expensive experiences

The whole thing is like watching a giant chain collision in slow motion. It is not yet too late to stop it, but time is short and the forces of capital are determined to repeat Norway's 'salmon adventure' – despite strong and fierce opposition.

Perlesnormanetes are also a big problem in Norway. According to the Marine Research Institute in Bergen a total of 51 facilities have been attacked by the jellyfish, which caused around 3 million fish to die.

Only the last year has more than 4 million farmed salmon died in Iceland's open cages. This is 72 times more fish than the total number of wild salmon in Iceland.

They tightened the rules for farming industryone in Iceland, which is on the way this spring, could be a win-win-win for fjords, animals and the industry's reputation. This could mean major changes in the industry, and a ban on open cages in the long term. Then Iceland will no longer be a 'safe haven' for Norwegian farming investors, which will probably result in a more controlled expansion with organic growth rather than today's explosive growth.

Now several large salmon companies are also under investigation by the European Commission for illegal price collusion in the period 2011–19. This applies to Salmar, Mowi, Grieg Seafood, Cermaq, Bremnes Seashore and Lerøy Seafood Group.

Major Norwegian players such as Mowi, Hymns and Grieg should have learned from both his own and others' costly mistakes and not pay for the Icelanders to fall into the same traps. A new national regulation will ensure Iceland's cleaner fjords, a thriving wild salmon population and a more sustainable farming industry.

The recent volcanic eruption in Iceland reminded us that the forces of nature should not be tampered with too much. We are all part of the same ecosystem. Short-term profit can hardly justify a long-term destruction of our own livelihood.


See also case:


Facts about Icelandic salmon farming:

The expansion of Iceland's aquaculture industry has been explosive since its inception around 10 years ago, with an increase from 900 to 500 tonnes annually.

Two Icelandic breeding companies controlled by the Norwegian giants MoWi and Salmar in November last year had to slaughter more than 1,5 million salmon due to salmon lice. The salmon could therefore only be used for animal feed. This is the first time something similar has happened in Iceland. The companies had to use drugs to de-lice their fish.

Salmosan (Azamethiphos), SliceVet (Emamectin benzoat) og AlphaMax (deltamethrin) are drugs that were previously widely used in Norwegian fish farms, before the salmon lice became resistant to them.

The salmon louse parasite lives naturally in Nordic waters and gets better living conditions as the water is warmed by climate change.

In 2022, 58 million salmon died in Norwegian sea cages. In Iceland, three million salmon died in cages in Icelandic fjords. Today, three large salmon companies are responsible for operations in Iceland, all with Norwegian main owners:

Norwegian hymns is the main owner of Eagle salmon / Icelandic Salmon in the Westfjords. Listed on the stock exchange in Oslo and Reykjavík. Episodes where a cage collapsed, bacterial kidney disease and cases of salmon lice.
In November last year, the company announced the suspension of all plans for the construction of units for aquaculture at sea in Norway; instead, they look at opportunities abroad. This is due to the new ground rent tax. politikk/grunnrenteskatt/salmar/ salmar-aker-ocean-stopper-storstilte-planer/2-1-1551678

Norske Speaks is the main owner of Arctic Fish, also with holdings in the Vestfjords. Listed on the stock exchange in Oslo. Several large escape episodes and lice attacks have occurred in recent years. Arctic Fish Arctic Fish (Mowi owns 51,28%): Operating income of close to 19 million euros. Sales revenue of nearly 89 million euros.
Arctic Fish is listed on the Euronext Growth side exchange and valued at around NOK 1,9 billion. In August last year, 3500 salmon escaped at the same time as a large outbreak of salmon lice, and these have been found again in over 50 different rivers around the country. The incident led to a police investigation in Iceland.
(Source: nyheter/a/295730?pinnedEntry=295730 )

Mow Mowi is the world's largest salmon producer and had sales of NOK 63 billion last year. The full-year result ended at almost 900 million euros before tax.
(Source: havbruk/mowi/john-fredriksen/laks/ rekordhoye-inntekter-for-mowi-omsatte-for-14-milliarder-euro-pa-tremaneder/2-1-1598096)

The Norwegian Måsøval family from Frøya is the main owner of listed companies Ice Fish Farm in the Eastfjords. They have so far not had salmon lice due to colder water in the east – on the other hand, a major ILA virus attack in 2021 which led to them having to slaughter all the salmon in 2022.
Måsøval Måsøval (main owner of Ice Fish Farm + facility on Frøya): Operational operating profit of NOK 113 million in the third quarter of 2023, compared to NOK 62 million in the same period the previous year. Måsøval also owns 65 percent of the butchery and sales company Pure Norwegian Seafood on Averøy, which over several years has sold frozen salmon that was not suitable for human consumption.
Ice Fish Farm (Måsøval owns 32,8%): Operating profit of NOK 51 million in the third quarter of 2023. Turnover in the third quarter was NOK 24 million, compared to NOK 178 million in the same period the previous year. (Source: Turnover in the fourth quarter was NOK 248 million, compared to NOK 100 million in the same period the previous year.
(Source: https://www.finansavisen. no/sjomat/2023/02/28/7988718/ ice-fish-farm-skyter-fart-snur-minustil-pluss)



Photo: Ströndin Studio, Radu Buema and Leonard Basse / Patagonia Works

See also about the book Being Salmon, Being Human. Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild, reviewed in MODERN TIMES by Nina Ossavi,, as well as Therese Hugstmyr Woie,

Anja Stang
Anja Stang
Stang has 25 years' experience as a journalist, editor, copywriter and communications consultant. See also

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