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'Northern Climes, September 2006'

Soiled association?

As the organic farmed salmon band-wagon gathers pace no less than nine government-approved organic certification bodies are busy trying to drum up business. At the head of pack is the Soil Association (SA), “the UK’s leading environmental charity promoting sustainable, organic farming and championing human health”; the most prestigious UK certifier and widely respected for its impartiality and strict standards.

But concern is being expressed that the SA’s impartiality is being compromised by its apparent promotion of organic farmed salmon. During a recent SA visit to fish farms in the Shetland Isles, Scottish Director Hugh Raven commented that Shetland had “some of the most innovative and far-sighted organic producers anywhere in the world.”

But Peter Kindersley, a leading UK organic farmer has resigned from the Association in disgust. He said that farming of carnivorous fish like salmon and cod was like farming tigers: “If we were to produce chickens the way they produce fish, I’d be immediately decertified. The involvement of the organic movement [in fish farming] is an absolute betrayal.”

However, Mr Raven waxed lyrical: “Organic aquaculture practised to Soil Association standards produces the highest quality fish that money can buy, and Shetland’s deserved reputation as a near pristine environment could see it becoming a global centre of excellence for sustainable aquaculture,” he said. It is strange, at least to this observer that a leading charity, renowned for its impartiality, appears to be so blatantly advertising farm salmon?

The RSPCA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) is also keen to get in on the farm salmon certification act through its Freedom Food designation. In July they advertised in The Times using the Olympic-sized swimming pool analogy to suggest to consumers that Freedom Food farm salmon had “plenty of room to swim around”. There have been complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority who is now investigating the matter.

The advert asked, “How many farm animals do you know with their own Olympic-sized swimming pool?” and went on to say, “And because of lower stocking densities, each salmon gets plenty of room to swim around.” But the advert gave no indication of how Freedom Food arrived at this conclusion, nor did it make clear what this “lower stocking density” was or the numbers of fish involved.

The volume of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool is generally 1875m³. At organic salmon stocking densities (10kg of fish per m³), the pool would hold 18,750kg weight of fish. If the average weight of each fish was 1.5kg the pool would contain 12,300 individual fish. Or, to put it another way, 6 to 7 salmon for every cubic metre of water in the pool.

In human terms, if the pool was ‘stocked’ with swimmers at a similar to density to organic fish farm cages (10kg per m³), and if each swimmer had an average weight of 60kg then this would mean that there would be 313 people in the pool at the same time. This could be in breach of Health & Safety regulations.

But Freedom Food farm fish are stocked at a density of 15kgm³ which means that in their Olympic-sized swimming pool, there would be 18,450 individual fish, or 9 to 10 salmon for every cubic metre of water in the pool; or, in human terms, 470 swimmers. Definitely in breach of health and safety legislation.

At conventional salmon farm stocking densities (20kg of fish per m³) the pool would hold 37,500kg weight of fish. If the average weight of each fish was 1.5 kg this would mean that the pool would contain 23,000 individual fish. Or, to put it another way, 12 to 14 salmon per cubic metre of water.

In human terms if the pool was ‘stocked’ with swimmers at a similar density (20kg per m³ ) and each swimmer had an average weight of 60 kg, then this would mean that there were 625 people in the pool at the same time. This would also be in breach of Health & Safety regulations.

The Soil Association, however, claims that it is being conservative in its calculations compared to Scottish Quality Salmon (now reborn as the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation) website. There, it is claimed, "Members’ salmon only occupy a maximum of 2% of the space available in the pen, with the remaining 98% of water available for swimming. The average pen is, by volume, the size of two Olympic swimming pools"

None of these, in my opinion, misleading claims tell prospective consumers that unlike the factory farm fish in their so-called ‘Olympic-sized’ swimming pools, humans don’t defecate in the water. Neither do they have three meals a day thrown at them whilst they swim.

The reality of the matter is that most farm salmon spend their lives before slaughter swimming around in the equivalent of half a bathtub-full of water, or a full bathtub of water; depending upon whether they are so-called factory farmed organic salmon or just simply bog-standard factory-farmed fish.

Meanwhile, figures released by the Scottish Executive (SE) in June disclosed that 1,500 production and processing jobs had been lost in salmon farming in Scotland since 2002, following the dominance of the industry by foreign-owned companies.

Responding to a request for information on employment numbers in the industry, the SE’s Marine Group said, “In 2001-02 it was estimated that there were about 10,000 jobs in Scotland generated by the production & processing of salmon. The latest figures currently available are for 2004 when it was estimated that the equivalent figure was about 8,500 jobs.”

More job losses are predicted if the proposed merger between Norwegian-owned Pan Fish and Marine Harvest is approved by the UK Competitions Commission. Amazingly, both the Scottish Executive and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) have written to the Commission expressing their support for the merger.

The support given to Norwegian fish farmers by the SE and HIE, both financially and morally, is, in my view, disgraceful. They have ‘sold’ the right of future generations to enjoy a clean coastal and freshwater environment simply to satisfy the whims of foreign investors.

Rod McGill