Scroll Top

reLAKSation no 1146

The New Fish! Although first published in Norwegian in 2021, the book ‘The New Fish’ has recently been published in the English language. It is subtitled ‘The Truth about farmed salmon and consequences we can no longer ignore’. The book describes the two authors as Simen Sætre, a former journalist at the weekly newspaper Morgenbladet and is an award nominated author of five books and Kjetil Østli (born 1975) who is a journalist, Brage prize winning author and editor of Harvest Magazine.

Mr Sætre has written books including ‘The Ugly Little Chocolate Book’ which investigates the chocolate we eat and includes issues such as the use of child labour, corporations and the global economy. He looks at companies such as Cadbury’s in the UK and Hershey’s. He has also written Petromania – a journey through the richest oil producing countries. ‘The New Fish’ clearly follows a similar pattern of an investigation of what Mr Sætre considers to be exploitation of resources.

Mr Østli is one of four editors of Harvest, an online magazine that focuses on quality of life and society, nature and culture and is intended for readers who think the world is complicated and that the answers may not be as simple as one thinks.

From the author’s backgrounds it does seem that the book was written to an agenda and the various chapters mirror the usual anti-salmon farm agenda especially from other parts of the world. However, I am more intrigued by the book’s prologue which has been titled ‘Mankind conquers the world and sets its sight on the fish.’ The first line reads ‘Why did we domesticate fish? Or rather why didn’t we do it sooner?’

One of the problems with such books as can be seen from another example, Salmon by Mark Kurlansky, where salmon are simply another commodity to write about. In the case of Mark Kurlansky, his book on salmon followed ones about cod, salt, milk, paper. As already highlighted, Simen Sætre, has written about chocolate and petrol. With such a variety of topic, the deep interest in the subject and the desire to get the facts right appears to be absent.

‘The New Fish’ appears even to confuse the difference between salmon farming and fish farming so when they ask why didn’t we farm fish sooner, they really mean why didn’t we farm salmon sooner? They suggest it was because people could see money in it (as in corporate greed), whereas the real answer is that the challenges of farming salmon as well as marine fish are massive, and it could be argued that it was only by the 1960s that the window for such farming finally opened.

In their book, Sætre and Østli begin by considering our ancestors and why they began farming. They say that we learnt to farm with crops such as wheat, rice, and barley. We also caught animals and instead of eating them we kept them as livestock. Eventually, we had caught and domesticated not just cows, chickens, pigs and horses but also cats, guinea pigs, donkeys, ducks, water buffalo, camels, turkeys, bees, llamas, silkworms, pigeons, geese and yaks.

They then jump forward tens of thousands of years looking at changes to human life such as the Industrial Revolution and asked questions about how we could produce more food including fish. After all, there are fewer fish in the sea so why not farm them too. Shouldn’t fish be domesticated too and if you are going to domesticate fish then which fish would people pay most for? Salmon of course.

Seemingly Sætre and Østli lead their readers to the impression that fish farming is a new development that began in the 1960s. Even though we began to domesticate animals tens of thousands of years ago, it seems that the idea to domesticate fish didn’t occur to the human race until around fifty years ago. They are very much mistaken.

They even say that domesticating fish began with fish stranded when rivers dried up whilst others talk about fish that swam inland at high tide and remained in lagoons, whilst others suggest that it began with Chinese rulers who wanted fish all year round prompted servants to breed carp in ponds around the palaces. In Europe, they say that experiments with trout were promising, and hatcheries were established with fish being released into rivers and lakes.

As I mentioned, Sætre and Østli have not been able to distinguish between fish farming and salmon farming. Whilst salmon farming is relatively new, farming fish is not. Fish were first domesticated as long ago as 6200-5700 BCE if not before. There is evidence from a early neolithic site at Jiahiu in Henan Province in China that carp were being managed. Whilst other evidence confirms that carp were being grown in paddy fields by the first millennium BCE, such paddy fields were being farmed in the same way back to the fifth millennium leading to researchers to suggest that there is a long history of fish being raised alongside rice. It was much later that Chinese rulers saw that coloured variations of the fish could be developed for ponds around the palace grounds.

Fish farming developed separately in Europe around the Aral Sea and the Danube. It is thought that Roman soldiers saw fish breeding in the very shallow waters on the flood plains and took fish back to Rome. The Romans are also thought to have raised marine fish trapped in lagoons, but this knowledge was lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Fish farming really took off in Europe with the rise of Christianity. There could be over 200 days in the annual calendar which were described as fasting days although this really meant abstention from red meat. Eating the flesh of cold-blooded animals such as fish was allowed. The main source of fish were freshwater river fish which were usually caught and kept live in stew ponds (from the old French word Estui – to store).  As Christianity spread with the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, old knowledge of breeding carp also spread throughout Europe. Carp arrived in the UK around the 1400s, transported in wet moss on the back of horses (yes, they are that hardy). Whilst monasteries and houses of the Christian landowners kept wild fish in ponds, carp were seen as a way of growing the fish rather than just holding them. By the 1600s, a book on keeping carp had been published in England. Carp fell out of favour with the change to Protestant England and the reduced demands on fasting. The Industrial Revolution and improved transport meant that marine species were now in demand. Freshwater species were soon forgotten except to provide sport for the recreational angler.

In countries with a stronger Catholic population such as in eastern Europe, carp farming took off in a big way with fish produced for the Christmas table. In the 1940’s Poland had nearly 100,000 hectares of carp ponds. This has declined since due to changing tastes and current production is around 21,000 tonnes.

The authors refer to trout farming saying that experiments were promising. However, these experiments were not as recent as they suggest. In the 14th century, a French monk. Dom Pinchon discovered how to artificially fertilise trout eggs and to get them to hatch. In the early 1990s, a Danish trout farmer revolutionised the design of a pioneering farm based on flow through. In the UK the first trout farm producing for the table rather than for restocking angling lakes was opened in 1950.

In Norway, the move to salmon farming was done piecemeal with different fishermen trying to rear salmon using very simple but often different techniques. Their attempts to farm salmon were undertaken to help boost their income. Yes of course money is involved.

Because some people have made billions from salmon farming in Norway, Sætre and Østli seem to imply that the move to farm salmon was motivated because some saw the potential to make lots of money. In Norway, the fledgling industry was driven by fishermen. By comparison, the industry in Scotland was driven by large companies the first and foremost being the Anglo Dutch conglomerate Unilever. Their interest in farming fish was that some of the business’s belonging to these founding companies were perceived as damaging the environment and that fish farming could be promoted as a much greener activity. – How times have changed!

The two authors write that the Scots started salmon farming early and the first company was Marine Harvest and was founded in Lochailort and later became an industry giant. The reality was that Anglo Dutch corporation Unilever established a trial farming unit at Lochailort, naming their salmon operation Marine Harvest. This means that Marine Harvest were an industry giant from the outset.

Sætre and Østli imply that the development of this ‘new fish’ for farming for financial gain is wrong. But why is this different from catching the fish with nets for financial gain or even river managers selling anglers the right to fish the river to catch salmon? I won’t mention the exploitation of salmon by writing about it and selling the resulting book!

The book jumps around a lot with the fish chapter about the new fish coming into being. Chapter two is about the pioneers that built the industry and chapter three is about the arrival of salmon lice. Chapter five concerns how salmon gets its colour and chapter six is about escapes.

Rather strangely chapter 4 is about Østli family fishing holidays in northwest Norway!

Returning to Chapter three, the authors write that a warning of the troubles, tragedies, lawsuits and research conferences that the sea lice would bring came in an observation of the researcher H C White, who observed a major sea lice outbreak in the River Moser on Canada’s east coast. However, it seems that the authors have not actually read White’s 1940 paper as it is not included in the long list of references.

Sætre and Østli write that the summer had been hot and salmon gathering at the mouth of the river were riddled with ulcers and lice. As the weeks progressed, it got hotter, and the fish became covered with lice resulting in significant wounding. Eventually their torment came to an end with a multitude of fish left dead in the water.

According to the paper, the first salmon were lightly infested with lice, as might be expected with newly run fish. However, the lack of freshwater in the river meant the fish were trapped at the river mouth and as the water temperature rose, lice reproduced, and infestations increased with fish observed to be carrying hundreds of lice. Fish started to die when water temperatures reached over 29oC.

This observation is not unique, as a similar event occurred in the Outer Hebrides a few years ago. Fish caught in warming waters become stressed and become weakened and more open to attack from lice.

However, the reason for mentioning H C White is that Sætre and Østli then say that when the deaths occurred, White realised something significant. “What if the lice weren’t hatched at sea but in a pen containing hundreds and thousands of salmon swimming around close together? Here, the lice could reproduce exponentially, multiplying so rapidly as to threaten the source of the salmon industry – the wild salmon. “ If these authors had read this paper, they would know that H C White said nothing of the sort. In fact, his paper is simply a record of his observation together with the question whether his observation was the same as that made by Calderwood in 1905. Mr White knew nothing of salmon farming, nor theorised about if it should ever happen.

There is obviously much to write about the factual content of this book, but I will end with chapter 19 titled ‘A mysterious disappearance’. This concerns the river Vosso and the disappearance of the wild salmon from the river after 1988. The book suggests that the river was compromised by acid rain, damming, power generation (one of Norway’s biggest power stations), road construction, railway improvements and of course sea lice, and not forgetting farmed salmon escapes.

What the book doesn’t seem to mention is the threat of Gyrodactulus salaris, otherwise known as the salmon fluke. My information is that the Vosso was one of the rivers in Norway that was affected by this parasite. It is extremely difficult to eradicate from rivers without stringent measures.

The Norwegian Veterinary Institute in their 2022 report on the parasite states that the policy of the Norwegian authorities is to eradicate from infected watersheds. In rivers this is done by chemical treatment and in most instances, rotenone is the chemical of choice. Killing all the fish means that the parasite has no host and thus cannot survive. I am not sure when the Vosso was treated but I am led to understand that it definitely was as this national eradication programme began in 1975, which meant that all the salmon disappeared.

The authority’s still monitor for Gyrodactulus and part of a recent surveillance guide is pictured. Fish have returned to the Vosso but the river is a shadow of its former self. I don’t suppose attributing the river’s decline to Gyrodactulus fits the narrative that the authors wished to relate, so best it was ignored. In my experience that is the story of salmon farming. The truth seems irrelevant to those who want to see an end to this important industry, and it doesn’t matter whether it is a press article or a glossy book, criticising salmon farming appears to be all that matters. This might be a book about a new fish, but it is still the same tired old story.