Pricey Lice: According to the Guardian newspaper, and subsequently most of the mainstream press in the UK, salmon retail prices are set to soar owing to infestations of sea lice. The Guardian told its readers that they may never heard of Lepeophtheirus salmonis and they are less likely to have spotted one, being that they are less than 1.5com long but the humble sea lice is creating waves that are about to wash onto the dinner plate.
The Guardian says that ‘balanced on blinis, tucked into bagels or crafted into sushi, salmon has become an everyday luxury in the UK but fans of salmon may be forced to take it off the menu as prices are expected to leap because of a surge in sea lice hitting production.
The paper reports that global supplies of salmon fell by 9% last year and are expected to fall during the first of this year as lice problems worsen according to fish industry analysts at the Norwegian Bank Nordea. The top five salmon farms in Norway, the world’s largest producer, produced 60,000 tonnes less fish than expected last year said Nordea.
The Guardian reports that sea lice have become more common on fish farms in recent years with experts blaming warming sea temperatures associated with climate change.
The news that falling production would result in higher retail prices quickly spread around the mainstream media faster than sea lice could spread between fish. Unfortunately, it is yet another example of how stories about the salmon farming industry can be cobbled together using information from different sources that arrive at the wrong conclusion and then are picked up by other papers to the extent that the story is given much more credibility than it deserves.
In this case, the UK press has been subjected to repeated stories about sea lice since the New Year. These have been placed at a quiet time of the year when some journalists are looking to be fed news. At the same time, news that salmon prices have risen have come from another source and a journalist has put two and two together and made five. The fact that the original article stated that Chile was the world’s biggest producer of salmon and Norway, the second largest illustrates the level of understanding of the salmon farming industry in some of the media.
Lice have become news because of a couple of stories about inadvertent deaths of some salmon during treatment using hi-tech equipment such as the Thermolicer but the number of deaths is hardly enough to influence the market place, no more than reports of escapes in years gone by. Industry critics simply want the mainstream press to highlight lice in the hope of either consumer resistance to farmed salmon or increased pressure on the Government. It is not a huge step to assume that decreased production is linked to these reports of sea lice and this seems to be what has happened. The reality is however very different.
The Financial Times gave a little extra background reporting that global salmon production is now at a three year low of 2.1 million tonnes. This can hardly be described as a major decline in production as it represents a drop of about 8%. This would not alone account for the forecasted soaring prices.
One reason put forward is increasing demand for salmon. The Norwegian Seafood Council suggests that demand grew by 25% last year but even this is misleading because demand was uneven. This is because whilst some consumers are happy to buy and eat salmon, they will not do so at any price. This means that some markets are willing to pay more for salmon than others. As a result, many producers are chasing those markets where price is not such an issue. For example, recent reports suggest that new consumers in China are willing to pay NOK 100/kg for fresh salmon but consumers in the more traditional markets that have supported the salmon industry for many years find this price excessive. Unfortunately, the chase for NOK 100/kg means that the price is being pulled up elsewhere making salmon less attractive to consumers.
In the UK, there has always been a shortage of salmon. Scottish farmers have never been able to produce enough salmon to meet both home and export demands. As a result, the UK market has sucked in imports from Norway to fill the gap. What has changed now is that some of the producers of Norwegian salmon that was destined for the UK are seeking markets elsewhere, where prices are higher. The inevitable outcome is that salmon is in short supply and what is available is priced higher than the UK market is used to. This means as the Guardian points out, that retail prices will rise, even though the paper was wrong about sea lice.
Last week, a couple of supermarket chains did increase the retail price of the salmon they sell. More interestingly, they also increased the price of other fish including species such as Pangasius. What this means yet is unclear.
We have previously pointed out that home consumption of fish in the UK is already in decline. Higher priced fish will just tip the balance further away from consumption. The question about salmon supplies is whether any loss of sales due to higher prices can be weathered by the supermarkets or as happened after previous price increases the stores succumb to cutting prices to stimulate sales again. Salmon is considered sufficiently important in the UK retail sector that some believe that it is better to sell at a loss than have no sales at all.
Sea lice are a major problem for the salmon farming industry but that does not mean that they impact on all aspects of the industry. At the moment, sea lice do not equate to high retail prices, rather to higher costs instead.
Why are we so wrong?: It’s not often that we get to read in a glossy magazine as to why we are so wrong. Trout & Salmon magazine have printed a response to our article detailing some of the findings of our study into the impact of salmon farming on wild fish catches, written by Andrew Graham Stewart, a director of Salmon & Trout Conservation, as the Salmon & Trout Association is now known.
The tone of his two-page article (the same amount of space as afforded to our article) is such that it is worth quoting Mr Graham Stewart’s first couple of paragraphs.
He writes – ‘The great 19th century prime minister Benjamin Disraeli penned the oft quotes – There are three kinds of lies: lies, dammed lies and statistics. I am not accusing by implication Dr Jaffa of lying in last month’s Trout & Salmon magazine but I would certainly level the charge that he is guilty of the manipulation of statistics to further his cause as the salmon farming industry’s cheerleader in chief.
Indeed, one should not take Jaffa’s theories and ‘analysis’ at face value without first appreciating what his prime motive is: fundamentalist support for the salmon farming industry (with which he is intimately involved) – including a tobacco industry style denial of the environmental cost. Hence his agenda to show and/or prove through dubious use of statistics that salmon farms in the West Highlands and Islands have had no significant impact on wild salmon and sea trout.’
What we find interesting is that Mr Andrew Graham Stewart seems to believe that he can be passionate about his sport of salmon fishing but someone else cannot be passionate about his industry without some ulterior motive. Our motive is simply to correct the misleading information spread by the angling sector including Mr Graham Stewart. We certainly should not be accused of a totally blinkered view of salmon farming as we accept that salmon farming is not without problem. By comparison, Mr Graham Stewart has renamed his organisation to include the word Conservation, yet, anglers are still killing adult ready-to-breed wild salmon for sport and then blaming salmon farming for the decline.
Mr Graham Stewart accuses us of being disingenuous about our use of statistics. In our article, we refer to the work of Butler and Walker 2006 which examined the catch data for sea trout from Loch Maree. Mr Graham Stewart says that far from showing a decline before the arrival of salmon farming to Loch Ewe, the fishery actually exhibits the peaks and troughs of any wild fishery. He even provides a graph similar to that which appeared in Butler and Walker. He is fortunate that Trout & Salmon published a graph along with his article, because they didn’t in our article, despite a request to include two small key graphs with the text.
Mr Graham Stewart suggests that our use of statistics is dubious yet the graph he has redrawn of Loch Maree sea trout catches has omitted the line showing the five-year catch average that appears in the original graph. This clearly shows the decline in catches prior to the arrival of salmon farming in the loch. It is not surprising that it has been removed from Mr Graham Stewart’s interpretation.
Instead, Mr Graham Stewart highlights that fact that as well as the decline in catches, the size of the fish has also declined. He says that this is key because in the River Nith system which we use to illustrate the fact the opposing nature of sea trout and salmon catches, there are still large sea trout. This is not unexpected since, whilst in decline, there are still sea trout in the Nith system. Mr Graham Stewart says the Nith and Ewe are very different and can’t be compared and that instead the Ewe should be compared with the Hope.
Mr Graham Stewart says that although there are farms in adjacent Loch Eriboll, the fish from the Hope do not pass them as the river empties into the mouth of the Loch so the fish escape infection. He also points out that the farms in Loch Eriboll have been free of lice for the last two years so the Hope fish have not been exposed to lice infection.
It seems that Mr Graham Stewart is selective of the data he uses. He talks about the farm being free of lice for two years, whilst we have examined the data for over sixty years. It is not surprising that the picture is very different. Mr Graham Stewart suggest that Hope fish are free of lice and hence avoid death because the river emerges away from the farms, yet the angling fraternity have regularly argued that salmon farms should be located more than 30km from any migratory route as infection can be spread within that distance. This includes the short distance from the Eriboll farms to the mouth of the River Hope.
Finally, Mr Graham Stewart answers the question we have repeatedly posed. Why is it that sea trout catches have declined in Loch Maree, yet salmon catches have increased? He says that we are blissfully unaware that sea trout remain in the sea loch for much longer than salmon smolts so are much more vulnerable to infection. By comparison salmon quickly journey out to sea and avoid infestation although he does say that in other parts of the Highlands, smolts may have to pass by dozens of farms and therefore are more susceptible. Yet, our study indicates that nearly half of west coast fishery districts show a similar catch response to Loch Ewe. However, what Mr Graham Stewart fails to explain is why some of those fishery districts which did show a decline are now showing increased catches.
Of course, whilst it is interesting to read Mr Graham Stewarts critique of our work, we should point out that we have repeatedly written to him requesting a meeting to discuss our findings and he has repeatedly failed to even acknowledge our attempts to meet him.
Mr Graham Stewart ends his written response by saying that we defend a grimy industry in a cynical attempt to deflect attention from it being subject to scrutiny and proper regulation. Surely, if he is so concerned, he would be fighting to argue his case. Clearly not.
Closed containment: Whilst he does not refer to closed containment farming in his article in Trout & Salmon magazine, Andrew Graham Stewart, does mention it in a recent letter in West Highland Free Press. He writes that ‘there will undoubtedly be conflicts between aquaculture and wild fish interests until such time that salmon farming moves to closed containment’.
We find it odd that Mr Graham Stewart does not think we, as people associated with the aquaculture industry, are qualified to comment on wild salmon interests, yet as a salmon angler, he is expert on whether salmon farming can be undertaken in closed containment.
We were interested to come across reference this week to the one closed containment unit that is promoted as a viable working system – Kuterra in British Columbia.
In a blog written about plans to grow AquaBouty GMO salmon in a closed containment system, mention is made that Kuterra is already deemed to be a failure and may be up for sale. https://medium.com/invironment/with-one-press-release-gmo-salmon-company-sabotages-itself-237ace48b562#.7nuoq0j5y The blog says that the only way that it may be possible to make money in this type of system is to cram the fish in at such a density that the fish are actually unhealthy and poor quality and do not achieve the premium pricing expected. We have tried to get confirmation of this sale but only learnt that the company has been looking for investors so a considerable time without success.
So much for a vote of confidence in closed containment farming.