The bitter-sweet taste of farmed Atlantic salmon

Dozens of freighter aircraft are lined up at Oslo Gardermoen Airport – from very large to rather small. Their common operational reason is the salmon business as Norway is the global hotspot of aquacultures. However, a rapidly spreading parasite is causing increasing concern in the industry. Sea floor pollution is another item raising growing criticism. This became clear during the Nordic Air Cargo Symposium held in Stockholm from 22-23APR2024.

Salmon aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world, but it is becoming increasingly controversial – image: Færøsk havbrug

Scheduled carriers serving Oslo Airport with full freighters:

  • AeroLogic
  • Air Atlanta
  • Airest
  • Amapola Flyg
  • Antonov Airlines
  • ASL Airlines Belgium
  • ASL Airlines France
  • BRA
  • C.A.L. Cargo Air Lines Ltd
  • Cavok Air
  • Challenge Airlines
  • Dhl Air Ltd
  • Emirates
  • Ethiopian Airlines
  • European Air Transport
  • Fleet Air
  • Kalitta Air LLC
  • Korean Airlines
  • Lufthansa Cargo Airlines
  • Motor Sich Aviakompania
  • National Air Cargo
  • Qatar Airways
  • Silk Way West Airlines
  • Sprintair
  • Swiftair
  • Trans Wing
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Capital Airlines

Source:  Monica Iren Fasting, Head of Communication, Oslo Lufthavn

The growth rate of salmon farming is enormous. Expert Tom Erling Mikkelsen from Oslo-based Mikkelsen Consulting, tabled comparative figures at the latest Nordic Air Cargo event: While 201,941 tons of salmon were flown out of Norway by plane in 2018, last year it was already 264,408 tons. Of this, 60,604 were exported to the USA, which corresponds to a weekly volume of 1,165 tons; 49,379 tons went to China (950 tons), to Korea it was 32,005 tons (615 tons), and Japan imported 26,758 tons from Norway (515 tons per week). Even Canada, a country that has plenty of its own wild-caught salmon, imported 583 tons in 2023, stemming from Norwegian farms.

Feeding half of Scandinavia – statistically
The forwarder ranking is led by three local Norwegian companies: Air Cargo Logistics AS (21.23%), Air Trade Support AS (18.40%) and Salmonsped AS (17.44%), followed by DSV Air and Sea (13.33%), DB Schenker (7.89%), and Blue Water Shipping (4.62%).

This statement by Mikkelsen shows the dimension that salmon farming has meanwhile achieved: “Norway could feed the entire population of Denmark and Sweden exclusively with salmon day by day for as long as a year,” the expert illustrated. According to the latest census, a total of 16.5 million people live in the two Scandinavian countries.

More fish farms are to come
Salmon is a very welcome commodity, for air freight in particular, as its shipments are of high density and can easily be accommodated on the main decks of freighter aircraft.

However, the cold chain must be maintained during the entire transport to prevent the fish from getting spoiled. This also applies to shipments traveling by truck to European consumer markets, the total volume of which Mikkelsen described somewhat vaguely as “very high”.

All in all, he painted a rosy picture of the salmon business, but also warned of some challenges that the industry needs to tackle. The world population will grow from 8.2 billion people today to 9.6 billion by 2050. Their protein requirements will not be met by commercial fishing, especially as large regions of the world’s oceans are already overfished. Hence, aquaculture will increase, despite growing concerns from conservationists about the pollution of the sea floor below the farms. Yet, the tanks can be moved and are regularly towed to new locations, was Mikkelsen’s answer to environmental concerns.

Success stimulates
To cargo airlines, he sent an encouraging message: Due to the growing global demand for farmed salmon, airlines need to provide more capacity to overseas destinations, he urged.

The Norwegian aquacultures have long been copied by other countries due to their commercial success. Meanwhile, there are salmon farms along the coastlines of Chile, Canada, Scotland, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland.

Tiny parasite causes great damage
But where there is light, there is also shadow. The industry is increasingly concerned about the mortality rate of salmon farmed from aquaculture. This now averages 20% in Norway, said expert Mikkelsen. The culprit is a parasite: the salmon louse. Biologically speaking, it is not a louse, but a small crab. It penetrates the skin of the fish and draws mucus and blood from it, which feed the pest. In salmon-crowded aquacultures, the tiny crabs find ideal feeding and propagation conditions. Heavily-infested fish are sorted out after being caught, and are not marketed as food. An animal whose head was half devoured by salmon lice has now been filmed on an Icelandic farm. In this context, the world-famous singer, Björk, spoke of a “zombie fish” and protested against the fact that parts of the waters around the island are being permanently damaged by aquaculture. This is because the salmon’s feed contains antibodies against diseases and the seabed is flooded with their excrement. “Aquacultures are an ecological disaster, comparable to factory farming of pigs or chickens,” argues Greenpeace marine biologist, Franziska Saalmann. “The sea floor beneath them is a cesspit full of feces.”

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