From the Archive: Grazing Free at the Ocean's Expense Skip to content

From the Archive: Grazing Free at the Ocean’s Expense

Words by
Magnús Bjarnfredsson

Photography by
Páll Stefánsson

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1983. Archival content is presented in unaltered form and may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

Aquaculture has been at the forefront of public discourse lately. In addition to our feature article on the state of the country’s open-pen aquaculture, Iceland Review also dug into the archives, revisiting the beginnings of this industry in Iceland.

In the early 1980s, the salmon farming industry in Iceland was relatively young. Its primary focus was enhancing wild salmon populations through hatchery programmes, notably at the state-operated Kollafjörður hatchery. It was there that Icelandic salmon were hatched and reared for release into rivers, with the aim of bolstering natural stocks. Scientific experiments at Kollafjörður demonstrated promising return rates of 5-15% for these released salmon, a significant achievement compared to other countries.

At this time, efforts were made to implement Norwegian methods of open-pen salmon farming in Iceland, but this faced distinct challenges. The Icelandic coastline lacked the protective reefs (skerry gardens) found off the Norwegian coast, which in Norway helped shield salmon in open pens from harsh ocean conditions. Icelandic fjords, exposed to rolling seas and significant tidal variations, were less suitable for this method. Additionally, the extreme cold of Icelandic coastal waters during winter posed a survival challenge for salmon in open pens.

To address these challenges, Iceland experimented with alternative methods. One such method involved using geothermally-heated sea water in experimental open-pen farms, particularly along the coast of the southwest peninsula. This innovation allowed for the maintenance of optimal water temperatures, accelerating salmon growth and reducing the loss of salmon smolts. Despite these efforts, the high costs of such methods and the necessity of a high market price for salmon remained significant considerations for the industry.

At the time, these new aquaculture techniques represented something of a breakthrough, both for conservation and industry. Now, as so often is the case, the initial excitement of progress has given way to a more complicated picture.

The future of salmon farming in Iceland awaits the success of a new development which may be realized next summer. Approximately 400,000 young salmon, after having been reared in hatcheries to 25-gram size (salmon smolts), were released last summer at twelve selected locations around Iceland. Only 8% of these fish need to return from the sea after one year’s time, each then weighing about six pounds, to enable a new farming technique called salmon-ranching to become a profitable business. Even if the recovery figure is essentially less, perhaps as low as 3%, the release method could prove worthwhile—if the high price for salmon remains stable and a sufficient overseas market can be obtained.

Until quite recently, salmon were hatched and reared only for release into about 80 salmon rivers in Iceland, and it has primarily been the owners and lessees of such rivers who have enjoyed the benefits of salmon cultivation. Angling for salmon is very popular with both Icelandic and foreign sportsmen who pay a high price for daily permits. During the years 1971 through 1980, they hooked approximately 40,000 salmon per year weighing on the average 7 to 8 pounds. Netted salmon during the same period totaled about 25,000 annually. It is not anglers only the quantity of fish in Iceland’s rivers that anglers have sought, but also the salmon’s admirable qualities as a sportfish combined with the peaceful and unspoiled surroundings in which the fish is found. Some of the best fishing places are far away from populated areas and the noise of traffic, while others are within inhabited areas, such as Elliðaár, the river which flows through Reykjavik. At this location, where the surrounding environs have been protected, anglers quietly exercise their skills by hauling 1200 to 1300 salmon out of the river each year.

fish farming iceland

The steps leading up to the expansion of salmon ranching in Iceland—the release of salmon smolts to the sea—had their beginning at the state-operated hatchery in Kollafjordur shortly after it opened in 1961, when scientific experiments were conducted. These experiments revealed that return rates ranging from 5 to 15 percent could be realized in any given year. Additionally, the average weight of returning salmon would be between 5 and 8 pounds after one year of ocean feeding. This proved to be a superior yield compared to that achieved in other countries engaged in salmon releases, where only a small fraction of the returning salmon manage to elude fishermen and reach spawning grounds, while the remainder are caught in the sea by individuals who do not contribute to the expense of hatching, rearing, and release.

The obvious reason for the better yield in Iceland is the country’s protective law, which bans all salmon fishing along the coasts. The first prohibitive legislation was enacted by the Althing fifty years ago. Originally, there were some exceptions to the ban, arising from historical precedent with certain landowners, but these were few and relatively unimportant. Subsequent changes to the law made the prohibition uniform for everyone, and violations were severely punished. It is safe to assert that nowhere in the world today is there such an effective government ban on salmon fishing as that along the coasts of Iceland and within its 200-mile jurisdiction.

Notwithstanding the scientific results obtained at Kollafjordur, when man’s interest in salmon harvesting for food production had been fully awakened in Iceland, experiments were first conducted with various methods of farming. It has since become apparent that the conditions on Iceland’s coast are in many ways different from those of neighbouring countries. In Norway, for example, salmon are commonly fed and maintained to adult size in sea-pens within calm fjords, where outlying reefs (skerry gardens) off the coast afford protection from heavy seas. This method of ocean farming is not practiced in Iceland because such protective reefs are generally not to be found. Thus, not only do the rolling seas penetrate the shallow fjords, but also there is a correspondingly greater difference between low and high tides which disturbs sea-pens or similar enclosures. In addition, the ocean temperature becomes extremely cold during winter, such that salmon cannot survive.

There is, however, an experimental sea-pen salmon farm presently in operation on Iceland’s southwest peninsula, where geothermally-heated sea water obtained by drilling is pumped into coastal ponds. By maintaining an optimum temperature between 10 and 15 degrees, the growth of salmon is accelerated. The greatest advantage to this method of farming, barring unforeseen circumstances, is the relatively small loss of salmon smolts chosen for rearing, which thus offers some assurance that the investment of time and money is well expended. However, the necessity for continuous pumping of warm water, because of Iceland’s cool climate, and feed costs imply that the salmon produced must bring a high price at the market. A variation of this farming method is now being practiced by ISNO in northwest Iceland. Here the salmon are kept in sea-pens in a large lagoon, where the water is not very salty and the warmth is provided by underground geothermal springs. Some of the salmon smolts are also released for ranching.

Future experiments are planned to combine the two enclosure operations — that is, maintain the young salmon in ponds on land up to 300 grams and then transfer them to sea-pens for the last few months before slaughter. Considerable expense for power would be eliminated by this two-step method.

A further extension of the salmon ranching method practiced at the government hatchery at Kollafjordur is to release salmon smolts into rivers or release areas not previously frequented by salmon, but where salmon release and recapture facilities can be built. Salmon smolts are in this case transported up to 100 kilometers from their native stream and fed for one month in a pen at the site of release. Immediately seeking the sea after release, the salmon roam for approximately one year, during which time sexual maturity is achieved, and then return to the river of release — a homing instinct for which the Atlantic salmon is noted and which rarely fails. Upon their return for the purpose of spawning, they are taken in a trap and slaughtered. This method has been practiced very successfully at Láros on the Snaefellsnes peninsula where recovery rates exceeding 10% have been realized.

salmon fishing in iceland

By allowing salmon to mature in the ocean, a huge expenditure for power is saved, as well as the cost of feeding and maintenance. However, this factor is offset by the small recovery figure. Two conditions are clearly requisite if the release method is to be profitable: (1) that the percentage of return does not drop below a certain level, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, and (2) that the expenses incurred in maintaining the young salmon up to release size be reasonable.

The rearing period is expensive, as special conditions are needed. Since natural water is always too cold for optimum results, warm water must be added. There is much geothermal heat in Iceland, but it is not always present at locations which are most favourable for the growing and release of salmon. Obviously, coexistence of hatchery and release sites would be ideal, since transportation and manpower costs would be minimised. It is also believed that the yield of returning salmon would be higher if they were released close to the river of origin or at least in the same part of the country.

Warm water for smolt rearing has been obtained in a novel way at one location. A large aluminium plant has been in operation for some time at Straumsvík, and at the same site is the largest hatchery in Iceland which is privately-owned. Excess coolant water from the aluminium reduction facility, which is unpolluted but had no prior application, is now used to warm the water where salmon are maintained. Last summer, 130,000 young fish were released into the sea from this new farm. If the prediction of a 5% recovery of six-pound mature salmon is realised next summer, over twenty tons of fish would be produced at just one farming location.

A total of 400,000 salmon smolts were released throughout Iceland last summer, of which 285,000 were set free in the southwest and west. In these areas, the sea is warmer than the northwestern and northern fjords, where the remainder were released. When the sea is colder, the salmon’s growth is slower and maturity may take an additional year. However, recovery stations in the north and northwest may then benefit by the salmon’s considerably larger size.

The future outlook for this new method of salmon farming, which combines one year of rearing with oceanic feeding for a year or two, looks very promising, and many investors have appeared and are already planning new projects. Among these are several foreign investors, such as the well-known Norwegian firm Mowi, which is already affiliated with the Icelandic salmon growing company ISNO in pen-rearing and salmon ranching operations on the northern coast. Some Icelanders have expressed concern about foreign participation in their country’s salmon farming, particularly since it may seem to be a circumvention of Iceland’s fishing jurisdiction which is meant to protect salmon-growing waters. Others, however, point out that the industry has benefitted from foreign knowledge and experience where pen-rearing of salmon is concerned, plus the fact that investment capital for future expansion is not easily obtainable in Iceland, especially with the continual spiralling inflation which acts as a detriment to potential Icelandic investors. In view of this, foreign participation will probably be accepted without too much opposition, as long as it is kept within reasonable limits.

escaped farmed fish iceland

Balancing the Scales

Protest On Saturday, October 7, a tractor trundled through the streets of downtown Reykjavík with hundreds of protestors in tow. The procession was headed to Austurvöllur Square in front of Iceland’s Parliament for a demonstration.Several organisations – including Landvernd (the Icelandic Environment Association) and the Icelandic Wildlife Fund – had organised the event to protest […]

This content is only visible under subscription. Subscribe here or log in.

Read More »

Share article

Facebook
Twitter