Over 90 percent of all aquaculture farms in Norway hold a good or very good environmental status, according to the Directorate of Fisheries.
In order to maintain the balance of the ocean’s ecosystems, Norway works hard to minimize the industry’s impact on the environment and continues to seek innovative new ways to reduce its footprint.
Norwegian ocean-farmed salmon have a lower carbon footprint than both beef and pork. When compared with pork and beef, Atlantic salmon has an exceptional feed-to-protein ratio. Norway has developed an efficient food system with as little waste as possible. Norwegian salmon are fed an all-natural diet composed of 70 percent plant-based ingredients and 30 percent marine raw materials, species that are not in demand for human consumption and meet scientifically regulated fishing quotas. The salmon eat pellets that are portioned out using an automatic feed system, which monitors the amount the fish eat so they are never under- or overfed. Advancements in the auto-feeding technology have eliminated excess food waste.
Fish farming companies are obliged to carry out regular checks to confirm that the environmental conditions are satisfactory and in accordance with Norwegian Standard NS 9410. The checks include inspections of the seabed and animals living in the sediments. The results of the inspections are used to evaluate how the aquaculture site affects the seabed. The production rate is adjusted according to the results, to make sure that the capacity of each site is not exceeded.
Emissions of feed and organic matter from aquaculture sites do not constitute an environmental problem. Fish farming causes emissions of organic matter and nutrients, deriving from feces and fish feed. These emissions may have a negative impact on the environment if the production is not properly managed. According to the authorities, emissions from the aquaculture industry account for two percent of the naturally occurring nutrients in the sea.
To protect the cold, clean waters in which Norwegian Salmon naturally thrive, any site used for salmon farming has to rest (fallow period) before a new farming cycle can begin. This means that when it is time for the mature fish to leave the pen for processing, the pen is left empty for two months, as required by the government, before the next generation of salmon can be transferred there. Due to the deep fjords and northbound currents that characterize the Norwegian coast, high levels of water exchange allow the cold, clear waters to wash away any emissions, naturally cleansing the seabed. The enclosures are also drained and cleaned completely before once again being filled with young salmon. The farms are always located where there are good currents so that there is always fresh water flowing through.
The Norwegian aquaculture industry has an ambitious goal of zero salmon escapes. It’s no secret that escaped fish have been a challenge for the industry. Escaped salmon represent financial losses for the industry, and also affect the industry's reputation and working conditions. They're not only bad for business, but they could have an impact on the wild salmon in the area. Zero escapes benefits everyone.
The objective is to reach a level where escaped salmon can’t pose any risk to wild fish stocks. The genetic material of Norwegian farmed salmon comes from Norway’s own salmon rivers. The problem with escaped farmed salmon is that farmed may spawn with wild salmon, which could have negative effects on the wild salmon populations. This is the main reason Norway has invested heavily to prevent escapes in the last 10–15 years. It is also the reason all fish farms are working hard to reduce escapes.
The industry is focused on preventing escapes and sends divers and video surveillance cameras to monitor the farms, especially if there’s a chance a cage could be damaged. There is also an environmental fund dedicated to removing escaped fish. The Norwegian Salmon industry marks and tracks their salmon to distinguish farmed from wild. Norwegian authorities hold companies accountable by fining them heavily for every farmed salmon caught outside the cage. It is mandatory to report all cases and suspected cases of escaped fish. The numbers are published on the Directorate of Fisheries website.
Statistics show a downward trend for escaped salmon since the peak in 2006. Similarly, reports from monitored rivers also show a clear downward trend. This positive development has taken place even though the farming of farmed salmon has increased. To put this into perspective, around 0.05 percent of all Norwegian farmed salmon escaped last year.
Sea lice are well known crustaceans that live naturally in all seawater in the northern hemisphere and often attach themselves to wild and farmed fish. Many people don’t realize that sea lice have been around since long before the arrival of salmon farms.
Today, sea lice have become one of the biggest challenges to the salmon farms in Norway. However, it’s important to understand that sea lice pose no threat to humans or food safety—they are simply a nuisance to the aquaculture industry. Despite the natural occurrence, the aquaculture industry in Norway does not want to contribute to their proliferation and are thus working to develop means and strategies to keep the number of sea lice in Norwegian aquaculture to a minimum.
The fish farmers are constantly monitoring their fish farms and must report the sea lice count on a weekly basis. Lice counts are reported to the authorities (digitally), and all statistics are available to the public. The authorities and the industry itself use this data for deciding and coordinating the best strategies to keep the lice count as low as possible.
While veterinary medicines are used to limit the growth of sea lice, recent numbers from Norwegian authorities show a decline in the use of medical treatments in the fight against sea lice. The aquaculture industry and research organizations work hard to find holistic alternatives to traditional veterinary medications. Today, more and more of all salmon farming sites use non-medicinal methods. Any salmon that receives medicinal treatment are held back from processing and must go through a withdrawal period to ensure the drug is no longer in their systems before being processed for human consumption.
Lice skirts and covers surrounding the cages are the predominant methods used, as they prevent the lice from swimming into the cages and attaching to hosts. Special types of fish feed are also being used as preventive methods, as well as lumpfish. Currently, there is an increase in fish farming sites that combat sea lice with lumpfish and non-medicinal methods. In 2015, close to 30% of all treatments were non-medicinal and this number is increasing, as salmon farmers are experiencing success with non-medical treatments.
The industry is also developing and testing new methods to prevent sea lice proliferation. Usage of fresh water and washing methods are being tested, as well as “below-surface cages.” Some companies have also applied for green concessions issued by the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries, and are planning for offshore farming sites, which is believed to ease the concentration of sea lice.