Parasitism on a salmon farm in Iceland | Polarjournal
Due to rapidly increasing numbers of sea lice at the Tálknafjörður salmon farm in Iceland, Arctic Fish, owner of the facility, was forced to dispose of salmon. (Photo: Veiga Grétarsdóttir)

Salmon farming is a very lucrative business. Over the past 25 years, the industry has grown at an impressive rate. With a global catch of more than 2.6 million tons, many of the largest fish producers have become wealthy, internationally renowned companies.

However, the “salmon farming” business model has been criticized for years. Parasite infestations and environmental damage are reported at regular intervals. These are usually sea lice infestations. The parasite feeds on the skin and blood of the fish. Intensive salmon farming has also greatly increased the number of problems. The parasites prefer to live on the head of the fish, where they literally eat holes in the skin. This weakens the salmon’s immune system, which in the worst case can lead to their death.

Fish heavily infested with sea lice in the breeding tank at Tálknafjörður salmon farm. Some evidence suggests that sea lice, which thrive on salmon farms, can also spread to nearby wild juvenile salmon and destroy these populations. (Photo: Veiga Grétarsdóttir)

The lice epidemic couldn’t be worse

“The number of sea lice has quickly risen to high levels, resulting in injuries to the fish,” an Arctic Fish spokesperson said in a press release. In response, the company decided to dispose of a large proportion of the fish.

Arctic Fish reported on October 13, 2023 that it was conducting sea lice treatments at its Tálknafjörður farm, and later on October 25, it announced that it was also treating lice at its Arnarfjörður farm. Arctic Fish and the salmon farming company Arnarlax both reported problems with sea lice in the Westfjords region.

Arctic Fish ‘s announcement came a day after the Icelandic newspaper Heimildin showed videos of kayaker Veiga Grétarsdóttir with severely injured salmon in net pens operated by Arctic Fish. The video shows dead fish and fish with open wounds on the top of their heads in the net enclosure.

The video shows infected, dying and dead fish. A large proportion of the farmed salmon in the Arctic Fish enclosure are infected with lice and have injuries to their heads. (Video: Veiga Grétarsdóttir)

Icelanders are not the only ones to have heard about the disaster in the Artic Fish enclosures. The Guardian reported on the case on its front page with the headline: “Sea lice outbreak on Icelandic salmon farm an ‘animal welfare disaster’.

It is assumed that twelve enclosures are infested with the parasites. It is estimated that around one million fish are affected. A special ship from Norway, the “Hordafor III”, was sent to Iceland to slaughter the fish.

The fishing vessel HORDAFOR III, which was built in Norway in 1967, is used to extract the diseased fish from the farms and process them into animal feed. (Photo: Veiga Grétarsdóttir)

Berglind Helga Bergsdóttir, a specialist in fish diseases, is also shocked by the extent of the parasite infestation. “There has never been such a high infestation of lice in Iceland before,” says the Icelander. The wounds may have become larger due to bacteria.

“The lice epidemic couldn’t get any worse,” said Berglind Helga Bergsdóttir. The wounds were aggravated by a bacterial infection, which made the wounds deeper and larger. “What surprised everyone was how quickly it went.”

Arctic Fish assured that it would use the infected fish as feed and for other products apart from human consumption.

Veiga Grétarsdóttir: “I am shocked by the state of the fish. Iceland is now firmly on the map, not for anything the people of the country really want to cherish, but as a country of animal cruelty and environmental waste.” (Photo: Veiga Grétarsdóttir)

Protests by environmentalists

Opponents of breeding facilities criticize the practices because of extreme pollution of the once so clear and clean fjord waters. Another cause for concern, which is confirmed time and again, is the escape of farmed fish from the net ponds. It was not until August 2023 that the escape of over 3,500 salmon triggered protests. The fish came from Artic Fish‘s Tálknafjörður fish farm.

Escaped farmed salmon find their way into wild stocks and mate there. The effects of this mixing of wild and farmed stocks are not yet fully understood scientifically, but it is known that escaping farmed fish exert additional pressure on wild stocks.

The Icelandic Veterinary Office announced that farmed fish had escaped from the cultures and that the DNA of Icelandic fish had deteriorated as a result. Farmed fish are more aggressive and less clever in dealing with natural enemies. These characteristics are passed on during crossing, which leads to a reduction in the chances of survival. Parasites are also a threat to wild salmon. As soon as a diseased farmed salmon escapes, it transmits the parasites to the wild salmon in the open sea.

Salmon in the wild. On loose gravel banks, in oxygen-rich water, the female salmon digs a spawning pit 15 to 30 centimeters deep. Females and males then lay eggs and milk in the spawning pit. Covered with gravel, the larvae hatch after two to seven months.

No further licenses

The Icelandic government announced back in September 2023 that no further licenses for sea-based salmon farming would be issued for the time being. The reason for this was the strong growth in industry in recent years. The export value of farmed salmon amounted to USD 10 million in 2014, rising to USD 290 million last year. At the same time, exports of farmed salmon have increased 26-fold, from 1,460 tons to 38,840 tons. In addition, the number of people employed at salmon farms in Iceland has increased from 309 in 2014 to 685 in 2022.

Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal

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