Norwegian firm fights current to post record salmon production

The world's largest producer of farmed salmon, Norway's Mowi, said Wednesday it produced more fish than ever in 2019 and expected to increase production again in 2020, despite difficulties in China caused by the new coronavirus.

Norwegian firm fights current to post record salmon production
A file photo of a salmon farm in a fjord near Leknes in the Lofoten Islands. Photo: AFP

The company said it harvested a record 436,000 tonnes in 2019, compared to 375,000 tonnes the year before.

Revenue increased 22 percent to 759 million euros.

Net profit for the year fell to 477.6 million euros ($521 million) from 566.6 million in 2018, largely driven by depreciation of assets.

Set against a backdrop of declining salmon prices, the company issued a warning in mid-January for its fourth quarter results, citing difficulties in Canada in particular.

The new coronavirus, recently named COVID-19, also poses problems for Mowi in the Chinese market, where salmon is mainly consumed in restaurants, although the company hopes this will be a temporary effect.

“When people stay indoors, it means that no one in China is buying salmon at the moment, neither from Mowi nor others,” Mowi CEO Ivan Vindheim told business news outlet E24.

The company has closed down its Shanghai factory and sent home 50 employees as a result of the outbreak.

“It's a sizeable market, and we are losing our share of that… but we think China will bounce back,” Vindheim said.

He said that the Chinese market consumes about 120,000 tonnes a year and Mowi is supplying about 20 percent of that.

“Notwithstanding the current issues with the coronavirus, the medium- and long-term outlook for Mowi remains strong,” Vindheim, said in a statement.

Shortly before 3:00 pm (1400 GMT), shares in Mowi were down 0.18 percent on the Oslo Stock Exchange.

READ ALSO: Norway salmon farms ravaged by algae bloom

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Norwegian salmon farming moves to cleaner indoor waters

Hundreds of thousands of salmon swim against the current in southeast Norway -- in massive indoor tanks away from the nearest river as the controversial industry increasingly embraces greener land-based facilities.

Norwegian salmon farming moves to cleaner indoor waters
Salmon farms are being moved indoors. Photo by Brandon on Unsplash

The fish live in two gigantic pools inside an inconspicuous industrial building in Fredrikstad owned by a company that plans to raise salmon in similar settings even further afield, in the United States.

By raising the salmon on land, the industry is attempting to move away from the river or sea cages that have invited criticism over a slew of issues.

The problems run from costly mass escapes to fish infected with sea lice treated with chemicals to mounds of faeces and feed piling up on the seabed below the farms.

“At sea, you depend on the almighty for many things. In a land-based farm, we are suddenly the all-powerful one,” Fredrikstad Seafoods general manager Roger Fredriksen told AFP.

“Here we control everything: temperature, oxygen, pH, CO2,” he said as he gave a tour of Norway’s first land-based salmon farm, opened in 2019.

Pumped from the nearby mouth of Norway’s largest river, the salt water that feeds the facility is treated with UV light to eliminate viruses and bacteria and afterwards it is cycled and filtered through a loop for repeated use.

Under a faint blue light, designed to trigger their appetite, the salmon swim day and night as they are fed food pellets from an overhead dispenser.

When they reach between four and five kilograms (nine and 11 pounds), they are harvested.

“The fish have a very firm consistency,” said veterinarian Sandra Ledang, head of production at the adjacent abattoir.

“That’s because it swims against the current all its life, from the moment it arrives in our facilities until it is slaughtered. It exercises absolutely
every day,” she added.

As populations are expected to increase, with almost 10 billion mouths to feed by 2050, food production needs to be optimised.

While salmon, which is rich in protein, is still a luxury in many places, it is finding new customers among the growing middle class, particularly in Asia.

Matthias Halwart, a senior officer in the fisheries department of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), sees clear benefits to recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), like those tested in Norway.

“You have fully controlled environment for the fish, a very low water use, a very good disease control, a very efficient land use, you can optimize your feeding strategies and you can have a very good proximity with the market,” Halwart tells AFP.

READ ALSO: Norway fails to agree fishing quote deal with the UK

Proponents say that although land farms require a lot of energy, their proximity to consumers reduces the use of transportation, making them better for the environment.

Land-based farming projects are already spreading around the world and soon salmon now primarily raised in Norwegian, Chilean, Scottish and Canadian waters will also be produced in Japan, Florida or China.

Nordic Aquafarms, the parent company of Fredrikstad Seafoods, is working on two farms in the United States, one in Maine on the east coast, the other in California on the west coast.

The plan is to use Icelandic salmon roe to raise the fish there.

“The idea is to produce locally. No need to fly salmon over the ocean from one continent to another,” Fredriksen said.

Happy fish?

However, production costs are still higher, and land-based salmon farming is currently considered more as a complement than a substitute for sea- or river-based farming.

NGO Compassion in World Farming, which campaigns against intensive factory farming, fears that the quest for profits will come at the expense of animal welfare.

“We estimate that the minimum density necessary for profitability is 50 kilograms per cubic metre of water,” said Lucille Bellegarde, in charge of agri-food affairs for the French branch of the organisation.

But she lamented that the “average density found in existing systems is more like 80 kilograms per cubic metre” — eight times denser than what the NGO recommends.

Fredriksen said these fears are misguided as his farm cares about the welfare of the salmon.

“If the fish are not happy, they don’t grow.”