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Do I stop eating salmon?

“It’s the pink fish finger of the 21st century." Richard Flanagan

I have had salmon on my to do list for some time now but have felt a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of a researching exercise, which could well finish by my vowing never to eat salmon again, or at the very least, feeling incredibly guilty if I do. Then the other day when we were discussing what to cook for our Zoom cooking class one of my granddaughters mentioned that 'daddy' - my son - had banned fish from the household because it was not ethical or environmentally responsible to eat fish. Particularly salmon in fact. And we had had some salmon just a few days before as well. So I thought it was time.

So I have tried to sort out the facts, the histrionics, the commercialism - all of that - and still haven't really come to a conclusion, other than a vague feeling of guilt. But honestly I think it's very probably a no win situation. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

On the one side you have the environmentalists. Now are these reasonable well informed people or a few histrionic extremists, who are really saying 'not in my back yard'? Well I think there do indeed seem to be some legitimate concerns. I should say that what I am looking at here is the salmon aquaculture industry in Tasmania. What the rest of the world does I do not know, and whilst I won't quite say I don't care, I recognise that I am very much narrowing my focus on to Tasmania and I don't think I have changed my belief that at least we do salmon farming better than some. Maybe not New Zealand, but that's almost Australia anyway.

Putting aside the whole issue of whether you should eat animals at all (animals eat other animals by the way and fight them for it too), the question of whether you should eat fish - and particularly salmon, is becoming increasingly fraught.

The salmon industry began in Tasmania back in the 80s. I remember going to visit one of the salmon farms in the Derwent and was somewhat taken aback, I have to say, at the density of the fish in the nets in the river. I'm pretty sure that those early farms were not good - the waste decimated the ecosystem and so on. And since my researches have had no mention of the Derwent, I am assuming that those farms are no longer there.

It is, however, now a huge industry for Tasmania - it's largest agricultural industry and in December 2020 was worth $796 million, just over $1billion if you include the value added stuff - which I assume means, smoked salmon, tinned salmon, etc. Initially there were 14 companies, now there are three - Huon, Tassal and Petuna, with Huon currently in takeover talks with the somewhat notorious Brazilian abattoir company JBS.

The battle now seems to have shifted offshore and to Stormy Bay between Hobart and Bruny Island in particular, where I believe the weather can be really bad. There are two or three areas of controversy here.

The first is the approval process.

Salmon farms have to be approved by Parliament and the committee set up to assess the submissions for new farms recently approved one from Huon, even though there was not adequate, representation on the committee, because two of the members - environmental scientists had resigned due to arguments over its partiality. Legal technicalities ensued, and I think the submission was approved although I also think that there are still some final steps before final approval is given. Nevertheless there was a lot of bad press.

Secondly Huon - who already has pens in the area - massive and much improved in that they are supposed to be strong enough to resist storms and also have a double, reinforced netting to prevent seals from getting in - a danger to the fish and the seals alike - nevertheless has had three electrical fires, leading to mass escapes of the fish. Not to mention the costs of repair of course. I still haven't found what caused the fires, but think it must have been faulty electrics, rather than sabotage. Fish escaping causes horror and despair to the environmentalists, because they fear them eating native fish. However, it seems that fishermen rush out there to catch them - it's a bonanza - and many of the fish do not survive anyway.

Thirdly there are indeed large storms and bits and pieces are torn off - some of them very large, causing potential damage to the coast and to ships and boats in the area - the Sydney/Hobart sailors amongst them. Not that I have any sympathy for them.

You can read a whole lot of other stuff about what evil people Huon are - a husband and wife team - but their own media statements are pretty convincing too - the only salmon farm with RSPCA approval - and RSPCA UK approval at that, which means a pretty rigorous survey of their practices. 1% fish to 99% water ratio - the lowest in the world. On track to produce more protein than they use to feed the fish. Because that's another argument brought agains the salmon farmers - they use more fish to feed the salmon than they produce. Which probably means that the feed the salmon now eat is derived from all sorts of other things that somebody won't approve of. You just can't win. Even if all that waste - excrement, the bits of the fish that aren't used, is now processed and turned into liquid fertiliser for land crops and showing great promise.

And so the cry from the environmentalists is to take the fish farms on to the land. I'm not quite sure how you would do that but it is feasible, although, according to Huon not commercially viable. They would have to use salt water, and the government does not allow putting used salt water back into the sea. Huon by the way lost $128 million last year due mostly to COVID - higher freight costs, and lower prices - a drop of 12%, plus those fires, and thefts at their Sydney plant of tons and tons of salmon. No wonder they are looking at selling!

I'm sure there are truths and lies on either side, or, if not outright lies, there will be exaggerations, as well as hiding of some truths. So honestly I don't know where I sit on this. It's surely not any better to catch wild salmon, whether on a recreational basis or commercially. I didn't look into this but I can't imagine it's good on a commercial scale.

There are probably rules and regulations for all kinds of salmon fishing - quotas and limits and so on, but still ... People cheat.

And what about the eating. The snobs will say you should only eat wild salmon and this passage from Simon Hopkinson in his Roast chicken and other stories, probably sums up that attitude.

"In my view there is no substitute for seasonal wild salmon. ...The very appearance of a fine wild salmon is a joy to behold. Its life has been full of adventure. Swimming up and down river and stream, out to sea and back, leaping up gushing waterfalls and spawning in the most natural way.

When you see the real thing alongside its lowly pretender on a fishmonger's slab, all is revealed. shining, glossy skin with large scales, a resolute firmness of flesh, prominent well-formed fins and tail, and brightness of eye.

Its neighbour, however, sports stunted growth in the fin and tail departments, and has softer flesh. After all man cannot 'farm' characteristics." Simon Hopkinson

Whatever 'characteristics' means in this context. The pictures above are of a wild caught salmon on the left, and a Huon farmed salmon in the centre. I do not know what species of Atlantic salmon the Huon variety is.

Whatever the argument about quality, I doubt that many of us can afford wild salmon. Although here in Australia you actually cannot get fresh wild salmon anyway. Well maybe you can get tinned or frozen wild salmon but that is surely not an haute-cuisine product. It's all farmed here in Australia. The environmentalists are horrified at the thought of farmed salmon escaping into Tasmania's rivers - maybe it's a future industry for someone.

Well sorry Nigel, here in Australia we can'd really do that. I think the best we can do here in Australia is not eat salmon at all, followed by trying to make sure that we constantly increase the legal safeguards for best practice farming and only eat it occasionally. And I do think it is probably fairly well policed down there in Tasmania.

So what do we do? If we are not committed vegetarians or vegans that is. Fish, and particularly the oily fish like salmon are supposed to be really, really good for us. Ignore for the moment all those arguments about the evils lurking in the sea water that will get into the fish - mercury and arsenic are two that I saw, not to mention various petrochemicals, and surely this would apply to wild salmon as well as fresh. Omega-3 that wonderful chemical that we should all be getting as much of as possible is best obtained from salmon. Mackerel is the only thing to beat it I saw in one article. And salmon is easily obtainable and relatively cheap - well not per kilo, but you don't seem to need as much fish as meat for a meal. Salmon is very rich, and very delicious. and moreover very easy to cook. The supermarket magazines almost always have a salmon recipe or two - the current Coles edition has two, ditto the last Woolworths magazine. So perhaps I should follow Nigel Slater's advice, although all I can do is go for a sustainably produced and an MSCI rating.

"That fish is a rare treat in this house – you have to be fussy about its provenance" Nigel Slater

Looking at this picture I don't think I can really say I shall never eat salmon again, although I might feel a little guilty about it. But then it produces much less greenhouse gas than beef, and it's so good for me.

Last statistic. 72% of the salmon consumed in the world is farmed.


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