Boost to salmon farming leaves environment counting the costs

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock
©iStock
Plans to double production of salmon could have disastrous environmental implications, but an online tool could help drive more sustainable consumption.

Farmed fish is big business. By 2030, two thirds of all fish harvested for food will come from farms​, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Scotland and the EU are amongst those hoping to cash in on rising demand for this protein.

The aquaculture sector in Scotland, for example, is worth £1.8 billion (€2 billion) to the economy. Salmon is the flagship species and biggest food export: in 2017 exports increased 35% to £600m (€686m). The government wants to double the sector by 2030, and there are similar ambitions in place at a European level.

But this rapid expansion will come at a cost, given increasing use of chemical treatments, the escape of native species from the farms and the spread of diseases and parasites to wild fish. There have also been studies showing that levels of omega-3 in Scottish salmon are falling as producers switch from fish oil to vegetable oils in order to keep prices low and meet rising demand.

Environment under pressure 

A report published this month by an influential group of Scottish MPs concluded that planned expansion of the industry over the next 10 to 15 years would place “huge pressures on the environment”. ​The committee was also “deeply concerned”​ that industry growth targets of up to 400,000 tonnes by 2030 are taking place “without a full understanding of the environmental impacts”.

Consumers will know little about these problems – or even whether their salmon is farmed or wild caught – but it’s about time they did, according to Scotland-based environmental charity, Fidra.

“Retailers are provided with information on which standards the salmon they purchase has been raised to and which farm it is from, however few pass this information on to the consumer,” ​Fidra said.

Certification schemes ranked 

The organisation has just launched an online tool to provide more clarity and force the sector to up its game. The Best Fishes site lists all the major certification schemes used by retailers, including organic, RSPCA and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Each has been given a score out of 33 based on everything from welfare and traceability to disease control and feed.

ASC comes out top with 26 points. By comparison, the government’s legislation and the industry’s code of practice score only 20. The schemes used by retailers are shown in a separate table.

Fidra said that better labelling of salmon products is needed to allow consumers to make “more informed choices” ​and understand the origins of the products they are buying.

The European Commission also has plans to double its production of aquaculture by 2030. Last year, it launched a  €7 million project to help boost a sector that has been stagnating of late​.

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