Something’s Fishy: Protecting The Welfare Farmed Salmon In Norway
From its humble, often family-owned origins in the 1970s, the Norwegian salmon industry has become data-driven, intense, and dominated by multibillion-dollar companies. Accordingly, it is governed in a complex manner by an array of authorities to balance potential externalities with job creation and tax revenue. As the world’s leading producer of Atlantic Salmon, Norway releases more than 300 million salmon smolts annually across more than one thousand fish farms along the long Norwegian coast, for a total export value of $68 billion NOK ($7.5 billion USD). Authors of a recent study noted, importantly, that the Norwegian salmon industry does deal with numerous “challenges in terms of fish health and welfare, and negative environmental impact.” Although the industry is heavily regulated, this does not prevent a concerning number of fish dying during normal operations, raising the specter of the animals’ welfare. In this study, authors highlight three main issues for salmon welfare: lice infestations, pancreatic disease, and farm siting.
Taking each of these problems in turn, salmon lice are a parasitic creature that negatively impact the lives of the fish in terms of their health, as well as the health of consumers later on. The Norwegian government takes extensive steps towards limiting the number of lice affecting farms, as well as wild populations, potentially at risk of cross-contact. The various delousing methods, however, are expensive to farmers and present a fairly major financial conflict, thus raising concern over adherence and commitment.
Next, pancreatic disease presents another major dilemma for the salmons’ health (and farmers’ profit margins). It is caused by a viral infection and results in the fish suffering muscle damage, poor circulation, and reduced esophageal function, making it more difficult for them to feed and breathe. One approach the government has taken to curb the spread is to establish zones wherein certain levels of pancreatic disease are permissible, but outside of which production must be either frozen or reduced.
Finally, fish farm sites are not chosen by their farmers but rather assigned based on balancing the needs of several other industries as well, including other fisheries, tourism, maritime shipping, and the desires of local and regional human populations. An undesirable side effect of this is that farms are often not placed in the most environmentally sustainable locations. Moreover, infections and disease amongst farms that are up-current from others may spread more readily, thus further damaging the animals’ welfare.
To address these issues, the researchers administered a large-scale survey with a supplementary interview to address how well Norwegians thought these regulations worked and how they might be improved. Results showed that fully 66% of respondents found current salmon lice measures ineffective, while a small but clear majority also indicated they would like to see greater collaborative efforts between industry and government in improving the overall standards. Similarly, a substantial minority (43%) felt similarly about pancreatic disease. Farm siting rated much more favorably, with nearly 70% of farmers approving of current regulations and practices.
The researchers concluded with a series of recommendations for improving the industry with respect to salmon welfare, as well as that of the broader environmental impact and effects within the economy. First, they argue for more flexible lice limits. Utilizing local knowledge to avoid expensive, potentially harmful delousing practices such as “toxic therapeutics” in favor of seasonal flows of brackish water that naturally kill the lice presents one major lever to pull. Additionally, encouraging greater collaboration between fish health personnel and farmers would foster better outcomes across the board. Next, many respondents argued for doing away with zoning practices to combat pancreas disease and instead act more quickly to cull infected populations. This would have the effect of reducing the likelihood of mass spread, thus improving the overall welfare of the fish and mitigating health risks to consumers. Finally, what issues do exist with farm siting can be resolved through broader regional optimization, allowing for greater cooperation between farmers and personnel to establish larger, less scattered areas wherein farms can operate.
Ultimately, the issues of animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and economic feasibility in the Norwegian salmon industry are joint and interdependent. Improving animal welfare would dramatically and simultaneously better sustainability and profitability as well. As such, this presents a rare case where the incentives of multiple groups can align quite closely, offering low-hanging fruit by which we can address a major source of non-human suffering, do so in an eco-friendly manner, all the while growing the market. Instances like these demand swift and decisive action from all of the relevant parties and should serve as exemplars of how animal welfare advocates, environmentalists, and business owners alike can produce better futures.