Salmon Group, a large network of family-owned fish farming and aquaculture companies that collectively represent 12 percent of the overall production volume in Norway, recently released the report “Fish welfare in fish farming – What is that?" which challenges the commercial salmon-farming industry to aim much higher and be far more closely aligned on issues related to the well-being of these fish throughout their lifecycle. In an interview with SeafoodSource, Salmon Group Chief Advisor Fish Health and Nutrition Ingebjørg Oddsdotter Sævareid said that while there has been a strengthened focus on fish welfare recently, much more can be done at a production level to elevate the sector as an important and trusted food provider for today’s highly aware consumers.
SeafoodSource: What are the Salmon Group’s main concerns about fish welfare, and what led Salmon Group to compile this report?
Sævareid: Fish welfare, or animal welfare, has been on top of Salmon Group’s agenda for years, and is highly linked to our systematic work towards a more sustainable aquaculture industry. Food production must take place under conditions that meet the requirements linked to the environment, animal welfare, and quality of the end-product. To meet such requirements, we have adjusted the ingredients of our SG-recipe, resulting in an average 36 percent carbon footprint reduction – by cutting Brazilian soy and [through] a combined use of microalgae oil, cleaning technology, and byproducts. This has also significantly reduced the fish-in, fish-out ratio, and contamination of pollutants in the feed.
Our latest move is partnering up with the start-up company Metapod to enhance the development of locally-produced insect flour to fish feed. Fish health and fish welfare is important in this perspective, as healthy fish exploit feed much better. Also, today’s consumers are conscious and informed, concerned with balanced resource management and responsible food production. As responsible food producers, it is vital to our industry that we take concerns about animal welfare seriously.
The report also points at industry challenges like higher mortality rates than what is acceptable for animal production, and the fact that sea lice and infectious diseases reduces fish welfare throughout the production [cycle]. The reasons for the lowered welfare are complex and cannot be solved by one producer alone. Legislation, authorities, farming conditions, risk of diseases, and the language we use when we talk about fish, are all aspects that influence fish welfare. These are issues that must be given higher priority.
SeafoodSource: Has there been a decline in fish welfare across the salmon farming industry, or has the industry simply become more alert to where it could be doing a lot better?
Sævareid: There is a great increase in knowledge on this field, identifying how and where the industry meets difficulties and challenges. Fish welfare and animal welfare as such, are being spotlighted from various parts within and outside the industry and not at least from the market and consumers demanding a higher focus on this in particular. This is a great advantage as the industry also experiences an increase in disease and damage due to repeated handling of both farmed fish and cleaner fish. In the fight against sea lice, less medicine and more mechanical treatments are used to keep the parasite under control. The industry is increasingly more alert to all challenges regarding production issues, but there is still not enough knowledge on how this effects the fish health. In combination with better tools and indicators to monitor welfare (or the lack of it), it forces the industry in a positive way to look at fish welfare issues differently. We also have strong indications on the fish’s ability to feel pain and distress, and as responsible food producers, one simply cannot accept poor animal welfare in the industry.
SeafoodSource: Are the challenges or issues highlighted in the report mainly the failings of large producers or could the whole industry do better?
Sævareid: Overall, we have identified three main areas we need to work on together as an industry in order to improve fish welfare: the overall administration of the industry from the governmental side, farming conditions, and semantics. The fish welfare issues in the industry do not distinguish minor from large producers. But we see that legislations and governmental administration decisions do not necessarily benefit fish welfare. When it comes to farming conditions, we see that human error can highly implicate fish welfare throughout production.
The differences between producers are big, and it varies throughout production cycles, geography, and the size of the companies. This is good news, as knowledge, know-how, and best practice can be shared and implemented in all farming systems. However, respect for our animals and the industry is also built through semantics. How we talk about fish and how we talk about our industry can easily camouflage unacceptable sides of the industry. We easily use terms like volume and biomass instead of referring to numbers of individuals, and it is easier to take non-welfare-friendly decisions for biomasses than for hundreds of thousands of individuals.
SeafoodSource: What should be the industry’s immediate priorities with regards to fish welfare?
Sævareid: Accepting and being open about the fact that we have challenges due to animal welfare. We will also benefit from crossover collaborations involving governments, the industry, other industries and research environments – to seek knowledge about both fish biology and environments in order to have a more solid ground to build legislation and decisions on.
SeafoodSource: What immediate improvements can be made by the industry?
Sævareid: Implementing best-practice procedures and welfare indicators for both farmed fish and cleaner fish (if cleaner fish are used) in daily routines. Identify bottleneck areas in the specific production. Evaluate and make corrections between each generation. Encourage everyone in the company (also those who work in finance, administration, and processing) to take a fish welfare course.
Fish are not recognized as cute, have visible facial expressions, and do not scream when hurt, which can build on the impression that fish do not feel pain when hurt or damaged. Learning that this is not the case can change mindsets, and maybe it is more difficult to take decisions that are not animal-friendly, when one knows that the welfare of the fish can and must be taken into account.
SeafoodSource: What should the industry do to alleviate consumer concerns about salmon and trout farming, and what effects might these measures have on the industry?
Sævareid: The industry must seek to become more inviting and open to consumers. We need to use words and phrases that the consumers recognize. The images, words, and knowledge being used to show the reality of the industry make the foundation for building credibility and a good reputation. Traceability and transparency are more important than ever in any food production and a blockchain approach can ensure that every step of the production is being handled with the utmost awareness and responsibility.
We must also make strict demands to our suppliers in all sectors, like we in Salmon Group have done in the last years to steer our fish feed towards a more sustainable direction. This will benefit socially, environmentally and economically those producers that manage to operate in a more sustainable and more fish welfare friendly way, and on top of that, it will ease the consumers concerns.
Salmon and trout farming must be demystified, and we need to seek to become more open in the way we communicate. Most people have an idea of how a cow or a sheep lives, but not many have a single clue about how fish are farmed.
SeafoodSource: Overall, what opportunities would open up to the salmon and trout sectors if producers and supply chains address the failings highlighted in your report?
Sævareid: The United Nations encourages us to view the entire food system as a whole, both locally, nationally, and globally. It is also high time for sea- and land-based animal husbandry to learn from each other and work and think together to a larger degree. The same factors are central to both areas, namely how health, welfare, sustainability, and competitive ability are linked. Improved sustainability and a more animal welfare friendly production will only [lead to] positive side effects.
Photo courtesy of Salmon Group