Norwegian salmon farms are taking huge amounts of wild fish from West Africa, mining the food security of the region, according to a report from the U.K.-based NGO Feedback.

Norwegian salmon farms are taking huge amounts of wild fish from West Africa, mining the food security of the region, according to a report from the U.K.-based NGO Feedback. The analysis comes as the industry faces a wave of public opposition after revelations of high mortality rates and the sale of fish deemed unfit for human consumption, along with accusations of antitrust violations by the European Commission.

The report, titled “Blue Empire,” was produced with other organizations including Greenpeace Africa and The West African Association for the Development of Artisanal Fishing and published in January. It quantifies the use of fishmeal and fish oil imported from Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia in the production of feed for salmon farms in Norway, the world’s main producer of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar).

According to the report, in 2020, Norwegian salmon farms required almost 2 million metric tons of edible wild fish to produce fish oil intended for feeds that produced nearly 1.5 million metric tons of farmed salmon.

Up to 7% of these wild fish (123,000-144,000 metric tons) were small pelagic species caught along the coasts of West Africa, where they could have fed between 2.5 million and 4 million people, according to the report. Other major suppliers of fish oil to Norway are Denmark, the United States, Peru and Iceland.

“The Norwegian salmon farming industry, which is the biggest in the world, has an enormous feed footprint and a huge appetite for wild caught fish,” Natasha Hurley, director of campaigns at Feedback, told Mongabay.

Norway exports most of its farmed salmon: In 2023, the country exported 1.2 million metric tons, valued at $11.6 billion, with the majority going to Poland, France and the United States, according to the Norwegian Seafood Council, an industry marketing group. An increasing share of its exports goes to emerging markets, such as China, Hurley said.

Feeding the Planet

Ever since its beginnings in Norway in the early 1970s, salmon farming has dealt with criticism about the exploitation of marine resources to feed the carnivorous species.

“The artificial feed that was developed at the beginning had a very high level of fishmeal and fish oil from pelagic species, which are perfectly good to eat,” Alessandro Lovatelli, aquaculture officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Aquaculture Technology & Production unit, told this reporter in 2023 while producing the documentary “Until the End of the World”.

In the industry’s early years, up to 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) of small pelagic fish were used to produce 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of farmed salmon, according to Lovatelli. “That created a lot of concern globally, ethically,” he said.

This figure dropped significantly in the following decades, after the industry made technological progress in genetic selection of farmed fish and developing alternative feed mixtures. In 2022, marine ingredients constituted 25-30% of the average Norwegian salmon feed, while plant-based ingredients were the main component (60%), especially soy (21%) and canola oil (18%), according to a report by the U.K.-based consulting company Ernst & Young.

In recent years, the industry has described itself as a model of sustainability: “Out of the 17 SDGs, the industry can contribute significantly to at least ten,” the Norwegian company Mowi, the biggest salmon producer globally, wrote in its latest industry handbook, referring to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Feedback report takes a different perspective, recommending the Norwegian government to “halt the growth of Norway’s salmon farming sector” and “ensure the domestic farmed salmon industry does not undermine its global development goals.”

The NGO based its calculations on public commercial data and company reports by the four companies that together supply close to 100% of the feed used in Norwegian salmon farming: Mowi, Dutch-owned Skretting, U.S.-based Cargill and Denmark-based BioMar. According to Feedback’s analysis, all of these companies sourced fish oil made from small pelagics caught in FAO’s Major Fishing Area 34, located off West Africa.

According to FAO, small pelagic fish “contribute significantly” to the local economy and food security of this region, representing 90% of Mauritania’s total annual catches and 75% of the Gambia’s. FAO also reports that in the last decade, the stocks of round sardinella (Sardinella aurita) and Madeiran sardinella (S. maderensis) have been decreasing to an “alarming” state.

In Senegal, pelagic fish provide 65% of the population’s animal protein requirements, according to a 2022 study. The country, together with Mauritania, also supplies small pelagics to other West African countries, such as Ivory Coast, Mali and Nigeria. The same study estimates that in Senegal, fish consumption dropped by 50% between 2009 and 2018, driven by a reduction in the availability of small pelagic fish.

“Previously, we used to fish 12 months a year,” Babacar Mbodji, a young fisher from the village of Kayar, Senegal, told this reporter. “Now there is a fishing season … and then the big pirogues no longer go to the sea,” Mbodji said, referring to new rules to address the scarcity of fish.

In the past decade, the number of fishmeal and fish oil factories in West Africa has increased from 5 to 49, according to Feedback. These factories transform small pelagics into fishmeal and fish oil intended for export, with most fish oil from Mauritania, Senegal and the Gambia going to Norway, Denmark, Chile and France.

The four feed producers mentioned above and the Norwegian Seafood Council did not answer Mongabay’s requests for comment on the Feedback report.

Skretting told Feedback in a statement that it only purchases West African raw materials from the MarinTrust Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) in Mauritania, while Mowi told the Norwegian newspaper DN that it only imports marine ingredients compliant with its sustainability guidelines.

Public pushback

According to FAO, 35% of wild fish stocks are over-exploited globally. At the same time, about 20% of the global catch, 18 million metric tons of fish, are used for non-food purposes, primarily to produce fishmeal and fish oil used in aquaculture feed.

In terms of individuals, a study published earlier in February in the journal Animal Welfare estimates that between 1.1 and 2.2 trillion wild fishes are caught globally each year, and about half are transformed into fishmeal and fish oil.

“It would be much more efficient — ​​and would benefit animals, people and our planetif we left more of them in the sea and most of those still caught were fed to people,” Phil Brooke, a co-author of the study, said in a press release.

The pressure on wild fish will likely increase in the coming years, aquaculture being the fastest-growing food production sector globally. Norway itself has a strategic plan to more than triple its production to 5 million metric tons of farmed salmon in 2050. This increased production would require 6.2 million metric tons of whole fish each year, according to Feedback’s calculations.

“The concern from our perspective, as an organization that works on the food system and food justice, is that by tripling production from current levels, the Norwegian salmon farming industry is also going to be tripling its requirements for wild caught fish,” Hurley said.

In the last few months, public opinion has soured on the Norwegian government’s plans, after a series of scandals. Footage from salmon farms in Norway and Iceland, produced by journalists, public authorities and local activists and broadcast on national television, showed huge amounts of dead and dying fish in the pens, many severely wounded by parasites.

Earlier in February, the Norwegian Veterinary Institute said in a press release that in 2023 a record 62.7 million salmon died in Norway’s farms, meaning that an average of 16.7% of all adult salmon farmed in Norway died in cages before reaching slaughter.

“What is of concern is that we don’t see any decrease in the numbers; the trend is in the wrong direction,” Edgar Brun, department director for fish health and fish welfare at the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, told Mongabay.

According to Brun, the main causes of mortality are infestations of salmon lice and the techniques for treating the parasites, such as mechanical treatments and hot-water baths, which can injure or kill the fish.

“In addition, we have several infectious diseases causing mortalities on their own, but also weaken the fish so the general condition and immune system is not 100% fit. Frequent handling of infected, stressed fish is an underlying cause of the problems,” Brun said.

To top off the industry’s troubles, in January, the European Commission accused six top Norwegian salmon producers, including Mowi, of violating antitrust laws, and in recent months, some producers have been accused of selling salmon unfit for human consumption for years.

According to Harald Berglihn, a Norwegian journalist who has been reporting on salmon farming in Norway for years, the recent scandals sparked an unprecedented public debate about the sustainability and ethics of this industry. “There is discussion now if the mortality rate should also be one of the conditions to allow the farmers to keep the fish or not,” he told Mongabay.

The Norwegian authorities have not abandoned the plan to increase salmon farming, but they recently imposed a 25% resource rent tax on aquaculture, started unannounced farm inspections and introduced a “traffic-light” system to limit the impact of farming on wild salmon populations.

“In my view, huge changes will not happen before the consumers start to react,” Berglihn said. “The sales are just increasing all over the world, the prices are going up, and even if they have a 16 or 17% mortality rate, the companies earn a lot of money.”​

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