What is the future of salmon farming in Iceland?

After years of relative inactivity, fish farming on the Icelandic coast has drawn fresh interest. There are now 23 active fish farming companies in Iceland, as well as strong interest groups and support companies. These companies do not all pursue open net pen salmon farming, but that is where the current emphasis is and where the biggest plans for expansion are. The increase over the past 6 years has been primarily seen in open net pen farming in the southern Westfjords and the Eastfjords, but the main areas being considered for expansion include Ísafjarðardjúp, Jökulfirðir and Eyjafjörður.

In order to protect wild salmon stocks in Iceland, a precautionary approach has thus far been taken, limiting salmon farming to the Westfjords, Eastfjords, and in Eyjafjörður. Even though fish farming is not yet present in Eyjafjörður, farmed escapees have shown that these measures are not enough. Escaped salmon travel long distances: escapees from fish farms have been caught in Vatnsdalsá, Eyjafjarðará, and Selá, as well as in rivers in Djúp. The salmon caught in Eyjafjarðará was about to spawn.

In 2016, about 8.000 tonnes of salmon were slaughtered. In 2017, 11.000 tonnes were slaughtered. In 2018, the industry hopes to produce 20.000 tons. Due to precautionary rules limiting open net pen farming, the Coalition of Fish Farming Companies believes that the growth potential of sea farming of salmon in Iceland is significantly limited. Despite these limits, they nonetheless aim to produce between 50-70.000 tonnes in these areas.

A report by the Icelandic Marine Research Institute, “The Risk Assessment of Possible Genetic Mixing Between Farmed Salmon and Natural Salmon Stocks in Iceland,” states that sustainable salmon fishing in Iceland (rod and netting) is approximately 50.000 caught salmon on average (42.000 grilse and 8.000 large salmon) on an annual base. These catches average about 100 tonnes. If the objectives of the Coalition of Fish Farming Companies of a 60.000 ( 50.000 – 70.000 ) tonne annual production are achieved, the volume of fertile salmon produced in open net pens in Iceland will be 600-fold the amount of wild salmon caught in Iceland in one year.

This poses a significant threat in the form of escapees, a threat that has been realized in neighbouring countries.
Norway has had an annual output of 1.2 million tonnes of farmed salmon in recent years. Official figures for 2008 – 2017 indicate that the average extent of escapees has been 0,8 salmon per tonne produced, resulting in est. 1 million escapees anually or close to 0,3% of total number of salmon produced.
This indicates that the annual number of escaped farmed salmon is greater than the total number of wild salmon returning to Norwegian rivers to spawn every year ( est. 400 – 500.000 salmon ).
This is considered very serious by Norwegian authorities and stakeholders, who have concluded that the preservation of genetic diversity of wild salmon stocks can be achieved in only two ways: by a significant reduction in the number of escapees or with a reproductive barrier, e.g. through the use of non-fertile fish.

If salmon escape rate in Iceland becomes similar to that described above for Norway the number of escaped salmon could amount to up to 56.000 salmon for a 70.000 tonne production ( max objective ). This is more than all caught wild salmon in Iceland on average.

In Scotland it has been reported that at least 2 million salmon escaped in the last 10 years and 1,9 million the 10 years before that. That is at least 100.000 salmon on average per year reported from fish farms producing 180.000 tonnes a year. This is in addition to those escapees assumed not to have been reported.