Environmental Associations Call for Ban on Marine Fish Farming

arnarlax fish farm iceland

This fall, when aquaculture company Arnarlax went to harvest their Westfjords fish pens, a hole in the pens let some 80,000 salmon escape. 

Now, some 25 environmental groups have signed a petition for marine fish farming to be banned. 

Read more: 80,000 Farmed Salmon Unaccounted For

Citing the potential impact on both the environment and wild fish populations, the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) is levelling a fine of ISK 120 million [USD 857,700; EUR 819,200] against Arnarlax.

Authorities estimate Iceland’s wild salmon population at around 50,000 fish, meaning that the recent escape could have potentially severe consequences, including both increased competition for food, and the possible spread of diseases and parasites from the high-density farm fish.

Aquaculture has exploded in recent years, with marine fish farming trying to supply both domestic and international demand for salmon. In 2015, marine fish farming produced around 3,000 tonnes annually. In 2021, marine fish farming in Iceland produced some 46,000 tonnes of salmon, a 15-fold increase.

Icelandic aquaculture is now a major industry. However, many environmental organisations are concerned that the quick growth of this industry has come at an environmental cost, with the recent Arnarlax incident just being the most recent.

In addition to calling for the government to draft a resolution for the ban of marine fish farming, the recent petition has also called for increased protections for the 2,250 farms that rely on income from salmon fishing in rivers. These farms also rely on the reputation of Icelandic nature as pristine, and should Iceland’s wild fishing stocks be depleted or changed, it is not clear whether these farms could still operate.

There is also another dimension to the marine fishing question, namely that of foreign investment in Iceland. Many marine fish farming concerns are foreign, largely Norwegian, and environmentalists have called on the government to protect Icelandic nature from the effects of foreign capital.

Read the full statement here.

80,000 Farmed Salmon Unaccounted For

fish farming iceland

When Arnarlax, an Icelandic aquaculture company, harvested their fish pens in Arnafjörður this October, they only found some 18,000 salmon. According to their records of how many salmon were supposed to be in the pen, upwards of 80,000 salmon were unaccounted for, likely having escaped from the damaged pens this summer.

Read more: Fish Escape from Aquaculture Pens in Westfjords

Now, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) has decided to fine Arnarlax ISK 120 million [USD 857,700; EUR 819,200] for having failed in their responsibility to report the extent of the escape.

According to Arnarlax records, some 130,000 fish have been raised in the pens in question between October 2020 and July 2021. Official Arnarlax records recorded losses of around 33,000 fish, but when time came for harvest this October, the fish stocks were much lower than expected, leaving more than 80,000 unaccounted for.

This past August, Arnarlax did report a hole in one of its Arnarfjörður pens. According to MAST at the time, Arnarlax responded appropriately to the incident, repairing the damaged pen and reporting the incident to the authorities.

Since then, however, many farmed salmon have been found in the region’s rivers, including the Mjólká river, which is near the facility.

Read more: Farmed Salmon Found in Arnarfjörður

Now, however, MAST is calling attention to the discrepancy between Arnarlax’s reported figures at the time of the incident and the most recent figures from the harvest.

Two months before the incident, significant changes in the feeding pattern of the pen were recorded, which should have alerted Arnarlax to a potential leak in the pen, claims MAST.

MAST states it is taking the incident seriously, as escaped farmed fish can pose a risk to wild fish populations. MAST claims that the incident could have been prevented by better oversight. The fine it is now levelling against Arnarlax is to highlight the severity of the negligence and potential impact to the environment.


More Fish Escape from Aquaculture Pens in West Fjords

Salmon Farm.

The Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, or MAST, has recently been notified of a hole in a fish pen in Tálknafjörður in the West Fjords of Iceland.

The pen in question is owned and operated by Arnarlax, an aquacultural concern in Iceland.

Read more: MAST Confirm Farmed Salmon Found in Mjólká in Arnarfjörður

The hole was discovered after a routine inspection and has since been repaired, according to MAST.

According to information from Arnarlax, the hole in question was some 14cm large, occurring at a depth of 9m. The affected pen held around 99,000 salmon smolt (juvenile salmon).

Since the hole was discovered, MAST has ordered an inspection of other pens in the fjord to ensure there are no further leaks.

Read more: Salmon Fished in Westfjords Rivers Likely Escaped from Farms

Aquaculture, the raising of penned fish instead of catching wild stock, has been a subject of debate in recent years in Iceland. Proponents of aquaculture point to how it relieves pressure from wild fish stocks. Icelandic fisheries have had to implement a quota system in order to ensure against over-fishing of wild populations. Some see aquaculture as a viable alternative to supply a high-demand market, such as salmon, without over-fishing the wild stock.

However, environmentalists have criticized the practice of aquaculture, saying that high-density fish farming pollutes once-pristine fjords.

Another significant concern, as shown by recent events, is that fish pens often break through wear and tear, releasing their bred stock into the wild. The effect of interbreeding between wild and captive fish populations is not yet understood, and escaped fish also put additional pressure on the wild population, competing with them for food and other resources.

Death of 100,000 Farmed Salmon Could Have Been Avoided

salmon farming fish farming fish farm salmon farm Bíldudalur - Arnarfjörður - Arnarlax - laxeldi

Some 570 tonnes of dead salmon have been removed from Arnarlax’s open-net fish farms in the Westfjords, RÚV reports. Nearly 100,000 fish died when cold temperatures forced them to swim further down in their nets and rub up against them. The rubbing creates wounds which eventually lead to the fishes’ death.

Deaths could have been avoided

According to the Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), this is not the first time such an incident has occurred in Arnarlax’s farms. In early 2018, farmed salmon died in the same location, Arnarfjörður fjord, for the same reason. Stundin reported earlier this week that the Food and Veterinary Authority had not conducted an independent evaluation of the incident at Arnarlax’s farms, rather the reported numbers had come from the company itself.

According to Kjartan Ólafsson, Arnarlax’s board director, the dead fish account for 4% of all salmon in the company’s farms. Kjartan suggested that the deaths could have been avoided had the fish been slaughtered in December, before January’s extreme weather hit. He adds, however, that the casualties are not above what’s expected in the aquaculture industry. “There was algae in Norway last year and the mortality rate there was maybe close to 20%. So I think people in this industry can generally expect between 5-20% mortality.”

Foreign ships carry risk of disease

Several foreign ships are currently docked in Arnarfjörður to assist with harvesting farmed salmon. The Federation of Icelandic River Owners (Landssamband veiðifélaga) has argued that it is difficult to ensure such ships don’t carry diseases which could infect wild Icelandic salmon. In an interview with RÚV, Gísli Jónsson of MAST admitted that the ships were a weak link when it came to ensuring a disease-free environment, though they had gone through a risk assessment.

500 Tonnes of Salmon Die in Arnarlax Fish Farms

Around 500 tonnes of salmon have died recently in Arnarlax’s open-net fish farms in the Westfjords. The company’s board chairman told RÚV that number is within the limits projected by the company. The chairman of the Federation of Icelandic River Owners expressed concern about the deaths and the impact Arnarlax’s operations could have on wild salmon.

Though salmon regularly die in open-net fish farms, 500 tonnes is more than is usual for this time of year. Kjartan Ólafsson, the chairman of Arnarlax’s board says recent extreme weather has led to casualties. According to Kjartan, cool sea temperatures cause salmon to move further down in the nets and rub up against them. The rubbing can cause wounds that eventually lead to the fish’s death.

It is currently slaughter season for Arnarlax’s fish farms, and several ships are docked in the Westfjords to assist with the process. One of them is the Norwegian Gannet: equipped with 14 gutting machines, it is the world’s largest floating salmon processor. Arnarlax expects to harvest 10,000 tonnes of salmon this year, and Kjartan says the 500 tonnes of casualties were within the company’s projections.

Jón Helgi Björnsson, chairman of the Federation of Icelandic River Owners (Landssamband veiðifélaga), said the farmed salmon deaths were concerning. “Basically, it just can’t be normal for 500 tonnes of fish to die in a short period of time. If that’s natural, then of course people have to start wondering if this is an industry people can justify being engaged in. That’s a huge amount of fish that’s dying there.”

Jón Helgi also expressed worry that foreign ships like the Norwegian Gannet could transmit infections to Icelandic fish farms which could then affect wild stocks. “How are these ships disinfected? How does one disinfect an entire ship that is working at salmon farms abroad? We are very concerned that infections from abroad can be transmitted via these ships because of course they are used when similar situations occur elsewhere.”

Escaped Farmed Salmon Caught in an Icelandic River

The farmed salmon is larger than the wild salmon, wounded by salmon lice, with torn tails and damaged gill flaps.

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1544118445301{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]Today Matís, a government-owned, non-profit, independent research company, confirmed by DNA testing that two salmon recently caught in Fífustaðadalsá river in Arnarfjörður fjord were farmed salmon of a Norwegian origin. The fjord is where Iceland’s largest salmon farming company, Arnarlax, keeps their open sea pens and earlier this year, a considerable number of farmed salmon of Norwegian origin escaped their pens. The exact number of the escaped fish couldn’t be established. The salmon caught in the small  Fífustaðadalsá were female and ready to spawn, which could have had devastating consequences for the wild salmon stock in the river.

Female fish about to spawn

Biologist Jóhannes Sturlaugsson has been monitoring fish stocks of three small rivers in Ketildalir valley by Arnarfjörður fjord for four years. The wild stocks in these rivers are very small, which makes it easy to spot any changes. Jóhannes caught every fish in the Fífustaðadalsá river with dip nets, measured, and tagged them, before releasing them. The native spawning stock consisted of twenty salmon and their spawning season was almost over. But in the river, they also caught the two large female fish that looked markedly different. They had large wounds caused by salmon lice, damaged fins and gill flaps, and torn tails: typical characteristics of farmed salmon. Their origin was later confirmed by DNA tests.

“Four farmed salmon have been caught in Icelandic fishing rivers this year. These two make for a marked increase and they are the first confirmed examples of mature farmed salmon about to spawn in an Icelandic river. I think we caught them in the eleventh hour. One would have spawned in a matter of hours and the other in a few days,” Jóhannes says.

Native wild salmon under threat

Asked about what’s at stake if farmed salmon spawn in an Icelandic river, Jóhannes points to Norway as an example. Wild Norwegian salmon is struggling, even though their farmed salmon is a Norwegian stock. “Each river has a special stock of salmon, that has adapted to the environment and evolved for thousands of years, each stock differing slightly in when it migrates to the sea, how long it stays there, how it spawns, how it’s built to jump waterfalls and so on. When you mix foreign DNA into the gene pool the damage is done. The adaptation might disappear, and the worst-case scenario is that the stock goes extinct.”

Jóhannes says there’s even more risk involved. “Farmed salmon spawns later than wild salmon and when doing so can dig up their eggs and replace them with its own, destroying the eggs laid out earlier by native salmon.”

A more detailed interview with Jóhannes can be found in the Dec-Jan issue of Iceland Review, out now. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][mk_gallery images=”107304,107300,107296,107298″ column=”2″ image_size=”full” hover_scenarios=”none”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Salmon Farms Granted Exemption by Environment Ministry

Salmon Farm.

Salmon farming companies Arctic Fish and Arnarlax were granted an exemption earlier this week by the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, RÚV reports. The exemption allows the companies to continue operating for the time being, while they aim to address the environmental shortcomings that caused their licences to be revoked last month. Iceland’s growing aquaculture industry has been in the local media spotlight lately due to concerns of its environmental impact.

The operational licenses of the companies for salmon farming in open-net sea pens in Patreksfjörður and Tálknafjörður were revoked in October due to shortcomings in environmental assessment. Shortly following the removal of the licences, parliament passed a law giving the Minister of Fisheries authority to grant provisional licences for fish farming. The Minister granted the companies such licences earlier this month. Now the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources has granted the companies an exemption for an operating licence for a period of ten months.

The temporary licences are valid for a total of 4,000 tonnes of salmon, a fraction of the companies’ previous licence for 17,500 tonnes which was revoked. In the exemption, it is requested the companies actively work to remedy the environmental deficiencies that caused their licences to be revoked.

A town hall meeting will be held in Tálknafjörður for residents of the affected areas today, with representatives from the two companies present to answer questions.