Balancing the Scales

escaped farmed fish iceland

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 […]

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

aquaculture fish farming iceland

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

Read More »

Support for Labelling Farmed Salmon

fish farming iceland

The Consumers’ Association of Iceland (Neytendasamtökin) has recently expressed interest in labelling salmon raised in sea pens, following a similar statement from Norway. The interest in labelling follows in the wake of several recent escapes from aquacultural farms in Iceland which have raised environmental concerns. Such labelling would report the health of the salmon at its time of slaughter.

Interest in Norway to Label Farmed Salmon

The medical history of farm-raised salmon may soon find its way onto Norwegian labels.

Inger Lise Blyverket, head of the Consumer Council in Norway, recently stated to Norwegian state broadcaster NRK that she believes “many consumers would welcome a labelling system for salmon.”

Although salmon is marketed as a premium product, there is no indication on the packaging that the fish may have been sick, she stated. Salmon with various diseases such as gill disorders, parasites, and heart diseases are slaughtered and sold in stores. Inger announced that the Consumer Council intends to end this practice and that it is time for the aquaculture industry in Norway to label salmon according to its health at the time of slaughter.

“Both Norwegian salmon producers and other food manufacturers need to realise that consumers want to know more about the production conditions and animal welfare,” Inger said to NRK.

Like Iceland, Norway has also had an ongoing public debate about farm-raised salmon and aquaculture, including recent mass deaths at one of Norway’s largest aquaculture concerns.

Some have pushed back against the recent suggestions, including Jon Arne Grøttum, Aquaculture Director at the Norwegian Seafood Federation. In an interview with NRK, he stressed that because seafood diseases are not transmitted to humans, such labelling would be unnecessary.

“Everything around us is full of bacteria and viruses; they’re everywhere, but that doesn’t necessarily impact food safety,” Jon stated. “I can’t see that it has any purpose. First, it’s not about food safety. Secondly, it is very difficult to implement: you would have to conduct an examination of each fish, even if you know the cause. Thirdly, it’s a bit strange to introduce this type of labelling for salmon and not for other animal meat production.”

Iceland to Follow Norwegian Example?

Given the recent discourse in Norway, the Consumers’ Association of Iceland has also expressed interest in a similar labelling system for farmed fish in Iceland.

Breki Karlsson, the chairperson of the Consumers’ Association, recently stated to RÚV that he supports the initiative. He stated that consumers have the right to receive information about the origin of food, especially salmon, which has been the subject of recent discussions due to recent escapes and lice infestations.

Berglind Harpa Bergsdóttir, a veterinarian specialist monitoring the health and welfare of farmed fish at the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST), also stated to RÚV that many diseased fish are slaughtered for human consumption in Iceland. She mentioned a 2021 case of Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA), a viral disease that causes severe anaemia in fish. At that time, a notification was sent out by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, both about the outbreak and that some of the fish were used for human consumption.

Berglind reiterated that such viral diseases do not transmit to humans.

Read more about aquaculture and fish farming in Iceland.

Expanded MAST Capabilities for Aquaculture Monitoring

arnarlax fish farm iceland

MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority, is set to receive its own vessels and increased manpower to better oversee fish farming, RÚV reports.

Read more: Minister Booed During Fish Farming Protest 

The decision comes in the wake of recent escapes from aquaculture pens in the Westfjords, in which farmed fish were found to have made their way into Icelandic waterways. The recent incidents have led to increased public awareness of fish farming practices in Iceland, including the pollution of Icelandic fjords through fish waste, antibiotics, and pesticides, and also the danger posed to native fish stocks by farmed salmon. Because of the density in which farmed salmon are raised, they can carry infectious diseases that may harm native fish, in addition to competing with them for food.

Concerns such as these were expressed this Saturday,  October 7, at a rally on Austurvöllur Square. Among the speakers at the protest was Minister of Environment, Energy, and Climate Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson. The minister faced vocal criticism for his perceived inaction, but stated to the assembled protestors: “People can criticise me as they wish. But if one looks at what I’ve said and done, perhaps there would be less of it. That’s beside the point, as I’m not the main focus here. That’s evident. Your message is clear, and I thank you for taking the initiative to organise this, for showing up and demonstrating solidarity with Icelandic nature. Actions will be taken based on this, and this meeting truly matters. I sincerely thank you for that.”

The recent decision to expand MAST’s regulatory capabilities took place against the background of widespread disapproval of aquacultural methods in Iceland. MAST stated that in addition to the increased capabilities represented by the new boats, the number of MAST employees assigned to monitoring fish farming will also be increased. Until now, there have only been the equivalent of 5.6 full-time workers to oversee fish farming in both the East- and Westfjords.

Read more: Björk Enlists Rosalía in Campaign Against Fish Farming

Karl Steinar Óskarson, department head at MAST, stated to RÚV that they will also see ISK 126 million [$914,000; €867,000] in increased funding.

MAST intends to use this funding to hire six new positions. Currently advertised are roles in digital monitoring and “special oversight” to prevent further escapes like the large-scale escapes that were recorded last year.

MAST additionally plans to acquire two boats, trailers, and monitoring equipment. Karl Steinar stated to RÚV: “We can use these to go out to the pens when we need to. We will not be dependent on the companies, which is crucial for us.”

Authorities have also made use of submarine drones to monitor aquaculture pens, but the new boats and manpower will significantly increase MAST’s capabilities. Karl Steinar continued: “For example, in the Westfjords alone, there are over 100 pens. We have underwater drones that we purchased this year and we can visit the cages we choose and inspect them from below. We can check if repairs have been made to nets, for example, without us being informed, and also continue to monitor the fish.”

Further Aquaculture Permits Put on Hold

arnarlax fish farm iceland

RÚV reports that further aquaculture permits have been suspended by the government, citing the recent growth of the industry and recent concerns about local fish stocks.

Read more: Extensive Hybridization Between Farmed and Wild Fish Stocks

Fish farming has grown significantly in recent years. In 2014, some 8,300 tonnes of farmed fish were exported by Iceland. According to the latest data from 2022, that number has now risen to more than 51,000 tonnes.

Profits have likewise risen rapidly, the total export in 2014 accounting for ISK 1.4 billion [$10.3 million, €9.6 million]. By 2022, that number had risen to ISK 40.5 billion [$298 million, €279 million]. Top importers have been the US, Holland, Germany, Denmark, France, and the UK.

Read more: Damning Report on Iceland’s Fish Farming Industry

The government decision came in the wake of a recent report on the industry, which found a patchwork of regulation that left the industry largely unsupervised.

One major concern which has made recent headlines is the hybridization of farmed fish following their escape from pens. Conservationists are concerned that the farmed fish introduce parasites into native fish stocks, in addition to competing with them for food. At least 16 cases of escapes have been documented by MAST, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority. Most recently, some 3,500 fish went missing in Patreksfjörður.

The majority of fish farming is practised in the Westfjords, where it accounts for some 5.5% of local jobs. But the industry has also grown significantly in the Eastfjords as well, where it has become a much-debated issue.

Recently, residents of Seyðisfjörður expressed their opposition to proposed increases of the industry in the area, stating that it would narrow the available shipping lanes. In addition to a ferry, Seyðisfjörður is also visited by a number of cruise ships each year, which have become an important part of the local economy.

 

Extensive Hybridization Between Farmed and Wild Fish Stocks

aquaculture farm iceland

A recent report from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute indicates that hybridization between local fish stocks and farmed fish may be more extensive than previously thought.

The report, titled Hybridization between wild Icelandic salmon and farmed salmon of Norwegian origin, studied salmon fry from 89 rivers throughout Iceland, with a focus on rivers in proximity to aquaculture areas. A total of 6,348 salmon samples were analyzed.

Read More: More Fish Escape from Aquaculture Pens in Westfjords

To meet international demand for the popular fish, fish farming has become an increasingly lucrative industry in Iceland. In 2015, some 8,000 tonnes of salmon were farmed in coastal pens. By 2022, that number has risen to 45,000 tonnes.

Recent reports have also shown that significant numbers of the farmed fish, which are of a different stock than the wild Icelandic salmon, have escaped their pens. The regularity and size of these breaches have led to fears of disease, parasites, and hybridization. According to report, “hybridization of farmed salmon with wild populations can alter local genetic composition, lead to changes in life-history traits and possibly even population declines.”

 

The study identified samples attributed to hybridization from the years 2014 to 2019. A total of 133 first-generation hybrids (offspring of farmed and wild salmon) were identified in 17 rivers (2.1% of the samples, within 18% of the rivers). Older hybrids were found in 141 individuals in 26 rivers (2.2% of the samples, within 29% of the rivers).

Read More: Damning Report on Iceland’s Fish Farming Industry

First-generation hybrids were more common in the Westfjords than in the Eastfjords, which is consistent with salmon farming starting later in the Eastfjords and being less extensive.

Hybridization was generally detected within a distance of less than 50 km from the farming areas, but some hybrids were found as far as 250 km away.

See also: Environmental Associations Call for Ban on Marine Fish Farming

“This extensive study confirms the importance of further research. We need to examine the exchange of generations of hybrids, their extent, and the causes of the dispersion of older hybrids,” stated Guðni Guðbergsson, Freshwater and Salmon Farming Division Manager.

The report can be read here in its entirety.

 

 

 

 

 

Divers Assess Risk of Oil Leak From Sunken Ship

A large feed boat belonging to fish farming company Laxar sunk in Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland last weekend. Vísir reports that divers were sent out to the ship yesterday to assess the risk of oil leakage from the vessel, which contains around 10,000 litres of diesel oil in addition to 300 tonnes of feed for farmed salmon. The ship was brought down by extreme weather last weekend and the company plans to eventually retrieve the vessel.

The 25-metre ship, named Munin, sunk close to land, but is now located some 35 metres below the ocean’s surface. The exact cause of the incident has not been determined, but when rescue crews reached the vessel, it was filled with water and had begun to sink.

In addition to assessing the risk of oil leakage from the ship, the divers’ job was to close up all holes where the ship’s diesel oil could possibly leak out. So far, no indications of an oil leak have been observed. Jens Garðar Helgason, CEO of Laxar, says there is little risk of oil leakage occurring but the company is nevertheless doing everything possible to minimise it further. Jens says the company will consult responders and insurance representatives on how to retrieve the ship.