NEW CAMPAIGN // Deformities, parasites, and high mortality rates: the murky depths of the Scottish salmon industry revealed in new undercover investigation

NEW CAMPAIGN // Deformities, parasites, and high mortality rates: the murky depths of the Scottish salmon industry revealed in new undercover investigation

GAIA informs
23 March 2021

“The salmon suffer in silence”

Between September and November 2020, a large-scale research[1] project involving drones and frogmen was conducted, commissioned by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) in cooperation with GAIA, at 22 Scottish salmon farms rearing salmon in sea cages on a massive scale. The research reveals an enormous amount of animal suffering: salmon with deformities, diseases, missing eyes, seaweed growing from large open wounds, pieces of flesh and skin eaten away by sea lice, etc. “The situation is totally unacceptable,” says GAIA President Michel Vandenbosch. “These animals suffer so much that as many as a quarter die before they even reach slaughter.”

Scotland is the third largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon globally (approximately 35 million fish were farmed in 2019) and the industry plans to double its size by 2030. Together with Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), we surveyed a total of 22 farms (along the coast of Scotland and the Shetland Islands) between September and November 2020 using both drones and, at six farms, frogmen.

In 2019, Belgium imported 1,260.9 tonnes of salmon (fresh and frozen) from the United Kingdom[2] compared to 715.9 tonnes in 2018. These figures make our country the ninth largest importer of Scottish salmon worldwide.

Fish are suffering at an alarming scale

The researchers found major animal welfare and environmental problems on Scottish salmon farms. Production is so high that sea lice infestations[3] and other diseases have got out of control, causing fish to suffer at an alarming scale and threatening wild fish populations. The images show salmon with deformities and diseases, missing eyes, fin lesions, seaweed growing in open wounds, gill lesions, abrasions, and large pieces of flesh and skin being eaten away by sea lice. Wild salmon sometimes travel 3,000 kilometres to breed; however, at intensive farming operations, they swim around aimlessly for about two years. Those miserable living conditions cause serious injuries and wounds.

“The time when we assumed that fish do not feel pain is long gone,” says Vandenbosch. More and more scientific research (e.g. the Roslin Institute and the University of Edinburgh, 2003; University of Liverpool, 2019) proves that the often-heard statement made by fishermen that “fish don’t feel pain” is just not true. Fish can feel pain. The brain structure of all vertebrates, including fish, is sufficiently complex to enable them to feel pain.

Negative environmental impact

Moreover, the current salmon farming system is having a negative impact on the environment. Organic and chemical waste from Scottish salmon farms changes the chemical composition of the sediment and kills marine life on the seabed. Waste from fish farms can lead to poor water quality and harmful algal blooms. Chemicals and medicines, such as insecticides, are also released into the environment and many of these substances are known to be toxic to fish and other marine organisms, as well as birds and mammals.

GAIA’s new campaign aims to raise consumer awareness in particular. “Scottish salmon is sold with the lie that the fish live in freedom in Scottish waters and is sold as a luxury product. The reality, however, is that it is a product full of animal suffering and also has a very negative environmental impact.”

[1] This is the largest undercover investigation into the Scottish salmon industry ever done. [2] The UK does not seem to produce Danube salmon, but it can import it. These exports are therefore likely to be exclusively Scottish-farmed Atlantic salmon. [3] Sea lice are parasites that feed on the skin, blood, and mucus of fish. Their number has increased with the expansion of the salmon industry, which has not yet introduced an effective, welfare-enhancing, and environmentally friendly method of treatment or prevention. The methods developed by the industry in an attempt to rid fish of sea lice, such as exposing fish to hot water or high pressure (‘Thermolicer’ and ‘Hydrolicer’) are cruel and ineffective. Many fish die as a result.

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