Salmon: Glory and damage of a booming industry

Eva Morletto

By Eva Morletto22 décembre 2022

For the holidays, salmon remains top-of-mind. Prized for its delicate flesh, salmon has gone from being a luxurious delicacy reserved for special occasions to a mass-market fish in two decades. Yet the impact of its fishing and production methods is often destructive on the ecosystem. Should it become a rare and precious produce again? We decipher its impact on biodiversity.

By 2021, salmon consumption has risen to 30 million tonnes (Shutterstock)

According to data provided by the Planetocope platform, the current world production of Atlantic salmon is equivalent to 1.2 million tons per year. This variety alone constitutes more than 90% of the farmed salmon market, and more than 50% of the global salmon market. 75% come from Norway and Chile. In France alone, in fifteen years, the salmon market has increased by 30%. In 2021 its consumption amounted to nearly 30 million tons.

But 2021 was also synonymous with high inflation and rising prices. Salmon prices have almost doubled. The causes are multiple: a demand that boomed with limited supplies despite the expansion of aquaculture farms, and the rising costs of animal meal used for the nutrition of farmed salmon. The high mortality rate and low frozen stocks have also contributed to the price increase. A niche sector dedicated to the luxury segment has emerged within this increasingly large and diversified market.

Product quality and craftsmanship

Exclusive products and smoking methods that are the result of an increasingly rare and sought-after artisanal know-how: within the increasingly democratized salmon market, a niche of producers around the world focuses on the production of wild salmon and a state-of-the-art smoking process. The "luxury" salmon market belongs to those who have chosen artisanal methods.

Farmed salmon fishing in Norway (Shutterstock)

In the world of luxury, wild salmon is clearly favored over farmed product, especially certain species such as Chinook, also known as king salmon. This fish costs an average of 45 euros per kilo. It is caught mainly in the North Pacific, along the coasts of Canada and Alaska. It is appreciated for its delicate flavor and its red and soft flesh. This imposing salmon can weigh of up to 18 kg.

The house of Petrossian privileges the wild Baltic salmon, fished near the Polish coast. It feeds on small white fish that give its flesh a unique taste. It is salted by hand and smoked traditionally with beech wood. Baltic salmon has been strictly regulated since 2007 when cases of industrial chemical pollution damaged the image of the North Sea. At Petrossian, smoked Baltic salmon is sold at 350 euros per kg. Near Anger, the luxury brand has a workshop, where it smokes salmon in the traditional way. It is prepared on site and delivered to stores in Paris, Hong Kong, Switzerland and London.

Smoked salmon sold in mass distribution requires two or three days of work (Shutterstock)

Every week, between 18 and 20 tons of farmed salmon arrive at the workshop from Norway and Scotland. During the month of December, the quantities increase considerably to reach up to 70 tons of fish to process.  The quality of the company's expertise is the factor that determines its higher price. 180g is approximately 40 euros.

While smoked salmon sold in supermarkets requires two or three days of work, for a salmon processed using the "Petrossian method" it takes up to ten days of artisanal and manual work, involving more than a dozen operations in order to obtain a filet of smoked salmon.

In the niche market of "luxury" salmon, large producers such as Petrossian or Barthouil (the latter has a turnover of four million euros with an annual production of 100 tons of fresh salmon) are now facing competition from small family workshops that are becoming increasingly popular. This is the case, for example, of the Fumerie du Coin, in the Paris region (in the Yvelines), where it takes eight days to smoke an exceptional salmon, using Guérande salt and a five-hour dripping process for each fish. The workshop only smokes about 30 salmon per week, for a product sold at a little over 90 euros per kg. The objective of the Fumerie du Coin is to meet the criteria of the large luxury groups with a limited production.

The Chilean case: when growing demand for farmed salmon is an ecological aberration

Julien Armijo is a physicist, who collaborates with the International Energy Agency. He is now an expert in the field of energy transition. Franco-Chilean, he was in Chile during the 2016 salmon crisis, one of the worst natural disasters in South America.

A strange red tide linked to an uncommon proliferation of toxic algae had invaded the coasts of Patagonia, around the island of Chiloé: an inexplicable phenomenon, which had put down all the fishing industry in the region and caused considerable economic damage. The red tide had transformed the sea into a marine cemetery. The fishermen protested for weeks, until they obtained compensation from the government presided over by Michelle Bachelet.

In 2016, a red tide linked to an unusual bloom of toxic algae invaded the coast of Patagonia, around the island of Chiloé. This led to the salmon crisis (Shutterstock)

A first bloom of killer microalgae had caused the death of 40,000 tons of farmed salmon in the spring of 2016, it was an apocalypse, never seen in the history of this industry

Julien Armijo, physicist

But what was the cause of this invasion of killer algae, capable of poisoning hundreds of kilometers of coastline? If the official version provided by the authorities and by the Chilean Academy of Sciences, commissioned by the government, qualified this phenomenon as natural - the salmon industry was not to be blamed - according to Armijo, this red tide was a direct consequence of the activities related to the salmon farms. "A first bloom of killer microalgae had caused the death of 40,000 tons of farmed salmon in the spring of 2016, it was an apocalypse, never seen in the history of this industry," explains Julien Armijo. The farms found themselves helpless, they did not know how to deal with these dead salmon. They found no other solution than to transport the dead fish by boat and dump them at sea along 140 km of coastline. This action, according to my studies on currents, caused an even greater surge of toxic algae, because the decomposition of the salmon had provided phytoplankton with further fertilizer. Red tides are indeed a natural phenomenon, but at these proportions, they become extremely dangerous, and this major crisis had been triggered by human activities related to aquaculture. With five other researchers, we were able to contradict the theses of the Academy of Science, whose pro-industry position cleared those responsible. We received the support of the Chilean press and environmental organizations like Greenpeace. A real anti-salmon resistance organization was set in motion. Many representatives of indigenous peoples of Patagonia were part of it, directly threatened by the salmon industry. In these farms, the animals often escape from underwater cages. The farmed salmon is an invasive species that decimates other fish. Local fishermen no longer find in their nets the fish that were once part of their culture and traditional diet."

The damage to biodiversity is global

Chile, with its 6400 km of coastline, is the second largest producer of farmed salmon in the world. 99% of the production is exported, mainly to the United States, Brazil and Japan. The salmon industry generates about 4.5 billion dollars in revenue to the country; the fatty fish that we often find on our tables at Christmas represents, depending on the year, the second or third export industry of Chile, just before or just after wood.

Wild salmon is of better quality, but resources are being exhausted by overfishing (Shutterstock)

If the salmon industry in Europe is more controlled thanks to stricter laws from the European Union and national legislation that is more attentive to the environmental context -which does not prevent it from going awry-, in Chile, the regulatory surveillance is less pressing. Juien Armijo describes this as the Wild West. "The farmed salmon industry is often predatory. An aquatic farm sets up in a virgin fiord, then pollutes and seriously alters the ecological balance. Once the damage is done, they leave, move to another location, and the cycle starts all over again. In general, the places chosen are closed bays or narrow fjords, so access to the open sea is not immediate: in this context, the pollution acts more quickly."

An aquatic farm sets up in a virgin fiord, then pollutes and seriously alters the ecological balance. Once the damage is done, they leave, move to another location, and the cycle starts all over again

Juien Armijo, physicist

The damage caused by aquatic farms is sometimes well hidden: "You can't see anything on the surface, but at the bottom of the cages, where thousands of salmons are flailing around on top of each other, it's terrible," says Armijo. The waste from the fish's diet and their excrement deposited on the bottom and stirred up by the currents cause what is called eutrophication of the waters: the waters are too rich in nitrogen, nitrates, phosphorus, as if tons of fertilizer were thrown into the sea water. This sometimes causes anoxia (lack of oxygen) which kills living organisms and has devastating impacts on biodiversity.

Just because we can't see what's going on underwater doesn't mean it's any less serious

Juien Armijo, physicist

So what are the standards, including for organic production? "We must be extremely careful, because sometimes the labels and certifications are false. In Chile, the large company Nova Austral falsified salmon mortality statistics. They kept two separate accounts: one for the company's communication and possible controls, and one for themselves. Above 15% mortality, it is considered that the sanitary conditions required by the authorities are not respected. The farm has therefore falsified these data. There have been several investigations in the world on this subject, called Salmon Leaks, in reference to the famous Wiki Leaks. We must also pay attention to the "organic" labels: even if very polluting, the eutrophication of waters is allowed, because there are no synthetic chemicals involved, and this does not prevent an organic certification from the organizations. 

What is the future of salmon? Can we still eat it?" Wild salmon is much better, but resources are being depleted by overfishing, global warming and pollution of coastal waters, scientist says. One solution could be to build fish farms outside the sea, to prevent the waste from ending up destroying the surrounding ecosystems. Today, the impact at sea of this kind of aquatic farms is similar to the one that we would have if we decided to implant a gigantic industrial pig farm in a natural park. Just because we can't see what's going on underwater doesn't mean it's any less serious."

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