It sounds better, or at least blander, in English translation: ‘finished product’. And those of us who are confined to just one tongue need translations, to bring home to us the dimensions of the great, or at least huge, Norwegian industrial salmon complex. But it was the Swedish original — SLUTPRODUKT — that caught the eye with its frank brutality. And weeks later, it still does.
It lurked near the bottom of one of the terrifying and moving slides Mikael Frödin, salmon fisher, guide, fly tier and activist, shared with us in his talk in Cambridge in December, the morning after we had watched his footage of swimming in a Norwegian salmon cage amid hideously deformed and diseased salmon. Most of the feature film in which that footage appears, Artifishal, is concerned with North American hatcheries, dams and fish farms, and the sobering evidence of the consequence of over-reaching ambitions to manage wild ecosystems and their keystone species. But the five minutes of Mikael’s chilling testimony (beginning 52 minutes in) brought things closer to home. Aquaculture is Norway’s second biggest industry, behind only oil; and like its bigger brother, it does things professionally. A BBC Panorama film, ‘Salmon Farming Exposed‘, aired in May 2019, and is still available to British viewers. It was shocking enough about mortality rates and pollution in and around Scottish lough farms, but looked to Norway, home to Mowi and the other multi-nationals that own and run most of the open-cage farms on Scotland’s west coast, for a vision of a cleaner future. Mikael cut through this. A single salmon farm produces as much shit, as he put it, as the city of Oslo. Salmon farm escapees outnumber Norwegian’s entire population of wild salmon, and in interbreeding with them destroy the DNA of the wild fish. We are accidentally practising unnatural selection; we are, in Yvon Chouinard’s words, devolving salmon. But strong words and images can reverse this madness and halt our complicity in it. In 25 seconds of underwater footage Mikael shot inside a salmon cage (55.30-55) he stopped me eating open-cage farmed salmon for good.
The next morning in Cambridge — 12 December, General Election day in the UK — Mikael spoke for half an hour, to slides now kindly translated from Swedish and Norwegian by my colleague the environmental historian Professor Paul Warde. I urge you to listen to Mikael’s presentation in full here. It’s worth it. His passion, the urgency of his case, and his insights into the geopolitical agendas of salmon farming, all demand your attention. But — to make sure you click on the evidence in full — I want to share a few of the images he showed us. This one of a salmon, eaten alive by huge concentrations of sea lice that, in small numbers, cling to a wild fish for its first hours back in its home river, presents raw horrors.
Now, farmed salmon has of course brought employment to remote coastal communities. Harry Clifton’s moving new poem ‘The Salmon Cages’ presents the ambiguity of those who depend, uneasily, on the salmon farms, onshore, alongside those silent ones who swim below the surface of the waters they exploit. And affordable farmed salmon has also brought within reach of a growing global population nutrition that was once the preserve of the privileged, as this extraordinary image of a single day’s catch from the Grimersta estate on the Isle of Lewis in August 1982 — truly another age of indulgent slaughter and misplaced pride in it — reminds us. Sixty-nine fish, 364 lbs in total. (Still you have to ask: why, on that extraordinary day, would anyone kill those two small sea-trout arranged in a v to left?)
When, later in the 1980s, Ted Hughes saw such Grimersta bounty, such a harvest, he compared the ranks of the salmon to loaves laid out on a baker’s counter.
But Mikael showed us another image of industrial waste, Slutprodukt abandoned in a roadside ravine. You can smell the rotting flesh.
And, in case you think that is a one-off, the exception that proves an otherwise hygienic efficient rule, first compare the way the colours in that sick seething glacier melt of salmon carcasses change, old to freshly dumped, bottom to top. Someone is making a habit of this. And then reflect on how we are not so distant from it: that what Mikael calls Norway’s salmon industrial complex depends on global inputs, from Chilean anchovies to java beans and all manner of cleaning agents, chemical and zoological.
Then look at how at least some of these chemical traces persist in the flesh held in those chopsticks. In pursuit of affordable and nutritious food for a growing population, no one should pretend that salmon may not have a part to play. But is this the FINAL PRODUCT, this the Slutprodukt, we really want? Is the only way to bring the taste of salmon within reach of the many by cheapening it so distastefully? Must we compromise the welfare of these extraordinary creatures by sacrificing the wild salmon whose life cycle we have so efficiently managed to exploit, accelerate, compress?
Mikael showed us an alternative. It’s been around for some years. Michael Wigan’s fine book The Salmon: The extraordinary story of the King of Fish (2013) explained it too. It works. It spares wild salmon and sea-trout the hideous concentration of lice that eat them alive as they swim past the salmon cages to spawn. It spares the pollution of successive sea lochs or fjords, the devastation of the marine ecosystem with all its other wonders of fauna and flora. This alternative — closed containment land-based aquaculture — is twice as expensive per unit cost, if cost is measured in pounds or Krone. But now think of the extraordinary foresight shown by the Norwegian government in the stewardship, for the state, of revenue from its biggest industry, North Sea oil. The Norwegians have ensured that their oil really is owned by everyone. Think of the poverty of a world in which wild salmon and value of the habitats and ecoystems they connect had disappeared. Finally, imagine the global benefits that could follow, and the moral authority that could accrue to the home of so many wild salmon rivers, if, prompted by consumer pressure and a respect for its wild salmon and the waters of the rivers and seas they swim, Norway lent its weight to investing in truly sustainable land-based aquaculture, which produces healthy salmon wherever it is needed, cutting food miles, leaving wild rivers to wild fish.
What if all of us only bought, or ate, salmon where we saw this sign?
You can be sure that the big players would respond to educated consumers. Share this with any teenagers you know. (Mikael mentioned that his home town in Sweden is also Greta Thunberg’s…..)
Meanwhile, we read of another catastrophic incident, another tear in the fabric of our open net salmon farms, this time from Iceland. The hole was twenty metres down; the farm in question, in the Westfjörds region, holds 170,000 fish. Or did….
Ted and Nicholas Hughes drove around Iceland twice in the summer of 1979 in pursuit of wild salmon. Deterred by what, even then, were prohibitive costs, they eventually found huge trout on the upper Laxa. The following summer they went to Alaska. There, one July morning, fishing together near the junction of the Moose and Copper rivers, father and son watched bears at work amid the extraordinary majesty of a salmon run, and were transformed by it. By that Christmas, Ted had a fair copy of the poem he caught to give to his son.
In her Cambridge talk ‘The Oldest Animal: Salmon in Early Welsh Literature’, Katherine demonstrated how far the poet reached, back into his own childhood, and the old stories he read there, to inform the marvels they saw, and briefly became, ‘That Morning’ in Alaska. Katherine’s presentation includes a marvellous image of two earlier travellers in The Mabinogion riding a great salmon on its shoulders, on their own noble quest.
Advanced Western industrial civilisation needs to rediscover some of that reverence for the fish we have caged this past half-century. And fast.
Traditional cultures of salmon fishing do persist, and can thrive, in harmony with science. The River Tweed, which Hughes first fished in 1985 at Floors Castle, is one of Scotland’s greatest salmon rivers, and the Tweed Foundation helped inspire Ted Hughes and Michael Martin, one of those he fished with that year, to found the Westcountry Rivers Trust a decade later. Ronald Campbell, the Tweed Foundation’s Senior Biologist, shared some Thoughts on Renewal and Sustainability in our Cambridge conference’s closing session. Ronald began with a translation of his own, from the Latin motto, ‘Contra Nando Incrementum’, for the coat of arms of the Royal Burgh of Peebles, an ancient town on the Upper Tweed.
It shows one salmon swimming up stream, two down. “I swim against the current and increase”, Ronald told us, was an exemplar of the medieval attitude to animals as moral exemplars. Animals had been put on earth as examples to humans of how to live. And the evidence of the last hundred and fifty years, since hatcheries were first introduced, is that salmon are better at sustainability when left to themselves than any of mankind’s attempts to interfere with them. Natural predators, however, may be a different story…. Listen to Ronald’s talk, and view his slides, here.
When wild mature salmon return to the rivers of their birth, they do not eat. Instead they survive, for the weeks and sometimes months they spend in fresh or stale water, sometimes in a sort of low water coma deep in still pools, waiting for the floods that will revive them and take them upstream to the spawning redds, on the fat reserves and musculature they built at sea. But none of this amazing capacity to convert the wealth of what they encounter in their arctic feeding grounds into the flesh anglers and bears prize and, in Alaska and Canada at least, the whole riverine and forest ecosystems depend on, would have been possible if the water in these same river waters had not held the life that nourished them in the first years of their lives, before they silvered, smelted, went to sea.
Ted Hughes wasn’t just a champion of the salmon; he also wrote with rapt tenderness about ‘Poetic electrons’, or the Mayfly. Indeed, Hughes saw the value, and the mystery, in all aquatic insects that, as nymphs and duns and spinners, move between elements, stone or mud to water to air. In transforming themselves they also sustain salmon parr and smolt and trout and sea-trout. He wrote a wonderful poem about the life-cycle of the ‘Caddis’, from ‘struggledrudge’ encased in an armour of pebbles to its own brief hour of courtship and consummation up in the trees. Hughes’s poem was almost certainly inspired by his son Nicholas, whom at fifteen Ted described as ‘an extremely keen underwater creaturist.’ That might describe another of our speakers in Cambridge in December, Nick Measham, who here describes Salmon + Trout Conservation’s important recent work following in the Hugheses’ wadersteps, first by means of the Riverfly Census, and now by the SmartRivers project into which it has now itself evolved.