£3.3bn: the ‘hidden’ cost of salmon farming in Scotland

The Scottish salmon farming industry has incurred “hidden” costs of £3.3 billion since 2013 because of mass deaths, pollution, parasites and poor animal welfare, according to a new report.

Unplanned mortalities at fish farms are estimated to have cost £666 million, fish welfare £651m and sea lice £334m. The weight of caged salmon dying prematurely in Scotland has more than doubled since 2013 to 25,772 tonnes in 2019, the report said.

The industry, however, insisted it has “a great environmental story to tell”. Fish farming is “one of the best solutions to feeding the world’s burgeoning population,” it argued.

The 64-page report, entitled Dead Loss, was commissioned from the research organisation, Just Economics, by the campaign group, Changing Markets Foundation. It attempts to work out the true economic, environmental and social costs of the fish farming industry globally.

The report put the combined negative costs of the industries in Scotland, Norway, Chile, and Canada between 2013 and 2019 at £34bn ($47bn). Some £20bn is reckoned to have fallen on producers, with £14bn passed on to society.

The highest proportion of the costs is blamed on mortalities caused by poor husbandry, parasites and pollution before salmon are ready to slaughter. The £666m this is estimated to have cost in Scotland compared to over £6bn in Norway and £3.6bn in Chile.

The report pointed out that only Scotland and Norway released data on mortalities at salmon farms. The weight of dead salmon in Scotland has risen from 10,329 tonnes in 2013 to 25,772 tonnes in 2019, it said.

According to the report, more than 13 per cent of the harvest in Scotland was lost in 2019 . This was a “significant figure that is three times higher than mortality rates on UK chicken farms”, it asserted.

The report said that 10 companies with combined total revenues of more than £9bn in 2018, accounted for half of global salmon production. It blamed their “short-term pursuit of profits” for the premature deaths of 100 million salmon since 2010.

The report attributed half of those deaths to the Norwegian firm active in Scotland, Mowi. “Unexplained and unexpected deaths at all of Mowi’s farms worldwide, over the period 2010-2019, totalled approximately 50 million salmon with a cost of $1.7bn (£1.2bn),” it said.

“This is despite Mowi claiming to be a leader in sustainability, with its new 2020 sustainability strategy and slogan – ‘Leading the Blue Revolution’. Mowi supplies farmed salmon to some of Europe’s biggest supermarket chains.”

The report also highlighted salmon deaths costing Norway’s Lerøy company £329m. Lerøy’s Scottish subsidiary is Scottish Sea Farms, which also supplies British supermarkets.

Other major costs calculated for the Scottish industry included £620m for salmon feed sourced from wild fish, £307m for climate change and £208m for local pollution.

The total costs for the Scottish industry are estimated at £3.3bn. Of that £1.6bn is said to have been borne by industry and £1.7bn by society.

Salmon farming is a prime example of a broken food system.

Natasha Hurley, Changing Markets Foundation

Changing Markets Foundation accused fish farming companies of wasting money. “Salmon farming is a prime example of a broken food system,” said the group’s campaigns manager, Natasha Hurley.

“Every year, it hoovers up millions of tonnes of wild-caught fish for feed, mortality rates on farms are soaring, and pollution is harming pristine ecosystems and wild salmon.”

She added: “This analysis shows that disregard for good fish husbandry is not just bad for the environment and fish welfare, it’s also a business risk. Companies are squandering money and resources and if they carry on like this, the industry won’t be able to sustain itself in the long-term.”

Just Economics called on governments to implement “robust regulation” to ensure companies switch to more sustainable practices. “There is a growing demand from consumers to source fish from producers that care for the environment, protect coastal communities and prioritise fish welfare,” said the group’s director, Eilís Lawlor.

The Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, argued that the report gave “fresh impetus” for reform. “The high levels of unexplained and unexpected mortalities on Scotland’s salmon farms are truly shocking,” said campaigner, Eve Massie.

“Despite the glaring problems the industry, with support from the Scottish Government, is committed to doubling production by 2030. We hope that this report causes them to seriously reconsider this approach.”

The animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming, called for a moratorium on further expansion of the fish farming industry in Scotland.

The industry’s expansion plans “will place further pressure on the environment and cause vastly more animals to suffer,” said campaign manager, Sophie Peutrill.

We agree that there are opportunities for continued improvements for our business.

Ola Helge Hjetland, Mowi

The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, which represents fish farming companies, stressed the industry’s benefits. “Farmed salmon has a great environmental story to tell,” said a spokesperson.

“It has the lowest carbon footprint of any main livestock protein, it is a nutritious and healthy food and, as the United Nations and other international experts have acknowledged, aquaculture provides one of the best solutions to feeding the world’s burgeoning population in the years to come.

“It is a shame that the authors have chosen to ignore these undeniable benefits when publicising this report.”

Mowi described the new report as “highly selective”, arguing that it ignored the industry’s plusses, such as providing healthy food. “We are pleased that the Changing Markets report finds that, when considering the full range of benefits and impacts, the business of salmon farming demonstrates overall positive benefit,” said the company’s communications director, Ola Helge Hjetland.

He pointed out that a protein producer index had ranked Mowi as the world’s most sustainable animal protein producer. “We agree with Changing Markets that there are opportunities for continued improvements for our business,” he added.

“Our commitment to continual sustainability improvements is not just words, it is detailed and actioned through our Blue Revolution Plan. This said, we do not agree with Changing Markets’ core agenda of shifting consumption of sustainably-caught fish meal which includes small pelagic fish such as sardine and anchovy.

“The inclusion of small amounts of fish meal and oil in our salmon’s diet is certified sustainable by third parties and integral to a salmon’s health and welfare. The consumption of pelagic fish by humans and fish is the most responsible use of a global commodity, and shifting this market to less efficient uses does nothing to improve sustainability.”

The Scottish Government promised to consider the report’s findings. “Aquaculture and its wider supply chain is an essential component of Scotland’s economy, contributing £880 million every year and supporting 11,700 jobs and livelihoods in some of our most fragile communities across rural Scotland,” said a spokesperson.

“We are working to continually improve the policy and regulatory framework to mitigate environmental impacts and to support sustainable growth. Marine Scotland is working with other public sector institutes on a broad programme of work to enhance our understanding of aquaculture impacts on wild fish and the marine eco-system.”

Scottish Sea Farms has been asked to comment.

Cover image thanks to iStock/eugenesergeev.

1 comment
  1. Increased deaths is bad farming, as are their figures of what they do for the Scottish economy, there are only at most 1500 people employed on fish farms. This is a dirty industry and the public have to pay for their pollution, unlike any other business. Unfortunately supported by the Scottish Government who in their own inquiry said “the status Quo is not an option”

    Time for fish farms to be self contained or on-shore!

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