Patagonia’s newly released documentary “Artifishal” exposes how the farmed salmon industry – once heralded as the wild salmon’s salvation – now threatens them with extinction.

A visit to a salmon farm in Alta, Norway has left a lasting impression on film director Josh Murphy. Along with a hidden camera, he and several other Americans from his team swam to one of the circular net enclosures found for thousands of miles along the Norwegian coast. But what at first glance appeared to fit neatly into the idyllic fjord landscape turned out to be a place full of destruction and disease below the surface of the water, as the filmmaker Josh Murphy explains:

“We were totally disgusted by what we saw. It’s important to note that we were on the farm for less than 30 minutes… We filmed in one spot, on one totally random floating net pen, on one farm of thousands and were still horrified with what we observed.”

The scene in Alta is one of the key moments in the documentary film Artifishal by outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, which celebrated its European premiere in Ingólfsskáli, Iceland, in mid-April. The film, produced by filmmakers Josh Murphy and Laura Wagner and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, deals with aquaculture and its consequences – with wild salmon’s slide toward extinction and the threats posed by fish hatcheries and fish farms in particular. Murphy explains the essential problem:

“Wild salmon stocks are threatened by the negative effects of salmon farming that compromise their future through genetic pollution and infestations of ocean parasites like sea lice.”

Salmon farming impacts

For years, salmon farming has faced growing criticism. This has mostly to do with breeding conditions on the one hand, and its ecological impacts on the other. This is demonstrated by the example of Norway: the country is the global leader in the production of farmed salmon. Here, there are several thousand breeding tanks submerged in the sea, producing more than 1.2 million tons of salmon each year – an impressive amount that makes up no less than a quarter of the world’s salmon stock.

But the farms endanger the natural life in waters home to wild salmon, as numerous scientific studies show.

“Again and again, breeding salmon manage to break out of the net enclosures. They then compete with their wild counterparts and displace them – with grave consequences for the ecological balance in our rivers,” explains Sten Karlsson. Karlsson works for the Norwegian research institute NINA (Norsk Institutt for Naturforskning), one of several institutions dealing with the effects of salmon farming on the environment.

Each year, he and his team investigate Norway’s rivers. In the latest report from 2017, they examined the genetic development of 175 wild salmon populations across the country. The results paint a dramatic picture:

“There are now rivers where it is more likely for an angler to catch a farmed salmon or offspring of farmed salmon than a wild salmon,” says the Karlsson, who underpins this imbalance with numbers:

“In total there’s around 400 million farmed salmon living in Norwegian fish farms, compared with just 500,000 wild salmon. So, even if just a fraction of a percent of farmed fish breaks out of the pens due to accidents, waves or holes in nets, this can have a devastating effect on the natural balance. And we have figures to prove this: the fish farms have to keep a close record – over the last five years, around 10,000 to 300,000 farmed salmon have escaped into the wilderness each year,” says Karlsson.

Domesticated fish

To better understand the problem, the researcher provides some background. The development started back in the 1970s: As the demand for salmon began to grow, fish breeding began on a large scale – in the enclosures that are found for thousands of miles along the coast of Norway. There, the fish are raised and fattened until they are ready for slaughter.

“Originally, the salmon are selected to enhance specific genetic traits – such as faster growth or larger body size to increase yield for the food industry. Today, farmed salmon has different genetic requirements than its wild relative. You can compare that to dogs and wolves, for example,” says Karlsson.

And herein lies the danger: On account of their genetics, the bred salmon are not as viable in nature as their wild relatives.

“Many of them are weak and die very fast as they are less attuned to life in the wild. But some manage to reproduce with the wild salmon, and pass on their genetic properties. The result is salmon that are also less resilient and which in turn pass on their unfavorable genes – a chain reaction that causes genetic diversity to be lost,” says Karlsson, who also points out yet another consequence. Not only does aquaculture provide the salmon with good living conditions, but also with parasites such as fish lice.

“This leads to an unnaturally high occurrence of fish lice, which in turn infect wild salmon with the result that their number is further reduced. Young animals are particularly vulnerable,” explains Karlsson, who also points out the incalculable consequences for the entire ecological balance of the rivers should the wild salmon die out.

Pressure on the industry

With Artifishal, filmmakers from Patagonia now want to continue to draw attention to the problem.

“It’s definitely not too late to save wild fish and rivers, but we have to consider what it means to do so,” says Murphy, and continues:

“They are resilient and can recover from the most terrible circumstances if they are given half a chance. But we have to stop treating them as simply a food for humans. Wild fish are the canary in the coal mine for water quality and when they began disappearing, we should have stopped and considered our actions. Instead we deluded ourselves, made more of them, stuffed them in the river, and continued into the darkness of human hubris. Hopefully this film is a step towards changing that.”

This is a goal that is also supported by NGOs and activists, who have long appealed for policies that regulate fish farming more strictly. Better secured enclosures, sterilization or land-based fish farms could make it impossible for the farmed salmon to breed with their wild counterparts. Also, gene banks are a way to preserve the genetic variation of wild salmon.

The latter is already being tested – but is proving to be more difficult than expected, as a recent experiment in Norway demonstrated: When salmon were caught for a gene bank in the Hardangerfjord, only two out of twelve trapped individuals had no breeding fish genes – a result that could occur more frequently in the near future.

Even though the number of salmon escaping from farms has declined slightly in recent years, the many open net enclosures just above the surface of the sea, as filmed by director Josh Murphy and his team in Alta, Norway, remain the international salmon farming standard.


Photos: Patagonia/Ben Moon

Werner Müller-Schell
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