Worse wild: Just 636 Atlantic salmon were counted in all US rivers last year, which equates to just three percent of the spawning fish required to meet conservation limits. According to Seafood News, less than half a million salmon returned to North American rivers. The number is down 27% on the previous year. Grilse, salmon that have spent just one winter at sea, are particularly hard hit with number over a third down. The Atlantic Salmon Federation say that it looks like 2017 will be another poor year.

The reasons for the decline are cited as river dams preventing fish reaching spawning grounds, continued fishing pressure off Greenland and Canada and climate change. Greenland fishermen caught less than half as many fish last year as in 2015 which ASF say is a sign that fewer fish are surviving in the wild.

Of course, reduced survival is not unique to the North American east coast as salmon numbers are in decline right across their range. Identifying what is causing the decline, especially marine mortality is a mammoth task and beyond many of those working in local river systems. Thus, the emphasis is often placed towards maximising survival in freshwater rather than addressing the issues affecting salmon at sea. However, one person who believes that he has identified a major influence on wild salmon survival at sea is independent Norwegian researcher Jens Christian Holst of Ecosystembased AS.

Jens Christian worked for the Institute of Marine Research (IMR) for twenty-three years. According to IntraFish, he was one of the pioneering researchers on sea lice on migrating salmon smolts. During his early research, he found smolts with 85 sea lice attached and was convinced that such numbers would eradicate the wild fish. However, he subsequently found no relationship between lice numbers on migrating smolts with the numbers of returning salmon. He told Intrafish that he thinks that there is no empirical evidence to suggest that lice have an appreciable effect in the return of Norwegian salmon. He says that some of the biggest declines in wild stocks occur in areas where there is no obvious source of lice.

Jens Christian therefore turned his attention to other factors that might be causing this decline and one that stood out was the growth of mackerel stocks. He believes that mackerel are now wild salmon’s greatest enemy. He thinks that the size of mackerel stock has been grossly underestimated over the last ten years and the stock has now grown to a size that it impacts on the amount of plankton in salmon feeding grounds as the mackerel migrate further and further north to find food.

At present, the idea that mackerel are outcompeting salmon for food is a hypothesis but he says that salmon populations were much larger in the 1970’s when stocks of mackerel and herring were very low. This meant that the salmon fishing was good but now that the size of the stocks has reversed, fishing for salmon has lost some of it sparkle.

Jens Christians Holst’s hypothesis may just be that but it does seem to make sense. It may be also borne out by some anecdotal observations that salmon that do return are much bigger than usual suggesting that if the fish do survive and grow to a sufficient size to prey on young mackerel, then the salmon will do well. At the same time, grilse numbers are down and this may be due to the competition with the mackerel.

The problem is that there are other theories too. A YouTube video from the river Tweed Foundation has Dr Ronald Campbell explaining the historic changes in the River Tweed’s salmon runs as they flick from strong salmon runs/poor grilse runs to weak salmon runs and strong grilse runs – https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Lu4tt7078DM Perhaps, we are now entering a period of low grilse numbers exacerbated by the large mackerel stock.

Celebrity chefs appear always keen to promote mackerel which is the fish of the moment. Maybe if consumers could be persuaded to eat more, then it may be a way of helping wild salmon stocks recover.

Postscript: Seafood Source also report on threats to wild salmon populations but this time they have highlighted that 45% of Californian salmon, steelheads and trout could be extinct within 50 years and 74% within 100 years. When we read the headline that salmon were being pushed to the edge of extinction we were concerned that they meant now, but a in a hundred years’ time is a completely different matter and there is a lot that can be done before then to save these stocks.

The report forecasting extinction was produced by the University of California’s David Center for Watershed Sciences and the conservation group California Trout. Of course, the threat to wild salmon should be treated seriously but we were less concerned after reading about the production of hatchery fish to boost stocks as occurs in the Alaskan fisheries.

Seafood Source have taken from the Californian report that hatchery raised fish are a threat to wild salmon runs because the fish compete with, prey on, and mate with wild fish and the hybrid offspring are weaker than their wild counterparts. They say that it is possible to sustainably raise fish in hatcheries as in Alaska which are located away from the wild fish. While the wild fish migrate upstream, the hatchery fish return to net pens in the bay or river mouth where fishermen can target them.

It goes to show that we can still learn something new…

 

Bloated and kippered: According to the Daily Mail, more than half of British consumers are unable to identify a kipper. 54% of consumers did not know that the once popular breakfast dish of kippers are a gutted smoked herring. 28% thought that a kipper was a smoked mackerel and 10% thought it was a distinct species of fish. Kippers were popular from Victorian times until the 1970’s when they fell out of favour, probably because of the rise of convenience foods. Consumers who are now used to sugary, easy to eat breakfast cereals, are not interested in cooking a smelly fish for breakfast. Bloaters, a cold smoked herring, which has not been gutted and which has a very gamey flavour, are even more of a mystery to consumers. 22% of consumers, thought a bloater was a puffer fish and 7% thought it was a combination of fish stuffed with haggis.

Another fish, which was once popular in fish and chip shops is Rock Salmon. 40% of consumers think that this fish is a type of salmon when in fact it is dogfish.

These findings are part of a survey commissioned by the Marine Stewardship Council to highlight that there are many myths and gaps in consumer knowledge about fish. The MSC say that one of these is that many consumers think that fish carrying a MSC sustainability label is expensive and unaffordable. The MSC say that with so many different names and terms associated with seafood, it’s not surprising that people find fish confusing. They say it is a shame that this could prevent people from trying something new.

We, at Callander McDowell, are all for anything that will encourage consumers to eat more fish and even those species that are no longer in favour. However, the reality is that obstacles to consumption are likely to be more fundamental than whether the fish is certified by the MSC as sustainable. We still believe that most consumers are largely uninterested in matters of sustainability, preferring to leave such issues to the retailer. Consumers are more likely to look at the price than whether the fish has a MSC logo. We continue to argue that if the MSC logo (and others) was removed from stores overnight, no-one would even notice. This is despite the MSC claiming that there are over 1,000 MSC labelled seafood choices, such as kippers, Coquilles St Jacques and redfish in British supermarkets.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that consumers would be confused about sustainability given that choices such as kippers are not specifically certified as sustainable, rather it is the fish from which kippers are produced that is certified. However, rather than kippers, it is redfish which caught our attention. This is because redfish is not a species with which most UK consumers would be familiar. It is relatively new to the market with only limited availability. Currently, it is available in Waitrose and by coincidence, this week it is on promotion with a 20% discount. The label states that the fish is MSC Redfish that is caught in Iceland by Danish seine, trawl and hook and line. The given Latin name is Sebastes spp. No other information is provided so therefore as the fish is MSC certified, we thought we would see what additional information is supplied on the MSC website.

The MSC have produced a list of fish to eat however redfish is not included. We do note that dogfish, otherwise known as Rock Salmon, is on the list although we have never heard of anyone promoting this species as sustainable. Reference to the actual fish certification of the redfish caught from around Iceland indicates that the fish is actually the Golden redfish (Sebastes norvegicus) and that it is a species of rockfish, something equally not widely known in the UK. This fish is also known by a wide range of names including Norway haddock, Red bream, Red perch, Atlantic redfish, Ocean perch and Rose fish. The fishery also targets, Cusk/Tusk and Blue Ling although these species are not certified but are in assessment.

In the summary of the certification, the redfish is also given a second Latin name Sebastes marinus so therefore covers more than one species. It also highlights again the other species that are associated with this fishery. It does raise an interesting question as to how the redfish catch can be considered as sustainable if the fish also caught at the same time are not certified.

Finally, we visited 4 stores to look at the redfish offering of which only two had the fillets displayed on the fish counter. One store had just one fillet but the other had plenty available. We asked both fishmongers to tell us about redfish, hoping that they may explain its sustainability credentials but all one could offer was that redfish is like red snapper whilst the other said it was similar to tilapia. When we asked what’s tilapia, we were eventually told that it was like red snapper. No other information was offered.

All in all, it is not surprising consumers switch off to the issue of sustainability.

 

Fresh perceptions: Seafood News reports that Malaysians are the sixth biggest consumers of fish and seafood globally with annual consumption of 56.6kg per person. As Malaysia is such an important market, WWF-Malaysia hopes to empower the public to become responsible seafood consumers through increased awareness of sustainable seafood.

A survey was conducted to determine what was important to Malaysian consumers and 56.5% said freshness and 43.5% said taste. Responding to the survey, Chita Devi, sustainable seafood manager with WWF-Malaysia said that MSC and ASC certified fish guarantees that seafood is fresh and safe for consumption as consumers are able to track the origin and freshness of fish and seafood certified by the MSC and ASC as it is traceable every step of the way along the supply chain. By comparison, consumers cannot track the origin and freshness of non-certified seafood.

The news that Malaysian consumers can track the freshness and origin of the certified seafood they buy shows that Malaysia is not only a country of significant seafood consumption but that Malaysia is also ahead of the game with regard to enhanced sustainability issues because we are unaware that buying either MSC or ASC certified seafood is a guarantee of freshness of origin the UK market. Certainly, no information is provided alongside the logo to indicate which fishery the fish or seafood originates. Origin is provided by the retailer under labelling legislation. In the case of the redfish, the MSC lists four fisheries that supply sustainable redfish. We only know that the fish we saw comes from the Icelandic fishery because it is labelled as coming from Iceland in the same way that non-certified fish is labelled in the UK.

With regard to freshness, UK consumers buying from the fish counter, as in the case of the redfish, have no idea how fresh the fish really is. They are at the mercy of the store to ensure that the fish is not displayed beyond the time when it is reasonably considered safe. By comparison, packs of chilled fish are printed with a best before day which at least provides some guidance. The presence of a logo makes no difference to this date.

It is of course possible that WWF-Malaysia are simply stretching the benefits of certified seafood to cover those areas that are important to local consumers. We sincerely hope that this isn’t the case and it is us that has been misled.

 

Finally: This week, the Scottish Parliament’s, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee gathered for their regular meeting and after the main business, they discussed the petition from Salmon & Trout Conservation, which was introduced back in February 2016 and has since been routinely discussed without reaching any decision.

According to Undercurrent News, the RECC Chairman has now taken decisive action and announced that the matter should go to an enquiry, which will take place in 2018. We at Callander McDowell welcome and fully support this decision provided it is completely open and transparent. For too long, the issues have been debated and distorted in the press so the time has come to strip away the emotive language and focus on hard facts to show that salmon aquaculture and wild salmon fisheries can live together in harmony to the benefit of all of Scotland.  We are sure that the RECC will be fair and just.