Kochfreunde.com is the culinary magazine of Oliver Wagner. Here, everything revolves around the almost most beautiful thing in the world: good food. The focus ranges from reports on exciting restaurants to recipes from his own kitchen, cookbooks and culinary gadgets.


Kochfreunde.com ist das kulinarisches Magazin von Oliver Wagner. Hier dreht sich alles rund um die beinahe schönste Sache der Welt: Gutes Essen. Dabei reicht der Fokus von Berichten über spannende Restaurants bis hin zu Rezepten aus der eigenen Küche, Kochbücher und kulinarische Gadgets.

Farmed salmon from Norway

Norway. A landscape passes by the eye that seems surreal and yet familiar. Rough nature, unspoiled landscape. Forests, stones and water in constant change. A view that cries out to want to stop time and immerse yourself in this plastic and unusual three-dimensional nature. Just as into the clear cold water of the countless fjords that crisscross Norway.

And these fjords are home to the salmon that regularly makes it onto our plates. The inner eye suggests images of small swarms of the animals that suddenly break through the dark water surface, can be seen briefly jumping and then disappear again. What remains are concentric circles that slowly run out towards the shore.

The reality is not quite like that. Frankly speaking, it is even quite different. I was able to convince myself of this the other day on a trip to Bergen. Together with a small group of journalists and bloggers, we visited the most important stations of salmon farming: From fish roe to fillet.

Fish farming on these scales is an industry. With all your disadvantages. But also the advantages that come with it.

The first path along the life cycle of salmon and salmon trout took us to a so-called hatchery early in the morning. The hatchlings are first drawn from the eggs in hatching tanks. These are quickly transferred to the first freshwater tanks. Up to 200,000 fish cavort in these tanks. As the animals grow, the pools also become larger. After about nine months, the fish are ready for the transition to the sea. Slowly the fresh water is replaced by salt water to prepare the animals for this step. Large transport ships take the fish into their bellies and spit them out a few hours later into huge nets in the fjords.

Large investments are imminent, the production manager explains to us. In the coming year, the entire wastewater plant will have to be rebuilt from the ground up, and the conversion to new, even larger tanks is already in full swing.

A small speedboat takes us out into the fjord. This is where probably the most important step in the life of a farmed salmon takes place. Up to 200,00 fish are raised in large nets for 10 to 18 months. The personnel input is low. No more than two people oversee a facility with up to nine of these nets. Transport ships fill the silos with new feed every week.

Every day, 31 million dishes of Norwegian seafood end up on plates around the world. 14 million of these come from Norwegian aquaculture.

Up to 3,000 tons of fish mature on the water in these farms. Every minute the feed cannons sound, spreading their ammunition over the water. Seagulls have their internal clocks set to this machinery and fly overhead a few seconds before the shot to catch some of the pallets in mid-air.

For a country like Norway, for which the sea has always been one of the most important resources, sustainable farming means an extremely gentle, strictly regulated as well as constantly controlled intervention in nature.

The Norwegian sea area is 90,000 square kilometers. Norway’s land potential for food production is thus equivalent to the agricultural land of Sweden, Finland and Denmark combined. Nevertheless, only 450 square kilometers of it are used for aquaculture today.

The salmon swim in the nets together as a huge shoal. Only rarely do they dive down deeper than a few meters. The diameter of the nets is between 50 and 100 meters, in depth they reach between 20 and 50 meters. Thus, the fish fill up to 2.5% of the volume, in organic production it is only 2%. A good stocking density, we are assured. Especially since the fish in the school are rarely more than a few feet deep underwater anyway.

And indeed, even here you can see the fish occasionally jumping over the water surface. That’s a good sign, I suppose. Just like the transparency with which we as a group of journalists were granted open access here.

Of course, it is first and foremost a matter of economically efficient and effective food production. Ultimately, however, the only way to maintain global demand for farmed salmon is through high quality. And this continues unabated. However, production volumes in Norway have been declining slightly for years. The country no longer issues new licenses for aquaculture in the fjords. The only lever to increase production is to accelerate growth. In theory, there are various ideas for this, for example, by slightly increasing the water temperature in cold months. But here, too, there are both natural and legal limits.

Anyway, the feed is the decisive factor. Directly after the properties of the water. The temperature is important: in warmer water the fish grow a little faster, in colder water the quality of the flesh is better. And the current. And that in more ways than one. First, it flushes the fish’s excreta out of the nets and out of the fjord as quickly as possible. With perfect flow, the animals are always supplied with fresh and oxygen-rich water. In addition, a strong current ensures a lot of movement for the fish, because only in this way they have to swim permanently and actively – which is of course important for muscle building.

The feed has changed massively in recent years. And with it some properties in the salmon. In the past, a lot of marine feed was given, so mostly other fish, fish meal and fish oil. This is no longer possible today: the stocks of individual fish species are partially overfished and the increased number of aqua farms can no longer be covered by the world market. So, also for ecological reasons, vegetarian feed is increasingly used, the proportion is now 70%. Soy from South America can and must only be a temporary solution. The future must lie in rapidly renewable and ecologically sustainable basic materials from the sea. Algae, for example.

Another component in the feed are the added colorants: carotenoid “astaxanthin”, consisting of algae and krill oil, is a natural colorant and the same pigment that gives wild salmon its typical reddish color. Using a scale, the so-called SalmoFan, the desired coloration in the later fish fillet can be selected. The producer decides months before delivery how strong the color of the fish will be. And he can only hope that the market does not develop differently in the meantime. Depending on the importing country, there are different wishes. For example, only the particularly intensively tinted fish goes to Japan.

Or, as Livar Frøyland, Director of Research at the NIFES Maritime Research Institute pointed out to us, in insects. They are ideal suppliers of proteins and can be produced virtually anywhere they are needed with a low ecological footprint. Series of experiments in the laboratory have shown that salmon raised on a feed based on protein from insects are healthy and can compete with other forms of feed in terms of appearance and taste.

The amount of omega-3, which was definitely declining due to the vegetarian diet, can thus be effectively increased again. Today, the content of omega-3 (EPA + DHA) is 1.9g per 150g of wild salmon, compared to 1.3g per 150g of farm-raised salmon. The recommendation for the weekly intake of the fatty acid is 0.25g per day. Accordingly, with one serving of salmon á 150g per week a sufficient supply is possible.

And all these efforts, it must be remembered, ultimately serve not only the industrial production of a high-quality fish – they are indispensable in order to continue to produce sufficient protein for a steadily growing world population in the years to come.

Chinese companies are already securing direct access to Norwegian fish. They buy directly all the aquaculture to ensure direct access to production, independent of the markets.

Of salmon lice and wrasses

The salmon louse is a parasite that occurs naturally in northern seas. It lives and reproduces on game and farmed salmon. The salmon louse is not in itself a problem for farmed salmon. It has no negative impact on the quality or food safety of the salmon meat. However, if the salmon louse takes over, the farmed salmon suffers health damage. In addition, a higher incidence of salmon lice has a negative impact on the welfare and health of wild salmon. In recent years, the spread of this parasite has increased significantly. Currently, Norwegian aquaculture operations are moving toward controlling salmon lice through the use of wrasse or cleaner fish. These little helpers pounce on the lice and remove them from their hosts very efficiently. Between two to three wrasses are needed to delouse 100 salmon. In order to conserve the limited wild fish stock of currently about two million wrasse, industrial farming of wrasse was started in Norway a few years ago. After all, the Norwegian aquaculture industry needs around 15 million of these hard-working helpers to meet current demand.

The monitoring program BarentsWatch shows the current status of the salmon louse distribution in all Norwegian farms on a daily basis.

The ecological footprint

There are certainly various points that can be discussed in the industrial production of animal foods. However, salmon stands out in one aspect in particular: sustainability in production. Compared to pork or beef, the use of feed is comparatively low. However, the feed for salmon is much more compacted overall, which means that more, and above all higher-quality, basic products are used in production per kilo.

To produce one kilo of salmon, 1.15 kilos of feed are needed. In comparison, three kilos of feed are needed to produce one kilo of pork and eight kilos of feed are needed to obtain one kilo of beef.

Nevertheless, theCO2 Footprint is lower overall than for other animal products, especially in direct comparison with cattle. These figures vary considerably depending on the study and can at best be approximate values, which is why the direct comparison is somewhat flawed. However, in the case of salmon, unlike most other products, there are still major levers to further reduce the Footprint. First and foremost, the production of the feed.

Norwegian salmon has a comparatively small ecological footprint: To produce one kilo of salmon, only 2.5 kilos of CO2 are consumed. In comparison, pork has a footprint of 5.9 kilos of CO2 and beef even 30 kilos of CO2 per kilo.

No organic salmon from Norway?

Between the beginning of 2016 and March 2017, Norway was no longer allowed to export salmon with the EU organic label to the European Union. However, this was not due to the fact that production was no longer in compliance with the law. The problem was rather in the sheep pens: Norway wants to continue to operate its barns with slatted grids. However, this clashed with the organic regulations of the EU. And that there is the certification for the EU organic seal quasi only in the whole, this was also omitted until the only recently reached agreement. In the meantime, the supply of organic salmon from Norway has been secured again.

My conclusion

The openness with which we were welcomed in Norway and guided through all areas of production is a clear sign of the transparency that is lived here. The NIFES Institute reports on its website very up to date on the load situation of all fish tested there and also provides this data for farmed salmon in near real time.

In general, despite the economic relevance of aquaculture (fishing is the second most important industry after oil from the North Sea), Norway seems to be very restrictive and prudent in dealing with the issue. In part, this is certainly due to the not entirely clear mixture of environmental protection and the increasing infestation with parasites.

I would like to see a change in market demand. As with all animal products, the focus should be on quality, sustainability and animal welfare. And I also find the SalmoFan, i.e. the color fan from BASF and Co. quite dispensable. In wild salmon, the color is created by the absorption of astaxanthin through natural food, mostly crabs, and accumulates in the body. Farmed salmon is rather grayish without the artificial addition of the artificial colorant also listed under the identification number E161. But does that really have to be a flaw?

The global demand for inexpensive animal proteins can only be satisfied by the various varieties of factory farming. Of course, as a consumer, you can have a say in the direction of the market and buy less often, but better products. Provided that one’s own wallet allows this scope for decision-making at all.

I leave with a somewhat ambivalent feeling. There is little fault with the quality of the product. There are hardly any comparable requirements and regulations in the world that Norway can afford. Of course, a free-ranging animal is better off than a salmon in aquaculture. However, from my point of view, the steps in the production are comprehensible throughout all phases and avoid too much stress for the fish as far as possible.

As long as one does not consciously decide against animal proteins, one must also be able to face the less romantic reality of industrial production. And showing this reality openly and transparently is a right and important step.

Note: My trip to Norway was with the support of the Norwegian Seafood Council. My reporting is not affected by this. Many thanks to Tom Tautz for the great pictures!

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