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reLAKSation no 832

Sub 40: report that salmon prices continue to decline to mid-40 NOK/kg and that the expectation is that by the end of the month, salmon will be priced below 40 NOK/kg. If prices cross that barrier and salmon starts to be listed in the 30s-NOK then that will herald a major change to perceptions of the salmon farming industry. For the past few years salmon farming has been about high prices and high profitability but we, at Callander McDowell, have never thought that this could be maintained. We have always argued that salmon farming is a high volume, low margin industry producing affordable salmon for the wider marketplace. This is how it used to be but a variety of influences changed the perception to an industry of high prices and high margins, producing an expensive consumer product. Something had to give and that was the inability to continue to expand high priced markets. China, for example, has not created the expected demand. Consequently, current production has not found alternative markets willing to pay the elevated prices. In addition, as the high prices have finally filtered through to consumers, demand has fallen away. Consumers are ready to buy salmon, but not at any price. This can be seen in the UK where the latest Nielsen statistics show that whilst sales value has risen by 4%, volume has declined by 5% and this is because prices have risen by 10%. In fact, this is a bit of a simplification and prices in many stores have soared beyond that figure. Intrafish reports that the Pacific salmon industry is pushing wild salmon as an alternative to high priced farmed salmon and certainly, wild Pacific salmon is present in most stores at competitive prices.

The big question is if prices fall to below NOK 40/kg whether it is just a short-term blip that will see prices rise again after Christmas or is it a much longer-term price re-adjustment that will bring about a rethink of how the salmon farming industry operates. Certainly, lower prices will bring the focus back to controlling costs and how to protect every cent of margin. It’s a question of what sort of industry do salmon farmers want. Only time will tell.


Colour blind: According to Intrafish, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch programme have upgraded pen raised salmon from British Columbia from the red ‘Avoid’ list to yellow making it a ‘Good Alternative’.  This makes it the first major open-water pen salmon farming region to gain approval from Seafood Watch. The new recommendations also elevates salmon from Orkney from red to yellow, giving it a step up above salmon farmed elsewhere in Scotland.

Seafood Watch has given pen raised salmon from British Columbia a score of 4.28 out of 10. This is rather meaningless so we looked at the Seafood Watch website for some form of interpretation. In total, British Columbian salmon were awarded four green assessments, five yellow and one red with a total score of 29.98. There are ten criteria so we assumed that the total score would be divided by that number but that gives a score of 2.99. We had to dig deeper for an explanation. It seems that the final score of 4.28 is an average of the individual criterion after the two exceptional scores are deducted. We tried various combinations of scores and were unable to arrive at the score of 4.28. However, it seems that the overall ranking is not based on that score alone as the number of criteria judged to be red and the number of critical scores are also considered.

As Orkney is now a member of the ‘Yellow’ club, we took a look at their scores and Orkney achieved a score of 4.36, a little better than British Columbia, however unlike British Columbia, calculation of the Orkney score involved deducting three exceptional scores from the total. The Orkney assessment also includes the assessment for the rest of Scotland. It seems that the rest of Scotland is not highly regarded by Seafood Watch for Scottish producers have been awarded three red criteria and this ensures that they remain in the ‘Red’ with a score of just 2.65.

It might be thought that other sources of salmon with such lowly scores would be consigned to the ‘Red’ list but it seems not. Chinook salmon caught around California are awarded a score of 2.58, less than Scottish farmed salmon yet Californian Chinook salmon are awarded a ‘Good Choice’ rating. In fact, most of the wild caught salmon in the ‘Good Choice’ section have scores around 2-3 but more surprisingly so are some of the wild caught salmon found in the green ‘Best Choice’ group. The highest score listed is 8.59 for salmon farmed in freshwater net pens in New Zealand.

We are puzzled by the Seafood Watch guide but most surprised by the fact that whilst the Best Choice, listed on the individual consumer guides that can be downloaded from the Seafood Watch website, is for wild salmon from Alaska, yet such Alaskan salmon is not included in the full list of recommendations. Perhaps, Seafood Watch consider Alaskan salmon to be somewhat above their rating system.

Intrafish also reported that the NGO Sea Choice reacted quickly to the news, disagreeing with the conclusion that disease and sea lice have no population-level impact on wild salmon. They say that there is no conclusive scientific evidence in the report to justify the ranking changes although  peer-reviewed science indicates that there are significant concerns in that respect.

None of this is of any surprise to us, at Callander McDowell. It wasn’t so long ago that some of the NGO’s were taking money to ‘demarket’ farmed salmon to the consumer using some extremely dubious facts and figures. Salmon farming has always been viewed by many NGO’s in the worst light. Let’s not forget that the Monterey Bay Aquarium was set up with the same funding as used in campaigns to ‘demarket’ farmed salmon.

Our view remains unchanged. Farmed salmon is inherently sustainable. Consumers know that and that’s why it is one of the most popular fish to eat. Consumers don’t need any guides to tell them that far from being a good or alternative choice, farmed salmon is the best choice.


Egg on face: One of the reasons why farmed salmon from British Columbia was deemed to be a better choice by the Seafood Watch programme was the availability of peer-reviewed data showing that salmon farming has little impact on the overall wild salmon population. Such data is not really of much surprise because we certainly take the view that claims about the impact of salmon farming are highly over-stated. We, at Callander McDowell, have been looking at the impact of sea lice on wild stocks since 2010. It has taken time but we think an end is in sight.

We were reminded about the approach to questions about what happens in the wild after reading the latest issue of Scottish Field. The angling column considered one of the latest Government Science initiatives that was run this summer. The project was intended to track through acoustic tags the destinations of returning salmon. The idea was to catch about 750 as they reached the northern Scottish coast and to fit tags which could then be tracked to over seventy different rivers. However, as the project got underway, it received much criticism, not least because it appeared to be a last-minute decision to track the fish.  Then, the choice of net station at Armdale was questioned due to its modest catch record as compared to the nearby Strathy Point. Finally, the tags arrived late causing netsmen to suggest that the whole project was too late to be meaningful. This looked prophetic as only 60 salmon were tagged by August and as yet no tagged salmon has been recovered by anglers. It seems that the £500k project will be a complete waste of money.

Scottish Field say that there is plenty of literature detailing similar research from the 1940’s and 1950’s that shows the salmon passing the northern point of Scotland could end up in almost any river on either the east or west coast and even points beyond. The magazine says that the answers are already known and thus less egg would end up on fewer faces. They compare the tracking project to the Scottish Government’s programme on the impact of sea lice from salmon farms on wild fish and say that the answer to that project is also known. We at Callander McDowell would agree that the answer is known, but not the one that Scottish Field might expect.

By coincidence, an article in Fish Farmer magazine refers to the Scottish Government’s sea lice project. The article, which discussed why something doesn’t add up in blaming salmon farms for the drop in wild catches, mentions a three-year project undertaken by Marine Scotland Science to investigate the effect of sea lice (from salmon farms) on returning salmon smolts. According to the article, Marine Scotland Science have trapped thousands of migrating wild smolts from two tributaries of the River Lochy, treating half against sea lice infestation and leaving the other half untreated.

If the study had gone to plan then it might be expected that, if sea lice were the issue, more of the treated group would return than the untreated control as fish treated against sea lice would survive whilst untreated smolts would not. This project is in fact a repeat of similar work undertaken in Ireland and Norway, but using fish reared for the purpose rather than using wild caught smolts. The findings of the two studies was that about 1% more of the treated group returned suggesting that sea lice were not the problem. Unfortunately, the wild fish lobby questioned the way the results were expressed even though the actual numbers were not in dispute. Consequently, rather than address why more and more salmon smolts are dying at sea, Marine Scotland Science opted to repeat the smolts returns study, claiming that Scottish salmon could react differently… and they have.

After spending £400,000 (two years into a rumoured £600,000 SARF project) the article in Fish Farmer reports that so far none of the tagged salmon, whether treated or not have returned. Rather than demonstrating that sea lice from salmon farms are the main problem affecting wild salmon and sea trout, this work shows that salmon are facing a much bigger issue. This comes of no surprise to us, at Callander McDowell because our own work looking at catch data suggests the same. Unfortunately, Marine Scotland Science have discounted this approach, instead claiming that only by experiment can the impact of salmon farms be really determined. So far, their costly work, as reported in Fish Farmer, has demonstrated that salmon farms are not the problem.

An often-quoted figure is that during the 1980’s 20-25% of migrating salmon smolt made their back to the rivers to breed. Thirty years later the figure had dropped to just 5%. What seems to be ignored is that whatever has caused this fall in the number of returning salmon has not been resolved. The number is unlikely to stick at 5% and may have already decreased further. It might have been 5% a few years ago but could be 4%, 3% or even less now. We wonder how long it will be, before those who blame salmon farms start to realise that they have been focused on the wrong issue.


Sad selfie: Intrafish ended the week with a commentary written by Øystein Hauge, editor of Fiskeribladet which was illustrated by a selfie of NSL boss Robert Eriksson taken with various members of staff from the Institute of Marine Research include some of the sea lice research team.

Mr Hauge suggests that the selfie indicates a new beginning of a new harmonious relationship between NSL and IMR. He says that the new reformed NSL will be much more palatable to those working at IMR. We are sure he is right. IMR can now continue to push for more stringent controls on the salmon farming industry unchallenged.  As we indicated previously the focus has been on the messenger not the message. This is not good news for the salmon farming industry.

We certainly do not believe that the salmon industry should operate without controls but our latest research has raised major concerns about the way that researchers have interpreted what is happening in the seas in the salmon farming areas. There is too much readiness to blame salmon farmers even if one sea lice is observed on a wild fish. As much as the research community spread the view that salmon farming is responsible for the decline of wild fish numbers, the evidence is still circumstantial.

If NSL fail to challenge the research establishment in future, then we certainly will. The fact that those who like to blame salmon farming are quick to block us from their social media or fail to acknowledge or reply to our correspondence is not a deterrent. NSL will eventually rue the day that they just rolled over for a selfie.