Sink or Swim

What next for Iceland’s 
open net salmon farming?

Words + Photography 
Liz Seabrook

    Iceland finds itself at a pivotal point with its open net salmon farming: scale up and risk losing its native stock or innovate a global precedent for land-based farming.



‘There’s also the matter of the waste produced by 250,000 fish, which equates to a city with a population of 50,000

    The sound reaches out to snowy peaks which seem to bow to each other in gentle agreement. Like a millpond, the only blemishes on the water are caused by the shuddering of the boat’s engine, idling in the Icelandic sunshine a few miles offshore of the port town of Bíldudalur. To our left two mountains are reflected in the glassy water, white and black speckles starkly contrasting the bright blue of the sky. All is calm. All is quiet.

    To our right lies the reason we have visited this particular stretch of water: eight open net fishing pens, each home to about 250,000 fish. Less than a kilometre from where we sit, two million fish swim in the most intensive battery farm you could ever fear to encounter. Every now and then the surface of the water breaks as salmon leap into the air – a fleeting show of otherwise lost instincts. Amongst those gathered on board are Patagonia’s Environmental director Mihela Hladin Wolfe, Jon Kaldal of the Icelandic Wildlife Fund and Josh “Bones” Murphy, director of Patagonia’s new film Artifishal – a damning indictment of the state of fish farming in the US and Europe.

Mikael Frödin, Patagonia

    Mikael Frödin, one of Patagonia’s fly-fishing ambassadors and chief fishing activists, begins to explain what he’s seen in pens such as this on recce dives: fish so mutated they’ve become S-shaped, covered in abrasions larger than his hands from swimming into the nets, almost lifeless and so riddled with invasive sea lice that they have to be scraped clean before being sent to be packed. In open net farms the expected mortality rate of fish is high – last year Mowi, the world’s largest salmon farming company, reported that numbers of gutted fish produced in Scotland had fallen by 36% in a year due to lice and disease. Even as we sit so close to what would on land be a farm long condemned for animal welfare, it’s hard to believe everything Mikael is telling us. It all seems so peaceful.

two million fish swim in the most intensive battery farm you could ever fear’

    While the focus of Artifishal is the hatchery system implemented across the US, it also touches on the dangers that open net fish farms pose for European marine ecosystems. In Iceland, there are currently very few open net farms (13,000 tonnes produced each year), but with the recent demise of Wow Air, the country finds itself needing to add a new string to its industrial bow as rival Norwegian fish farming companies snap at the door like hungry sharks. With an agreement to increase production to 71,000 tones already in place, the risk to Iceland’s native stock of around 50,000 salmon [as I was repeatedly told on the trip] is already in jeopardy.

    Trømso in Norway has recently introduced a ban on any new open net fish farm licenses being granted due to the widespread devastation to the local ecosystem; it’s believed that wild salmon stocks have halved in the last 20 years. Instead of rethinking their strategies to keep current native salmon stocks safer while continuing to maintain their business, the aquaculture giants are looking for new sites away from Norway. Earlier this year in Scotland a crisis was announced as wild salmon figures hit their lowest point since records began in 1952, with sea lice – and therefore fish farms – as the key reason for their demise.

    So, why are these farms such a hazard to the ecosystems they occupy? There are a few reasons, the ubiquitous sea lice chief among them. There’s also the matter of the waste produced by 250,000 fish, which equates to a city with a population of 50,000. Beneath pens, previously healthy seabeds and waters have been reported to have become barren under vast mounds of fishy excrement. When the water becomes too polluted for the pens to operate in, they are simply picked up, moved along and the process begins elsewhere. Another issue is escapees. Relative to the numbers of fish being farmed, the average number of salmon that escape is low.

    However, in the West Fjord, where weather conditions are typically more adverse, it is conceivable that these numbers could increase. Based on figures seen in Norwegian rivers, if the projected number of 70,000 tonnes of salmon produced in Iceland is met, the number of escaped farmed salmon would be around 56,000 – more than Iceland’s current native stock. Escaped farmed fish spread sea lice along the coast and into rivers, carrying diseases foreign to native species and, most problematically, competing to breed with wild salmon.