Salmons are one of the fishes who, unfortunately, have become a favourite for people to eat, but most of the salmons people consume today don’t come from the rivers or the seas, but from aquaculture (also known as fish farming). Not that long ago this sentence would not be true, but one of the things about animal agriculture is that it creeps into society without people noticing it, and that is what it did when it started farming fishes a few decades ago. Unfortunately, in addition to killing fishes on the oceans and rivers by the trillions, now many have to spend a miserable short life in captivity too.
Like cows, chickens or pigs factory-farmed, fish farming is a type of factory farming in which animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered for profit in big quantities in factory-style operations, but this time we are talking about aquatic species of what people commonly describe as fish (although scientifically speaking there is not such a thing as the Class fishes, but they are classified into six Classes instead). When the term salmon farming is used, it means the farming of several species of salmonids, a family of the class Osteichthyes. In particular, Atlantic salmons (Salmo salar) the most commonly commercially farmed salmonid who accounts for about 90% of the global production of farmed salmons, coho salmons (Oncorhynchus kisutch), which accounts for about 7%, rainbow trouts (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which accounts for about 3%, and other species such as chinook salmons (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), brown trouts (Salmo trutta), and Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus).
Salmon farming happens in ocean cages or land-based tanks close to the shore in countries with cold waters, and started as an experimental activity in the 1960s, but became a big industry in Norway in the 1980s and in Chile in the 1990s. Today, more than 2 million tonnes of the flesh of captive salmons are produced every year, accounting for about 70% of all salmons eaten by people.
This is bad news for everyone, not only the fishes themselves, as the farming of salmons is detrimental to the natural balance and well-being of the ocean and its inhabitants. Pollution, global heating, disease, and health hazards for human consumers are all associated with this horrible industry.
The Brave Life of a Wild Salmon
We now know that fishes are sentient beings with the same capacity to suffer and experience life as us, but just happen to be adapted to live underwater, rather than on land. If we could somehow communicate with them and speak their languages, they would tell us amazing things about their world.
If I was an average wild Atlantic salmon, this is what I could tell you about my life if you encountered me as a ghost:
“I was born in a cold and clear stream, among thousands of my brothers and sisters. I had to fight for survival from the start, avoiding predators and finding food. I grew fast and strong, and soon I was ready to begin my journey to the sea. The journey was long and perilous, but I was determined to reach the ocean. I faced many dangers along the way: rapids, waterfalls, dams, nets, hooks, bears, eagles, and more. I used my instincts and my skills to overcome them all. I also met many other fishes of different kinds, some friendly and some hostile. I learned to adapt and cooperate with them.
I finally reached the ocean, where I felt a new sense of freedom and wonder. I don’t know why, but when other fishes born in freshwater get in contact with salted water, they feel pain so they never enter the ocean, but we salmons don’t. Somehow, we can swim in both types of water without problems. The ocean was vast and full of life, and I explored it with curiosity and joy. I found new sources of food and new challenges. I also encountered new predators: sharks, seals, orcas, and humans. I had to be careful and vigilant, but sometimes I also enjoyed the thrill of the chase. I spent several years in the ocean, growing bigger and stronger. At one point, for some mysterious reason to me, I felt a strange pull inside me, a call to return to my birthplace. I sensed that it was time to fulfill my destiny: to spawn and create new life. I joined a group of other salmons who shared the same urge, and we began our journey back to our home stream (not any stream, but the same stream we were born in, as we remember where it was and its unique smell).
The journey back was harder than the journey forth. We had to swim against the current, fight our way through obstacles, and resist the temptation of food (that’s right, we don’t eat when we swim back home). We also had to avoid being caught by humans who wanted to take us out of the water where we would die of suffocation. We lost many of our companions along the way, but we never gave up.
We finally reached our home stream, where we recognized the familiar scent and sight of our birthplace. We felt a surge of emotion and excitement. We paired up with our mates and dug nests in the gravel. We released our eggs and milt into the water, ensuring the continuation of our kind. We felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
We knew that our lives were coming to an end, and we had given everything we had for our offspring. We were tired and weak, but we were also happy and proud. We drifted into the water, waiting for death to take us. We looked back at our lives and felt no regret or fear. We had lived a fulfilled life and overcome successfully many obstacles. We had done what we were meant to do.”
The History of Farming Salmons
The sad story of ruining these intrepid brave travellers by keeping them in confinement started in Scotland. Scottish salmon farming dates back to the 19th century, when eggs and smolts (juvenile fishes) were bred to restock rivers. The first marine fish farm was established at Loch Ailort in Inverness-shire in 1965, and the first commercial harvest of 14 tonnes of flesh from farmed Scottish salmons was sold in 1971. Since then, the Scottish salmon farming sector has grown rapidly and become one of the UK’s major food exports.
Norway is the largest producer of farmed salmons in the world, and the country where the modern industry truly began in the early 1960s. Farmed salmons are the country’s third biggest export, and account for 80% of all aquaculture in Norway. Like in Scotland, Norway’s coastlines offer suitable water temperatures and sheltered areas for salmon farming. The first Norwegian marine fish farm was established at Hitra Island in 1970. Since then, the country’s salmon farming sector has grown rapidly.
Canada was also one of the first countries to exploit captive fishes for food. It began in British Columbia (BC) in the late 1970s when a few small companies started to operate one or two farm sites with very little capital. Animal rights and environmental activists opposed it from the start, but they could not stop it. In the 1990s, BC salmon farming underwent consolidation and expansion, as well as technological and regulatory changes.
Chile is the second-largest producer of farmed salmon in the world, and the country where the industry developed rapidly since the 1990s. Farmed salmon is one of the main export products of Chile, and accounted for about 31% of the global production in 2021. Chile also has a long coastline with suitable environmental conditions for salmon farming, especially in the southern regions.
It started there in the late 1970s when a few small companies began to operate with imported eggs and technology from Norway and Canada. The Chilean government also supported the development of the industry by introducing salmon to the region, providing incentives and subsidies, and facilitating access to credit and markets. The first commercial harvest of farmed salmon in Chile was in 1984, and since then the industry has grown exponentially and diversified its products and markets.
Today, Norway is the largest producer of farmed salmons in the world, accounting for 33% of the global production, producing around 1.5 million metric tons of farmed salmon flesh in 2021. Chile is the second-largest producer, accounting for 31% of the global production, producing around 718,000 metric tons of farmed salmon flesh in the same year. The UK is the third -with 9% of the global production and producing around 199,000 metric tons of farmed salmon flesh in 2021. Canada is the fourth with 6% of the global production, and other countries that follow are the Faroe Islands, Australia, Ireland, Iceland, Russia, and the United States.
What is wrong with Farming Salmons
You don’t have to be a vegan to realise how many things are wrong with farming salmons. Here are the top ones:
Salmon farming causes psychological problems for salmons, who are sentient beings capable of feeling emotions, pain, and suffering like us. In the wild, Atlantic salmon will migrate thousands of miles to spawn, but crammed into barren, overcrowded sea cages on salmon farms, they can do nothing more than swim around aimlessly in circles. Salmons in aquaculture are forced to live in conditions that fail to meet their basic welfare needs. They are confined in overcrowded and unnatural environments, where they experience stress, aggression, and boredom. They are also exposed to various threats, such as parasites, diseases, predators, and chemicals, that can cause fear, anxiety, and pain.
Moreover, salmon are subjected to invasive procedures, such as grading, vaccination, and tagging, that can cause physical injuries and trauma. Fish farmers use special fish grading equipment called graders to sort large numbers of fishes into preferred size groups quickly.
In 2019, Animal Equality UK released footage from an undercover investigation into eight Scottish salmon farms owned by The Scottish Salmon Company and Wester Ross Fisheries. They found fishes with open wounds, eye damage, fungal infections, sea lice infestations, and cannibalism¹.
In 2020, Compassion in World Farming conducted an undercover investigation into 22 Scottish salmon farms owned by the five largest salmon producers. They found severe sea lice infestations, deformities, diseases, high mortality rates, and barren underwater cages.
Salmon farming increases the risk of disease and parasite outbreaks among fishes. This is because high stocking density, stress, and poor hygiene conditions make fishes more vulnerable to infections.
In Scottish salmon farms alone, fish mortality has more than quadrupled from 3% in 2002 to about 13.5% in 2019, with a fifth of these deaths recorded as being due to sea lice infestations, but about two-thirds unaccounted for. Sea lice are parasites who feed on salmon skin and mucus, causing lesions, inflammation, and reduced growth. Sea lice can also spread from farmed fishes to wild fishes, threatening their survival.
Viruses and bacterial diseases in salmon farms can spread like wildfire. One highly problematic virus found within Canadian salmon farms is Piscine Reovirus (PRV), found in over 70 per cent of farmed salmons. One of the most common diseases is infectious salmon anaemia (ISA), which causes pale gills and difficulty breathing.
Also, farmed salmons often have deformed skeletons such as bent spines which are generally related to the size of the fishes when they are transferred into the sea cages.
Farmed salmon mortality rates are as high as 28.2% in the seawater stage, and if we include mortalities from the freshwater stage (between 25–50% of ova laid to hatch die before reaching the smolt stage) this figure is likely to be even higher.
Those who survive would be killed at a much younger age than a wild salmonid would die, and the methods used to kill them would cause a great deal of suffering. The Scottish salmon industry typically uses electrical and percussive stunning methods (administering a severe blow to the skull of the fish) when slaughtering Atlantic salmon, but stunning before slaughter is not mandatory under the law so millions of fishes are still killed without prior stunning.
In 2021, Animal Equality released undercover footage from a slaughter facility operated by The Scottish Salmon Company, showing how farmed salmon are killed. The investigation revealed a significant number of fishes who were killed while fully conscious.
And then we have the other fishes who are caught to feed the farmed salmons, as they are carnivorous. Farmed salmons would be fed many wild-caught fishes in the form of fishmeal and fish oil. The fishmeal industry accounts for 0.5-1 trillion fishes out of the 0.79-2.3 trillion fishes caught every year.
Salmon farming causes pollution and contamination of the surrounding waters. This is because waste products, chemicals, and antibiotics from salmon farms are flushed into the water supply without any treatment. The 200 or so salmon farms in Scotland produce about 150,000 tonnes of salmon flesh a year, along with thousands of tonnes of waste, including faeces, food waste, and pesticides. This waste accumulates on the sea floor and affects the water quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem balance.
Pesticides used to treat sea lice can also harm other marine wildlife. Antibiotics, used to prevent diseases among farmed fish, can leach into the environment and increase the risk of drug-resistant bacteria. The Guardian estimated that the environmental costs of salmon farming amounted to about $50bn globally from 2013 to 2019.
From 2019 to 2020 pollution from Scottish salmon farms increased dramatically, partly because the disruption of the COVID pandemic made the fishes stay longer on the farm.
Human Health hazards
Salmon farming poses potential health hazards for humans who eat the meat of its inmates. This is because farmed salmons may contain higher levels of contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs, than wild salmons, which are linked to some cancers, neurological disorders, and immune system problems. Moreover, farmed salmons are exposed to antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones that can affect people’s health, and can create antibiotic-resistant pathogens that would make human medicine more challenging.
Bad for the planet
As with all animal agriculture, farming salmon has a high carbon footprint contributing to the current climate crisis as all animals produce CO2 when they breathe, instead of producing oxygen from CO2 as plants and algae do. Not only that, but because fish farms rely on wild-caught fishes to feed their captive fishes, farming salmons has a bigger carbon footprint than farming chicken or turkey, generating more than 4kg of carbon emissions per kilogram of salmon. So, if someone moves from eating chicken to becoming a pescatarian for environmental reasons, that would not be a good move if farmed fishes are on the menu.
The Sad Life of a Farmed Salmon
If I was a farmed salmon, this is what I could tell you about my life if you encountered me as a ghost:
“I was born on a salmon farm. I was raised in a tank with thousands of other salmons, all of us packed together so tightly that we could barely move. The water was murky and the food was bland, but I didn’t know any better. I thought this was just how life was.
One day, when I was about a year old, the farmer came and took me out of the tank. I was scared and confused, but I didn’t have a choice. I was put in a small box and transported to another farm. This farm was even worse than the first. The water was even murkier, the food was even blander, and the other salmons were even more aggressive. I was constantly being bullied and attacked and unable to escape. And the farmers kept forcing us to move to different places and doing unpleasant things to us that we didn’t understand.
The worst thing was the sea lice. These bugs attached themselves to our skin and mucus, and ate away at our flesh. They caused us pain. Some of us lost our eyes or scales, and some of us died. The farmers tried to get rid of the sea lice with chemicals and machines, but they only made things worse. The chemicals pollute the water making it smell horrible, and the machines hurt us with hot water or high pressure.
I lived in this hell for another year, until I was finally old enough to be what humans call “harvested”. I was taken to a processing plant, where I was very scared as I could see how other fishes were taken out of the water and hit. I tried to escape, but I had no place to go. A human caught me and took me out. I was terrified, and I began suffocating as I gasped for oxygen. He then hit me very hard, and killed me. My body was taken miles away where someone broke it into pieces, and my flesh was then turned into food for humans. I was just seen as a commodity, a product to be consumed. I never got to experience the joy of swimming in the ocean, or the thrill of spawning. My life was short and meaningless, and I died a lonely and forgotten death. I was born into a world of pain and suffering, and I never knew what it was like to be free.
I am not the only salmon who has suffered this fate. Millions of salmon are raised on farms every year, and they all experience the same pain and suffering that I did. We are all treated with contempt as if we do not exist. We are even called just “salmon” when there are many of us, as if each of us doesn’t count as separate individuals. We are not given the chance to live a natural life, and we are killed before we have a chance to experience joy.
I hope that one day, people will realize the cruelty of factory farming. I wish they will stop eating salmons from farms, or from the wild, or any fishes, because I know humans are fruit eaters who have forgotten who they are. I was never in the ocean, but I never forgot who I was. I was an Oceanic salmon, not a restaurant dish.
I was a brave salmon who never experience a salmon life.”