Norwegian farmed salmon gets exported worldwide. But the country’s aquaculture industry is having to work hard at home to strengthen its reputation.
Seeking acceptance for success
Fish farming is one of Norway’s biggest and most important export industries. A long coast and suitable seawater temperatures year-round provide particularly good conditions for raising salmon.
The Norwegian aquaculture sector has grown over four decades from nothing to occupying a significant place in the national economy.
Its annual output has risen from 4 000 tonnes in 1980 to 1.2 million in 2016. Fourteen million salmon meals are produced every day to grace dinner tables in more than 100 countries.
But the industry also faces opposition – and reputational challenges. Its critics highlight problems with fish health, lice, environmental impact, escapes and genetic impact on wild fish.
“We’ve been accused of behaving recklessly, polluting the fjords and showing no concern for nature,” says Are Kvistad, communications head at the Norwegian Seafood Federation (NSF).
“That’s patently untrue, because the fish need to be in a good environment if they’re going to grow.”
Part of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), the NSF organises 500 companies in the fishing, aquaculture, feed, biomarine, and associated technology and service sectors.
Kvistad maintains that much of the criticism is unjustified, but accepts that allegations, media headlines, discussion and debate affect the industry’s standing.
“We can’t blame the media,” he says. “They only reflect what people believe.
“Maintaining and further developing its reputation is important for every industry. In the case of fish farming, we need to secure acceptance to make continued progress.
“The way people perceive us will be crucial for our ability to develop our operations and sell our products.”
The NSF devotes much time to telling aquaculture companies about the importance of openness and information, particularly out in the local communities where their business lies.
“Lack of dialogue with the world around them and inadequate knowledge of the industry are factors which can weaken its standing,” says Kvistad.
“We must seek to understand why people are worried. We often have a tendency to counter feelings with facts, and that doesn’t always yield good results.
“When a newspaper article about fish farming is headlined ‘We’re laying waste to the fjords’, it’s slant is based on feelings.
“We can respond with facts which show that our discharges aren’t a problem. But the question is why people are concerned – why we’re felt to be a threat.”
He says that old myths persist, including claims that fish farmers use a lot of antibiotics – when the truth is that such medication has been almost eliminated from the industry.
“Although this problem was confined to the 1980s, people think it persists. But we must undoubtedly accept that our sector hasn’t been good enough at communicating what we do and how we do it.
“The industry must become more accessible. You can easily visit a Norwegian farm on land today and see how it operates, but not an aquaculture facility.”
Although 11-12 show farms exist along the coast, where people can be taken out to view what happens, the main rule is that outsiders are banned.
“This could mean that we’re regarded as inaccessible and closed,” admits Kvistad. “That’s a pity, because the business has nothing to hide.”
The NSF has conducted annual reputational surveys since 2009. Results show that the standing of both the industry and its products is fairly stable.
“Farmed salmon is very well-regarded as a product,” Kvistad notes. “While the status of aquaculture is good, however, it could have been better.
“Reputation is particularly important for industries based on natural resources. The oil and seafood sectors both operate in areas – sea and shore – which belong to all.”
He feels that this means people perhaps pay greater attention to how these activities are pursued, and points to several parallels between the two industries in Norway.
“They’re both about the same age here, starting in the 1960-70s, and have expanded sharply since then. Both are a bit out of sight for ordinary people, a little inaccessible.
“That makes it all the more demanding to communicate how we operate. A third similarity is that these sectors are pretty profitable, which helps to make people even more critical.”
Aquaculture’s reputation has a significant effect on its role both in Norway and internationally, agrees Bjørn-Erik Stabell, manager for salmon and trout at the Norwegian Seafood Council.
“Salmon is the country’s strongest brand, but most people still have little idea how it gets produced. Our ambition has been to boost the industry’s visibility and increase knowledge of it.”
The council is a state-owned company which works to boost the value of Norwegian seafood, in part through reputation-building in selected markets worldwide.
"Salmon is the country’s strongest brand, but most people still have little idea how it gets produced."
It has traditionally concentrated its resources on promoting and enhancing the standing of salmon as a product, rather than the way this fish is produced.
This emphasis has now been shifted with a campaign called “Salmon is important”, which aims to focus attention on aquaculture as such.
“A good reputation is significant for positioning both salmon as a product and fish faming as an industry,” Stabell says. “We must become more visible and play a bigger part in the debate.
“Our efforts need to be directed at eliminating myths and showing the spin-offs this sector provides in the form of value creation and employment.
“In this area, we’re drawing inspiration from the petroleum industry. Good reputational work has unquestionably been done in that sector.”
Aquaculture’s fantastic expansion has been paralleled by the growth of fish feed specialist Skretting to become the world’s leading supplier in its field, with factories in 16 countries.
At its head office in Stavanger, CEO Erlend Sødal reports that growth in the domestic market has ceased because no new fish-farm licences are being awarded.
“Norway’s aquaculture sector has been at a standstill since 2012,” he says. “It’s clearly possible to see this in terms of reputation.
“Public opinion doesn’t regard further growth as legitimate at the moment. Many opponents want the industry to expand no further.
“You could then argue that this hasn’t anything to do with reputation, but reflects a scientific assessment that the environmental burden is too great. That’s a matter of debate.”
Sødal points out that all food production has some impact on nature, including salmon farming. If the criterion is a zero environmental footprint, the industry has yet to reach that point – despite working very hard to get there.
“Norwegian aquaculture is sustainable, and the world’s population needs more food. Nevertheless, people are very sceptical about us. Our opponents aren’t big and powerful, but they work systematically and manage to win public support.”
Skretting takes its own initiatives to encourage discussion on the industry’s reputation, in part through the big AquaVision conference held every other year in Stavanger.
This event brings together top management in the fish farming sector to debate its future.
“As a feed producer, we depend on the industry being held in the highest possible regard both directly and indirectly,” says Sødal.
“We could have left more of the responsibility to fish farmers themselves, but have opted for a high profile. We’re a big and heavyweight player, and have a responsibility.”
“This is also a matter of raising the debate to a global level,” he adds. “While the producers are challenged on local sustainability, our company also plays an international role.
“The raw materials we use for salmon feed come from all over the world. Other countries also have a lot to learn from us for both aquaculture and feed production.”
Noting that salmon is a luxury and perhaps not the product to save the world from food shortages, Sødal argues that lessons from farming it will benefit global aquaculture in the long term.
“A lot of what we’ve learnt from salmon is now being applied to farming such species as prawns and cheaper fish like tilapia,” he notes.
“Internationally, we now see that the use of antibiotics in farming prawns is declining sharply – not least because the feed confers greater resistance to disease.”
“The seafood council has pursued systematic reputation-building for salmon worldwide,” Sødal says. “This fish is held in high regard as a result of long-term promotion.
“Strengthening the aquaculture sector’s standing has not been the council’s mandate, but its strategy has now changed because the industry is where the biggest challenges are seen to lie.”
While acknowledging that Norway has been the centre of gravity for fish farming, he notes that curbing growth will eventually mean less money for innovation.
“So asserting that no further expansion should be allowed until the problems have been overcome is too simplistic. The job is to make the footprint as small as possible.
“Now the industry has reached its present size, opposition from some quarters is quite natural. The same is true for the petroleum sector. That’s part of the social dynamic, and a challenge we must quite simply deal with.”
Swimming in cash
“We’re look after living creatures,” says Roy Even Strømskag. “It would certainly have been easier to produce nails, but think how boring that would have been.”
The operations manager for the Rennaren fish farm gets 137 600 young salmon to leap and thrash when he tosses an extra portion of pellets into the cage.
A September day with calm sea and idyllic conditions is not representative of working conditions on the northern shore of Rennesøy near Stavanger.
Personnel usually have to roll with the waves and withstand the wind, says Strømskag. “The weather can be brutal here, wide open to storms from the north-west.
“When things are at their worst, we simply have to stay on land. But this is a fine place for aquaculture – a good depth of water and fine flow. That lets the salmon thrive.
“This facility lies in the middle of a main current. Plenty of churn in the sea provides good environmental conditions.”
Most important of all
When a smolt was delivered to the Rennaren fish farm by well boat in early August, it weighed 80 grams. Four weeks later, it had become a young salmon of roughly 140 grams and will reach its slaughter weight of five to 5.5 kilograms in 12-18 months.
“Everything’s about the welfare of the fish,” says manager Roy Even Strømskag. “That’s crucial. When the salmon thrive, they eat well, gain weight quickly and give us a good return.”
This facility has eight large cages, each 160 metres in diameter with net bags descending 20 metres. When full, it accommodates up to 1.2 million salmon.
Although Norwegians are a fish-eating folk, most of the output from this farm is exported to end up on dinner tables in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France.
Big monitors in the control room on the feed barge keep the fish under observation, with their rations distributed either manually or automatically.
Regular sampling, weighing and measuring ensures that the health of the fish is kept under close observation.
The cages are left empty for two months after slaughtering to prevent the spread of disease and parasites and to protect the seabed underneath. Equipment is checked and nets replaced.
“Escaping fish are what we want least of all,” emphasises Strømskag. “That’s the worst kind of environmental criminality. It would hit the whole industry and torpedo our reputation.
“We leave a footprint. All industry does that. But it’s not lasting. I despair over the accusations in the media and the way we’re presented. We don’t recognise ourselves.”
Pride and regulation
Grieg Seafood has been farming fish at Rennaren for a decade. The permanent workforce comprises an operations manager and three other staff as well as two apprentices.
“We’re proud of our industry,” says manager Roy Even Strømskag. “We know what we’re doing. We produce food of the finest quality.
“Most fish farmers are people who’re interested in nature and thrive with it. They want to take care of the natural environment and have no interest in harming it.”
He has been in the aquaculture business his whole life, and has seen regulation become more and more detailed. “There was undoubtedly a bit of a cowboy mentality before, but it’s quite different now. You can’t carry on like that today.”