business conservation

Taking Scottish salmon to the Chinese market

Scotland recently signed a major trade deal with China, upping its exports of fresh salmon. Great for the economy, but the deal ignores the major problems around salmon farming.

Paul completed his biodiversity and conservation degree, and is now working for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, making him our honorary Scotland correspondent.

The UK farms 139,000 tonnes of salmon a year (DEFRA), most of which come from Scotland – the 2nd largest salmon producing country in the world after Norway. The Scottish Government website has published statistics showing that over 130,000 tonnes of salmon have been produced annually since 2002, and it’s a rapidly growing export. The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) boasts an export increase from 52,000 to 65,000 tonnes of fresh salmon between 2009 and 2010, with the largest importers being the USA and Canada. Another new market is China.

According to the Guardian newspaper, China has stopped importing Salmon from Norway for political reasons, (giving the Nobel prize to Liu Xiaobo perhaps?) and has sought new pastures in Scotland. A Chinese trade delegation visited last month, offered Edinburgh Zoo two pandas as a present, and signed a deal to provisionally export a further 10,000 tonnes of farmed salmon to China.

Naturally, this has been praised no end by the Scottish government as economic opportunity, with the pleasingly named First Minister Alex Salmond declaiming that “even if 1% of the people of China decide to eat Scottish salmon, then we’ll have to double production in Scotland”. Never mind that the majority of Scottish salmon farms are in fact owned by Norwegian companies, Marine Harvest Scotland has already announced they are looking for new sites to establish farms in order to meet demand.

Unfortunately, it would appear that the new deal was signed either without reference or in complete denial of the huge issues facing salmon farming all over the world.  Salmon farming is a fast moving and barely controlled growth industry. Demand has risen 500% in just 20 years, and it doesn’t take a marine biologist to realise that there are going to be environmental impacts, and consequences for wild salmon populations.

One common problem is parasitic lice. In the wild, salmon suffer from parasitic lice that attach themselves to the fish and slowly feed off them. Most individuals can handle several of these lice without affecting their chances of survival. However, as one would expect, those chances decrease with every attaching parasite. Unfortunately, salmon farms have become breeding sites for these parasites where they now occur in monumental proportions. Having learnt nothing from terrestrial farming, the consistent dumping of increasingly stronger pesticides onto the farm to kill the lice has only increased their immunity, resulting in the pest vs. pesticide escalation seen elsewhere in the agricultural world.

Salmon farms are generally located in and around wild runs, meaning they can become ‘ambush’ sites where passing wild juvenile salmon are swarmed with lice. It’s a bit like placing a bird-flu infected battery chicken farm in the middle of a wildlife reserve. As recently as last month, studies in British Columbia found that juvenile wild salmon that had passed fish farms had a higher number of lice.

Another issue is that of escaped farmed salmon. National Geographic reported that over 2 million farmed salmon escaped in 2002. In one incident, 600,000 escaped in one single mass jail-break. Not only are these fish carrying and spreading parasitic lice, but there is the potential for breeding and hybridisation with wild species. This interbreeding could greatly reduce the ecological fitness of the wild species, since farmed individuals have a completely different set of immunities and local adaptations based on their artificial habitat.

It is of course the image of wild leaping salmon that gives this Scottish export its distinctive brand. It would be sadly ironic if those wild fish populations were destroyed in an effort to cash in on them. The illusion is more profitable than the reality.

There are bigger questions here too. Most salmon farms rely on wild fish for feed, which is a highly inefficient way of producing protein. Then there are the food miles. Fresh salmon is air freighted to China. In an age of climate change and resource depletion, is flying fish across the planet really a good idea?

Alex Salmond apparently thinks it is. The price of oil may set him straight – and that’s the social cost. Creating thousands of new jobs in air-freighted salmon exports sounds great in a recession, and very bad in an oil crisis. Scotland’s trade deal could come back to bite them in more ways than one.

  • Andrew Flitcroft has an excellent article here.


  1. Eating fake salmon is the same as eating a battery chicken.
    if the Chinese want to eat fish they can order some of the 1000’s tonnes of the more affordable & natural wild fish which are being used to make grow a few tonnes of expensive fake fish. it’s time to stop this stupidity NOW.

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