charles rangeley-wilson – writing about fishing, travel, rivers, conservation

The real price of smoked salmon?

I missed the show, but after a flurry of emails hit my inbox I felt I really ought to catch up with Greg Wallace’s Supermarket Secrets. It’s on iPlayer as I type and Greg’s advertorial for the salmon farming industry begins at 27 minutes 25 seconds … just in case you don’t want to watch the full hour.

It’s a piece all about this ‘amazing’ industry and the technically involved ways in which a piece of smoked salmon arrives on the supermarket shelves. The show is long on over-cooked, awe-struck reverence and too short on balanced journalism. A nod to controversy was easily dismissed by the protagonist  and then at the close of the sequence we were given another sop: ‘mass farming of salmon has its critics but it has turned a luxury item into a cheaper food that we can all enjoy’.

That was it. The rest was a ten-minute paean to an industry that had decimated sea-life across vast tracts of our Scottish west coast, especially wild stocks of salmon and sea trout.

In short, you cannot grow a formerly wild animal in such intense conditions without creating a perfect environment for the proliferation of parasites and disease. The cheapest way to deal with these is to dose the water the salmon grow in with chemicals. Nevertheless, despite cooking the water, plagues of sea lice around West Coast salmon farms have destroyed runs of wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout.

The industry sells itself with iconic Scottish imagery but under the surface all is not well. The ground beneath a farmed salmon cage is a sterile wasteland of faeces, the sea-lochs the fish are grown in, a cocktail of poisons that impact on the whole food-web. When the fish escape they threaten wild salmon in another way: with genetic contamination.

If anyone wants to read the full apocalyptic script I recommend the chapter Extinction Vortex in Michael Wigan’s book on the Atlantic Salmon.

Ally Dingwall, ‘the man in charge of fish welfare at Sainsbury’s’ made the point on the BBC show that the industry is nothing like as bad as it used to be. That may be the case here and there. But it’s still nothing like as good as it could be. The concessions that have been made in terms of better practice have been shamefully hard won and every step resisted, all in the name of the cheapness of this ‘luxury’ item.

The question then, is, how cheap do we have a right to expect this food to be? As my friend and all-round salmon hero Orri Vigfusson points out in his letter of complaint to the BBC, it’s not as if the threat salmon farming poses could not be kept within acceptable limits. We have the technology for contained, land-based farms or contained farms at sea. This level of protection would be no more than we’d expect from any other form of livestock farming, but because dirty salmon-farming takes place underwater, and because still reflected on the surface of that water are the pretty mountains, crofts and winding roads of the West Coast, we the gullible public accept unpalatable practice.

I sat next to someone at dinner the other day who insisted that the smoked salmon she bought was fine because it was from the Scottish West Coast, as if the stuff I was talking about was from Chernobyl. Well, that’s the triumph of marketing I suppose. But the BBC should know better and so should we.

So where can you buy smoked salmon with a clear conscience? There’s a place recommended to me by Michael Wigan called Hebridean Smokehouse. Michael told me that their low-density stocking, the strong tidal flow where they farm, and the wild strain of fish (meaning there’s less risk of genetic contamination from escapees) all add up to a much more sustainable product. Or buy wild Pacific salmon, especially coho. Or there’s

The cheapness of the product that Greg Wallace extolls is bought at a high environmental price.

3 Responses to “The real price of smoked salmon?”

  1. The tuesday swim

    When one is faced with an unethical food dilemma, there is normally an alternative, organic vegetables, free range and organic meat, sulphite free wine, line caught sea bass (although I have my doubts about this method?). These options cost more but being responsible comes at a price. When it comes to salmon there seems to be no alternative, wild salmon are too precious (especially if you caught it yourself) the farmed options is out the then there is the Wild Scotish Salmon packaged product, simply a twisting of words, I will look at the Hebridean Smokehouse , sounds like there are some options. Cutting out the supermarkets is very much part of our family life now, each year we look at ways to reduce the amount spent with these corporations, mum is not going to f**king Iceland this Christmas.
    Merry Xmas Charles, keep up the good work!

  2. rangeley

    I asked Michael Wigan precisely because we need alternatives and to reward them with custom. I don’t suppose it will ever make sense to grow apex predators in a farm, but as a genuinely ‘luxury’ item the technology exists for the industry to be much better than it is.

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