Salmon farmers in Northern Norway are in despair, following the natural but deadly blossoming of an algae that’s literally been choking their fish. Wild fish can swim away from the algae, but the salmon contained in offshore production facilities didn’t have a chance when the algae started descending upon them last week.
Norway’s state directorate of fisheries estimated that 10,000 tons of salmon had been killed as of Tuesday in southern Troms and northern Nordland counties. They also warned that the invasion of the deadly algae called Chryso-chronmulina leadbeaterii wasn’t over yet. Currents and winds were expected to spread the algae farther south and west, where more salmon producers were bracing for the worst.
“This is a catastrophe for the area, an enormous tragedy,” Lars Berg, operations chief for Kleiva Fiskefarm and Gratanglaks in Troms, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Wednesday. All production has ceased after the companies’ salmon was killed by the algae that enters their gills and suffocates them.
The two companies have lost around 500,000 salmon, or roughly 1 million kilos during the past week. Given slaughter weights of 4.5 kilos (10 pounds), the algae has cost the two fish farmers an estimated NOK 135 million (USD 15.5 million) at current wholesale prices.
“The last week has been an emotional rollercoaster,” said Berg, who’s been working around the clock along with around 100 employees just to remove the dead fish and grind them up for destruction. “We’ve been hit hard, but we’re lucky in comparison to those who lost all their fish.”
State officials estimate revenue losses at around NOK 620 million so far in the first such algae attack since 1991. Concerns were growing that the losses will force layoffs within much of Northern Norway’s salmon industry that’s otherwise been booming for years. Economic ripple effects can also be severe.
Other salmon producers like Nordlakskonsernet have set up crisis teams. Northern Light Salmon reported losses of 4,000 tons of salmon in the Asta Fjord. “Right now we have control,” Tom Jarle Bjørkly of Mortenlaks at Lødingen in the Ofotfjord told DN, as he braced for possible arrival of the algae. “But this is an invisible enemy we’re facing.”
Controversial ship sails to the rescue
A saviour of sorts may come in the form of a ship called the Norwegian Gannet that can pull salmon out of their circular enclosures at sea called merder and slaughter them on board. The vessel has been controversial because of fears it ultimately could replace salmon processing facilities on land, and cost jobs, but in this case it could prevent salmon producers from seeing their fish die anyway at a total loss.
DN reported that the vessel was sailing north from Hirtshals in Denmark, with its owner Hav Line writing in a press release that it hoped the vessel “can make a difference.” Salmon raised in the offshore fish farms “have no place to run,” wrote Carl-Erik Arnesen of Hav Line. The algae can spread and arrive quickly, and it’s a “time-consuming process” to empty their enclosures “by traditional methods.”
Researcher Lars-Johan Naustvoll of Norway’s Institute of Marine Research told DN it was difficult to predict where the algae would head next. “In the Asta Fjord, currents run from south to north and then out again through a sound and an opening towards the west,” Naustvoll said. Salmon producers need to keep an eye on the water leaving the fjord, as it threatened facilities in the outer regions and elsewhere in the Ofotfjord.
Scant sympathy on social media
There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for the salmon producers on social media as the algae drama spread this week. Salmon farming remains highly controversial because it can trigger salmon lice, threaten wild salmon and otherwise pollute local waters. Calls were going out for construction of tanks on land to contain the salmon, instead of in offshore enclosures from which some farmed salmon escape.
Salmon producers have also collectively generated billions in revenues and profits over the past few decades as salmon exports have evolved to make Norway’s seafood industry the country’s second-largest after oil. “With the profits they’ve generated, they tolerate more than most others an extra cost of moving this onshore,” wrote one commentator on the marine research institute’s Facebook page.
Others felt sorry for the trapped salmon themselves. “What are the animal welfare rights in this case?” queried another commentator. “The salmon are trapped and die in huge numbers. Do the salmon have it better than mink in their cages?”